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Curator's Corner / Historic Moments

Janet Guthrie Broke Barriers

In the mid-1970s, Janet Guthrie showed the world her talent behind the wheel.

Pilot. Skydiver. Flight instructor. Aerospace engineer. Astronaut trainee. Auto racer.

There wasn’t much Janet Guthrie didn’t do, and everything she did, she executed at an extremely high level. All of Guthrie’s achievements were impressive, but it was what she did in the cockpit of a race car that earned Guthrie the 2024 NASCAR Hall of Fame Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR.

A pioneer in the truest sense of the word, Guthrie set the bar for female racers when she burst on to the racing scene in the mid-1970s. At a time when women weren’t even allowed in the pits at most tracks, Guthrie achieved several groundbreaking firsts.

In 1980, Janet Guthrie competed in the Daytona 500 for a second time, finishing 11th in a Chevrolet owner by Rod Osterlund. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

In 1976, Guthrie became the first female driver to compete in a NASCAR superspeedway race, when she quailed 27th and finished 15th in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Five weeks later, Guthrie posted another 15th-place finish, this one in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

The 1977 season was Guthrie’s big breakthrough. In February, she became the first female driver to compete in the Daytona 500, finishing an impressive 12th place. Then in May, Guthrie qualified for in the Indianapolis 500, where engine failure relegated her to a 29th-place finish. Still to be the first female driver to compete in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 and to do so in the same season was a monumental accomplishment.

Among her numerous firsts, Janet Guthrie was the first female racer to compete in a NASCAR superspeedway race. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Later that summer, Guthrie had her best career NASCAR finish, coming home sixth in a 29-car field for the Volunteer 400 at Bristol International Speedway (now Bristol Motor Speedway). To come home sixth in a large, heavy stock car with no power steering spoke volumes not only about Guthrie’s talent but her strength and stamina as well.

And in 1978, Guthrie rebounded from her mechanical issues a year earlier to finish ninth in the Indianapolis 500.

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And in 1978, Guthrie rebounded from her mechanical issues a year earlier to finish ninth in the Indianapolis 500.

— Tom Jensen

Following her career track, it’s clear Guthrie came a long way in a short time.

Guthrie’s auto racing career began in 1963, when she got her first license from the Sports Car Club of America. Four years later, Guthrie won her class in the 12 Hours of Sebring, one of the nation’s premier endurance events. She would later be a class winner a second time.

In 1976, Guthrie got a call from Indy Car team owner Rolla Vollstedt, who wanted to enter her in the Indianapolis 500. After a private test to make sure Guthrie felt comfortable with the car and team and could post a competitive speed, she agree to enter the 500.

As a 39-year-old rookie who had just five previous NASCAR starts, Janet Guthrie finished 12th in the 1977 Daytona 500. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Alas, that year she failed to qualify at Indy due to a series of mechanical failures in her primary car, but ran four other races for Vollstedt in ’76, posting a best finish of 17th at Trenton, N.J.

Despite failing to qualify for the 500, Guthrie’s performance at Indianapolis drew the attention of promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, who had just been named general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Wheeler called Guthrie and invited her down South to race in the World 600, NASCAR’s longest event.

In an interview with Kyle Petty for his “Coffee With Kyle” show, Guthrie recounted her introduction to NASCAR racing.

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Wheeler called Guthrie and invited her down South to race in the World 600, NASCAR’s longest event.

— Tom Jensen

Her car initially was uncompetitive, but she soon got some much-needed help. Cale Yarborough (Class of 2012), who had driven for Vollstedt in the Indy 500, got a call from his former car owner asking him to take out Guthrie’s car for a few laps. Yarborough found the same thing Guthrie had: The car was bog slow. Yarborough’s NASCAR team owner, Junior Johnson (2010), got a hold of Yarborough’s crew chief, Herb Nab, and told him to put Yarborough’s setup into Guthrie’s car.

The difference was night and day, as suddenly her Chevrolet got up to speed. “I knew perfectly well what a huge gift that was,” Guthrie told Petty. Armed with the new setup, Guthrie qualified one row behind Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010) and Bill Elliott (Class of 2015).

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I knew perfectly well what a huge gift that was.

— Janet Guthrie

Janet Guthrie posted five top-10 finishes in 33 career Cup Series starts. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Despite suffering from nausea caused by cracked exhaust headers that dumped carbon monoxide into the cockpit, Guthrie still managed a 15th-place finish.

Guthrie’s NASCAR career was brief. She ran just 33 races over parts of four seasons, but her pioneering efforts drew worldwide attention, and now, have earned her the 2024 Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR.

And make no mistake about it, Guthrie was a racer at heart.

“I find racing life enhancing,” Guthrie once said. “It contributes immensely to all the rest life has to offer. It represents more than I could have ever dreamed of. “

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.

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