Speaker still living ‘Life at Full Throttle’ | PostIndependent.com

Speaker still living ‘Life at Full Throttle’

Post Independent Photo/Ryan Graff

In 1977 tradition at the Indianapolis 500 prohibited three things at the track: peanuts, the color green and female drivers.

A woman could be a photographer, reporter, timer or scorer. “She could own the car, she just couldn’t get near it,” Janet Guthrie told the Rotary Club of Carbondale and Aspen Glen Thursday.

So when Guthrie entered the race that year as the first female driver (just six years after the speedway began to allow women in the pits and garages), she met some resistance. The thinking in 1977 was that women didn’t have the strength, endurance or mental stamina to drive a race car, she said.

But to Guthrie, the fact that she’d be the first woman to race at Indianapolis didn’t make a bit of difference.

“What I did with a race car was just like what everyone else did with a race car,” she said.

That same year, Guthrie was the first woman to race in NASCAR’s Daytona 500. The next year, 1978, Guthrie finished ninth, setting a record for female finishers that held through three other female drivers at Indianapolis ” until this year, when Danica Patrick finished fourth.

Guthrie is best known for car racing, but she actually didn’t have a break in racing until she was 38, when she was asked to test-drive cars for the Indianapolis 500.

As a teen, Guthrie earned her pilot’s license, then enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she received a physics degree. She took a job as an engineer at an aerospace company on Long Island, N.Y. She even made it through the first round of cuts for the scientist-astronaut program in 1964, according to her Web site.

On Long Island she bought her first race car, a Jaguar, which she raced for years. What began as a hobby eventually earned Guthrie a spot in the Smithsonian, where her racing suit and helmet stay, and in the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Even though her spot in history will likely always be tied to her being a woman, her racing days focused on going fast and winning races ” not on proving anything about women or their abilities.

“The woman part was totally irrelevant. … I drove the car, I didn’t carry it,” she said.

Guthrie has written a book about her life, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle,” published in May.

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