When Janet Guthrie arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway in April of 1977 for the spring NASCAR race, it was the very first time she had ever laid eyes on the track.
“I thought it looked like a teacup for a titan,” said the now 75-year-old Guthrie. “And I remember my crew chief (Jim Lindholm) and I driving over the lip of the track to get into the infield – in a truck – not a big tractor trailer like they have now. And his eyes were as big as saucers. He thought the truck was going to keep rolling, right into the pits.
“Neither one of us had ever seen anything like that before. But you know, I wasn’t intimidated by very much. Bristol for me was a new and different kind of challenge. It was like ‘OK, how do I handle this?’”
Which is exactly how Guthrie approached every single challenge she faced when it came to racing. Her desire to succeed in a man’s world, her temerity, her heart, her smarts – those were the tools most crucial to conquering any hurdles that stood in her way.
And when you consider the day and time, there certainly was no shortage of obstacles placed in the path of the former aerospace engineer.
Guthrie, who made her NASCAR debut at Charlotte in 1976, had started racing in Sports Car Club of America events in 1963 where, she says “being a woman was not an issue.” She competed in various sports car series into 1975, even racing against the likes of Mario Andretti, although “(Andretti) probably didn’t know I existed back then… I was just one of the little cars he had to make his way around on the way to victory – and one that I had to keep my eyes open for in my rear view mirror.”
In 1976, Guthrie got a huge break when long-time team owner and car builder Rolla Vollstedt asked her to test a car for the Indianapolis 500.
“He called, got my answering machine,” Guthrie recalls. “I called Chris Economaki and asked him who Rolla was and he filled me in. Told me he was the real deal and by the time I called him back the next morning, I knew he was genuine about the offer.”
Guthrie, who failed to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1976, went on to become the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977 (where she would ultimately finish ninth in the 1978 Indy 500).
After Vollstedt showed interest in Guthrie, NASCAR, particularly Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bruton Smith, came calling. Smith wanted Guthrie in the World 600 field and though she was at first reluctant to leave Indy racing for Charlotte, Guthrie finally made the decision to move into NASCAR.
However, she had no car, didn’t have a sponsor and had no crew. That’s when Lynda Ferreri, an executive with First Union Bank, signed on as Guthrie’s car owner. Ralph Moody was tabbed as crew chief, Smith found a Chevrolet for Guthrie to drive and Kelly Girl came on board on as sponsor.
“Lynda was a heavyweight in Charlotte,” said Guthrie. “She had heard how my efforts were considered a hoax by many people and thought it would be fun to be part of disproving that.”
Ferrari would end up serving as Guthrie’s car owner for the majority of her NASCAR career with Kelly Girl the sponsor.
“You know, I was never intimidated by coming to NASCAR,” said Guthrie. “I had been a driver for a long, long time and had raced in some serious company.
“At the time I just said ‘hey, you can’t guarantee success before you’ve ever tried something but I thought my background indicated a high probability of success. I knew it was a big challenge but it was a challenge I was eager to undertake.”
In that first NASCAR event, the 600 at Charlotte, Guthrie knew she had plenty to learn.
“I had never even seen a NASCAR race, let alone driven in one,” she said. “My practice time was almost non-existent. I had seven laps in the car when I qualified. And I qualified behind (Dale) Earnhardt and (Bill) Elliott, They were just a gnat’s eyelash faster than I was and I ended up 27th.”
Despite the lackluster qualifying effort, Guthrie managed a 15th-place showing in that initial Cup race.
Was she happy with that effort?
“Not at all,” she said. “I thought I should have finished in the top 10.”
And what about the reception she got from the rest of her competitors?
“I would say it was hostile and very heavy on the skepticism,” she said, “with a little open-mindedness at one end. David Pearson was quoted as saying he hadn’t really thought anything about me being in the race because he didn’t think I’d make the field.
“And there were rumors going around that the only way I could make the field was if the promoter falsified my times. I think everybody in the infield had stop watches in their hands to make sure that didn’t happen.”
