Janet Guthrie, a pioneering driver, was the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Guthrie led the way for generations of female racers to follow.
Born in Iowa City, Iowa in 1938, Guthrie’s family moved to Florida when she was a toddler. Guthrie started flying planes when she was 13 and made her first parachute jump at 16. In college, she found physics – “The beauty of it just entranced me – I’ll never forget deriving Maxwell’s equations, and the elegance and inevitability of them” – and after earning her degree in 1960 from the University of Michigan, she entered the field as a research and development engineer at Republic Aviation. The car she bought to get to work, a 1953 Jaguar XK120 M coupe, however, launched the beginning of a passion, as she started competing in solo events – called gymkhanas. One car led her to faster ones and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) driver’s school.
Guthrie, now retired, began racing SCCA in a Jaguar XK 140. She built her own engine, did her own body work, and usually slept in her car overnight. By 1972, she was racing on a full-time basis. In the 1976 World 600, Guthrie finished 15th, becoming the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup Superspeedway race. She would go on to compete in four more races that season.
Guthrie competed in her first Daytona 500 in 1977, finishing 12th when her car’s engine failed with 10 laps to go. She also earned the honor of Top Rookie in the race. Following her Daytona 500 debut, Guthrie became the first woman to qualify and compete in the Indy 500, but finished 29th, again with engine problems. She would compete in two more Indy 500s, finishing ninth in the 1978 race. Guthrie competed in 11 IndyCar events total, with a best finish of fifth.
In addition to the IndyCar races, Guthrie also competed in 33 NASCAR Cup races over five seasons. Her highest finish, sixth-place at Bristol in 1977, remains tied as the best finish by a woman in a modern NASCAR Cup race. Her helmet and race suit can be found in the Smithsonian Institution. Guthrie was among the first women elected into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
She was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006 as well as inducted into the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame in 2018.