Celebrating Women's History

Celebrating Women’s History: Janet Guthrie

Janet Guthrie’s place in Indianapolis 500 history

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The first Indianapolis 500 drivers took to the track more than 100 years ago.

This year’s competition was pushed back Thursday until August. But March is still being celebrated as Women’s History Month, so it’s a good time to to recognize the first woman driver to ever hit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track: Janet Guthrie.

At one time, racing was considered a man’s sport, too dangerous for women. Gurthrie blew right past that idea.

“Janet is certainly a pioneer in motorsports,” said Eric Powell with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. “There were a lot of people opposed to her even getting on the track. They thought it was a man sport so she dealt with a lot, a lot of blowback.”

In 1911, men were the only drivers on the track at the first Indianapolis 500.

By the time Guthrie showed up, the so-called all-men’s club had been deeply set but not quite solid enough. Guthrie shredded it.

Since the Indianapolis 500 started, roughly 800 drivers have taken to the track. Only nine of them have been women.

Guthrie was an avid racing competitor for years, but her racing legacy is just one of her accomplishments.

A thrill seeker at heart, she was a pilot, flight instructor and aerospace engineer. In 1977, she clenched her spot among the men and became the first women to ever qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

Powell said many racers and fans in 1977 did not want her there. “It’s hard to imagine today those kinds of attitudes, but that’s what she heard when she was here and she just put it aside and went out and did her job,” she said.

The first year, her car failed her, but she qualified again a year later and finished in ninth place. It took nearly 30 years for the next woman to beat that record.

Race car driver Janet Guthrie stands in front of a photo of herself and her racing car on Jan. 11, 1977, at 343 E. 30th St. in Manhattan, N.Y. (Stan Wolfson/Newsday RM via Getty Images)