NASCAR’s First Woman Driver: In doing my research for this blog, I was surprised to discover that women had been competing in Daytona Beach racing since the 1940′s, when it was held ON Daytona Beach.
But one woman stands out from all the rest; Janet Guthrie. Talk about an overachiever! Janet was a pilot, a flight instructor, an aerospace engineer, a technical editor, passed the first round of eliminations for NASA’s Scientist-Astronaut program, and had 13 years of experience on sports car road racing circuits, while building and maintaining her own cars, all before 1976, when she was invited to test a car for the Indianapolis 500.
Janet Guthrie was the first woman to win a starting spot in the Daytona 500, in 1977, once it had moved to it’s new, official race track. She was in 8th place, when 10 laps from the end, her engine went bad. She finished in 12th place, and won Top Rookie. That same year, she won the North Atlantic Road Racing Champion title. In 1978, she finished in 9th place in the Indianapolis 500. But sponsorships and funding were hard to find for a woman at that time, even after placing in the top 10 in a number of races.
According to Janet, as can be expected, many of the men from the “good ole boys” club were not willing to accept a woman on their turf. But as Janet accumulated years of experience under her belt and gained experience on major tracks, including the Brickyard at Indianapolis she felt that most of the tension between her and the men eventually abated. But, Janet always felt that one driver never accepted her; Richard Petty. However, she actually qualified ahead of Richard at Talladega one time. In Janet’s words, “I thought that was just delicious. I really enjoyed it.” On the flip side, some of the men were more welcoming. Janet says that Donnie Allison was very kind and helpful. And Buddy Baker offered some helpful advice.
Janet continued to look for funding, and continued racing, and placing well. But was never able to make it to victory lane, primarily because she didn’t have a fast enough car. Janet raced in the Daytona 500 one more time, but did not have nice things to say about her crew chief that year.
According to the Daytona Beach News Journal, Janet raced a total of 4 years in NASCAR. She started 33 races and finished in the top 10, 5 times and earned $78,309 over those 4 years. Her helmet and driver’s suit are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution and she was one of the first woman athletes inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Since Janet, only one other woman, Shawna Robinson has driven in the 500, which is NASCAR’s premier event. And Guthrie’s record still holds.
Janet is now living in Aspen, CO and says she only follows NASCAR races now, if a woman is competing.
(Sources for this post are The Daytona Beach News Journal, Janet Guthrie’s web site, Wikipedia and Nascar.com. I’m citing all references because I ran into quite a few contradictory dates and statistics.) But you can buy Janet’s autobiography, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle” and get the facts straight from her!
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