Guthrie ran five races in 1976, recording a second 15th-place showing at Daytona. In 1977, she entered 19 races, including both Bristol events.
And it was at Bristol where she began seeing small signs of acceptance from her male counterparts.
In her book, Janet Guthrie: A Life At Full Throttle writes:
It was at Bristol that the glacial hostility of some of the upper-level teams first showed signs of a major thaw.
Guthrie says a setup her team was trying caused her car to be really loose, causing her to spin in Turn 3 of the high-banked oval.
The book continues:
“As I pitted, I saw Buddy Baker at Ralph Moody’s side. Baker seemed to be offering advice. I climbed out of the car and joined them.
“A little loose?” Baker asked.
“A little,” came Guthrie’s response.
“One thing you might try, don’t go in so deep,” Baker offered.
“I’ve been using the point on the wall where the red paint begins,” said Guthrie.
“Well, try backing out of it just a hair early, where those two stripes are,” he pointed. “I found I could get on it two car lengths sooner if I didn’t go in quite so deep.”
Guthrie ultimately qualified 21st for the Southeastern 500 and was more than ready to go when the green flag dropped.
“All that banking,” Guthrie said. “And no time to relax. At Bristol, you were barely out of one turn when you were in another.
“Bristol was a hell of a mean, tough race track. And I loved it.”
She would finish 11th that day, ahead of Darrell Waltrip and Baker, just to name two. And she couldn’t wait to get back to the little short track.
“I really did love that place,” said Guthrie. “And that second race, we really hit the setup, right on the nose.”
On Aug. 28 of that year, NASCAR returned to Bristol for the Volunteer 400 and Guthrie was primed for a great weekend. She qualified ninth, and with a bit of relief from John A. Utsman mid-race before returning to the seat, she finished sixth, ahead of the likes of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Ricky Rudd, Neil Bonnett and Baker.
Thirty-five years later, that sixth-place effort is still the best finish in a NASCAR Cup event by a woman.
“You know, I don’t remember celebrating afterwards,” said Guthrie. “I just packed up and went home. But I was very happy about it. Very happy.”
That would be Guthrie’s last race at Bristol. In 1978, funding began drying up and she would compete in only nine races from ’78-80.
“I was just dying,” she said. “It was my life. To have made the progress I did, to run and qualify in the top 10, and then to be cut off from it was a killer.
“I did not handle it well. It was very…very difficult. I kept trying to find sponsorship, through ’83, and then I said had to say, ‘if you don’t quit, you’re going to end up jumping out of a high building.’ So, I had to stop.
“I really can’t tell you how bad that was for me… I loved the sport a great deal. I had sacrificed most of my life for it. And my life really got out of balance because it had been all about racing. ”
Guthrie admits she can still get a case of the “what-ifs” when she sees the opportunities available for female drivers these days, particularly Danica Patrick.
“Am I envious of that team and that car she has?” Guthrie says, “Oh, yes. Yes, I sure am.
“I so wish I had been able to continue. It’s honestly the kind of thing that I can’t dwell on too much… it can really get to me, even now. People ask me about this happening during the women’s movement and want to know if I was doing it because of that.
“Well, heck no, that’s not why I did it. I did it for me! A driver is what I was and am. Right through to my bone marrow.”
The IRWIN Tools Night Race Aug. 25 marks the 35years since Guthrie’s sixth-place finish at BMS. Patrick, should she qualify for the race, will become the first woman since Guthrie to compete at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile in a Cup event.
Is Guthrie, still the only woman to lead a Cup race, surprised it took so long for another woman to break into NASCAR’s Cup Series?
“Not really,” she said. “I thought it might take two generations before a woman got a chance at the top level again. And she’s a very capable driver. I think success in Nationwide is certainly possible, although Cup remains to be seen.
“It just takes the right pit stop tactics, the right calls. And, of course, the breaks going your way.”