NASCAR has long served as a backdrop for some of the world’s finest athletes, including Richard Petty and Kyle Busch, with other greats in between such as Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson. However, it should be noted that all these people share one glaringly obvious trait, they are all men. Since the sport’s inception in 1948, a female driver has never won in one of NASCAR’s top three national touring series. In the last thirty years, countless women have attempted to break through that barrier including the likes of Shawna Robinson, Danica Patrick, & Hailie Deegan, but they follow in the footsteps of a woman who trailed a bright blazing path years before.
Janet Guthrie was born on March 7th, 1938 in Iowa City, Iowa to William and Jean Guthrie. Her parents encouraged her to follow her ambitions of becoming a pilot from an early age, just as they both were. She first began learning how to fly at the age of 13, earning her pilot’s license by 17. After graduating high school, Janet continued to chase after her aviation dreams, attending the University of Michigan as a physics major. Through all this, Janet’s gender was never something she thought would hold her back, as Janet described in an interview with FOX Sports, “I had the great good fortune of being brought up to believe that a woman could do whatever she chose. It was startling to discover how widespread was belief to the contrary.”
By 1963 the Women’s Rights Movement was underway, with the Equal Rights Act being put into effect and Title Seven a year later. Around the same time, a young Janet Guthrie freshly graduated from college purchased a Jaguar XK140 and was eager to see what the car was capable of aside from being a ‘daily driver.’ She became involved with the Sports Car Club of America Competition, where racing quickly turned from a hobby to an obsession. Although Janet had to build her own engines, do her own bodywork, and practically everything else that went into a race, it never stopped her or her love for the sport from only growing further. Her gender in the sports car racing circuit seemed to not raise any questions from her competitors, “She pushed herself hard. She worked hard. She was one of the boys,” former competitor and three-time World Championship racer Jackie Stewart described of her. However, with the arrival of a new decade came a world of sexism against Janet in ways she hadn’t ever dealt with up until that point.
By the mid-seventies, Janet’s obsession with racing transpired into an addiction that was beginning to do her more harm than good. “I had no savings, no pension plan, no house, no health insurance, no stocks or bonds, no jewelry. My career in physics was eight years gone, hopelessly out of date.” When it appeared as though racing would have to be pushed to the side, in order for Janet to live a financially stable and productive life, an opportunity to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 presented itself, one that Janet would never dismiss, “to get the chance at the greatest race in the world, I would have walked on hot coals barefoot from New York to California.” In 1976 Janet Guthrie would become the first-ever woman to attempt to qualify for the Indy 500, prompting an almost instant media frenzy. However, something else that it prompted was a plethora of sexist behaviors centered towards Janet, unlike anything she had experienced in her life up until that point. This only fueled the hungry eyes of the media further, “every time she made a move up there, the press was just eating it alive,” track promoter Humpy Wheeler was quoted as saying about the entire experience.
The watchful eyes of the media and the critics from fellow drivers attempting to qualify for the Indy 500 didn’t distract Janet from doing just what she came to do, which was to make the race. However, Janet didn’t do such, which many of the drivers of the male-dominated series cited was due to her gender. Angered by these accusations, respected three-time championship-winning driver A.J. Foyt sent Janet one of his very own cars to conduct a shake-down test (mock qualifying run), in which Janet’s top lap in Foyt’s car would have been adequate enough for her to qualify into the 500. Janet’s journey didn’t end there though, as Humpy Wheeler was adamant about having her compete in the 1976 World 600, a deal Janet only would agree to if she failed to qualify for the Indy 500. The day after Janet failed to make the field for the 1976 Indy 500, Humpy Wheeler called Janet (after calling her nearly every day for the last month) and struck a deal with her to have her attempt to make the field in what would be her first NASCAR race.
When Janet arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina to make her first attempt at a NASCAR race, the press, who had watched her every movement in Indianapolis, followed her like a school of fish down south. “There were no women in sport at the time and that made her different. And it made a lot of people ask, ‘What does she think she’s doing? Who does she think she is?’” Darell Waltrip recalled of Janet’s arrival. Doubt continued to be thrown in Janet’s direction, perhaps more than it had when she attempted to make the Indy 500, with many of NASCAR’s top drivers citing that a woman couldn’t withstand the grueling conditions of running a 600-mile race. And though these comments were made in an attempt to make Janet insecure, that didn’t as she was quoted as saying “You don’t have to carry it, just sit in it! And although it certainly is tiring as anyone here will tell you, it not beyond the capability of any reasonably fit woman.” With the media present, capturing every comment of any naysayers against Janet, the eyes of the country fell to the pioneer driver and ticket sales flourished once Janet qualified for the race, “ We had the biggest day of single ticket sales that Charlotte had ever had before or since because of the tremendous interest in Janet Guthrie,” Humpy Wheeler recalled.
In the first practice leading up to the event, Janet’s car was nearly undrivable, something that wasn’t missed by the ‘Last American Hero’ Junior Johnson. Johnson asked his driver Cale Yarborough to run a lap in the car, in which he only went slightly faster than Janet had. Without a single question, Johnson looked to his crew and told them to give Janet’s car the set-up, a move that ultimately helped her in having a much better race than without it. As race day came, Janet started the race with all eyes on her, including her fellow competitors (both those for her and against her), the story hungry media, and many women who flocked in thousands, “Women saw this as a historical moment for the ‘Women’s Movement’. They weren’t racing fans, they wanted to see what this woman could do in a totally all-male world,” recalled Humpy Wheeler. By race end, Janet would have completed all 600 miles and finished inside the top-20 in 15th place, “I wasn’t doing it for the women. I wasn’t doing it for the movement. Like any other racing driver, I was doing it for myself.”
After her successful start in NASCAR in the World 600, Janet would go on to compete in four more races that season. The following year, Janet would become the first woman to make the Daytona 500 where she finished in 12th after her car’s engine had blown two cylinders. Despite the finish though, she still earned the Top Rookie honor. Later that same year Janet would also become the first woman to make the Indy 500, after failing a year prior. She would finish in 29th with engine issues. Throughout her racing career, she would go on to compete in 33 races in NASCAR across four seasons and compete in 11 Indy car events, before being forced into retirement in 1980 due to a lack of sponsorship. Since her retirement, Janet has continued to champion for equal rights, by signing a petition in support of women’s driving rights in Saudi Arabia in 2011 as well as a petition to Saudi King Abdullah to sponsor a Saudi Women’s Grand Prix. And in 2019 she became the fifth woman to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
For over 74 years, countless male competitors have secured victories across NASCAR’s top three national touring series, but never a woman. A narrative that is attempting to be rewritten by the likes of women in the sport such as Hailee Deegan, Toni Breidinger, and Gracie Trotter. However, without the tremendous first steps taken by Janet Guthrie in the male-dominated sport, many women may have not thought that they could do such a thing. “When you’re a kid, you sometimes have dreams in which your childish wishes are granted beyond imaging: I lived that dream.”
Featured image credits to @autohalloffame on Instagram.