Courtesy the Estate of Bettye Lane/ESPN
ESPN’s prestigious 30 for 30 documentary series spotlights the most iconic people and moments in sports. In its most recent installment, “Qualified,” directed by Jenna Ricker, produced by Caroline Waterlow, and set for release on Tuesday, May 28, at 8 p.m. EST, the series swivels its gaze to racing pioneer Janet Guthrie. After devoting 13 years of her life to sports-car racing, Guthrie became the first woman ever to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977—despite strenuous objections among (some) fellow competitors, race officials, and fans. Guthrie seemed poised to ascend to the highest levels of open-wheel racing, but during the early 1980s, her funding ran dry. Kate Shoup spoke with Ricker and Guthrie before the documentary film’s release.
Kate Shoup: How did the documentary come about?
Jenna Ricker: I was introduced to the Indianapolis 500 as a child and I went in person about 10 years ago. I was instantly hooked. A few years ago, I realized that I didn’t know who the first woman to qualify for and race in the Indianapolis 500 was—and I probably wasn’t the only one. I found out it was Janet Guthrie. So, I reached out to Janet. I emailed her, I called her, and I somehow convinced her to agree to do this documentary with us. We were thrilled.
KS: Janet, what were the prevailing views about female drivers during the 1970s?
Janet Guthrie: In 13 years of Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) racing, the Daytona 24 Hour International Manufacturers’ Championship, and the Sebring 12 Hour International Manufacturer’s Championship—where I won my class a couple of times—being a woman had just really not been an issue. So, in IndyCars—and also in NASCAR, which I integrated the same year—I was absolutely astonished at the commotion that our announcement that we were going to enter the race aroused. The high degree of skepticism and all the pronouncements about how a woman couldn’t possibly handle cars of this horsepower and weight and so on—it was quite an education.
KS: According to the documentary and your book, Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle, some drivers were supportive and others weren’t. Some of the less supportive drivers did eventually come around, however. How were you able to bring them around, and how satisfying was that?
JG: There was only one way I could bring the skeptics around, and that was on the racetrack. I remember at my first IndyCar race at Trenton [in 1976], everybody except Gordon Johncock gave me enough room for a tractor-trailer, because I think they figured I was going to do something strange. But as time went on and they discovered that I knew what I was doing—that I could give them good competition and that I knew my racetrack manners—attitudes did change, and that was very gratifying.
KS: Did you care about what they thought about you?
JG: Oh, of course you care what your competitors think of you. At the first few races I drove at that level, I knew I had to be especially cautious. And then after two or three races, I had more wiggle room.
KS: Were you ever able to forgive the drivers who were cruel to you?
JG: Well of course, some of them did come around. Billy Vukovich was very critical before he ever drove against me. He said if I could drive an IndyCar, he’d eat his hat. Well, after that first race at Trenton, he said he was thinking of getting a hat made up out of chocolate.
KS: You’ve observed that men race for themselves, but women—at least at the time you were racing—race for all of womankind. Can you talk about that, and how you handled that added pressure?
JG: Well, the key to success is to be able to put everything except the car and the track and the competition out of your mind once you are out on the track. And after 13 years of racing experience, my power to focus was quite well developed. So, all those other distractions went away once I was on the track behind the wheel.
KS: Since your Indianapolis 500 debut in 1977, eight other women have competed in that race. What do you think about the women who came after you?
JG: The woman I thought was going to be the first to win an IndyCar race was Sarah Fisher. She had come up through sprint cars, which are really hairy machines, and she had tremendous talent. She won the pole for an Indy car race [at Kentucky Speedway in 2002] and she finished on the podium in two or three Indy car races, but just like me, she ran out of money. And without money in racing, you’re just a fast pedestrian. But Sarah is everybody’s favorite. She’s really a wonderful person. And there are many other women with talent. Katherine Legge. Simona di Silvestro. Pippa Mann, who is in the field this year at Indianapolis. She’s toward the back of the field because all she has is a one-race deal for the most important race in the world. In order to run up front, you have to have a year or two-year program with a team so that you can become accustomed to working with each other, and it has to be a team that’s rich enough to get good equipment and hire good people. So, it’s not just the driver. Pippa is very, very capable. She could run up front if she were in a better situation.
KS: When Danica took the lead at the 500 in 2005, and when she won in Japan in 2008, what went through your mind?
JG: Well, frankly, what ran through my mind was that I thought Sarah Fisher was going to be the one to do it. And she could have done so had she had Danica’s team and equipment. But it was good to have a woman have that victory. It’s a record, and good for her.
KS: You write in your book that you “had the great good fortune of being brought up to believe that a woman could do whatever she chose” and that it was “startling to discover how widespread was the belief to the contrary.” Are you shocked that this belief still appears to be so widespread?
JG: I am shocked that there is still so much of that floating around. But things have changed tremendously. Title IX changed things for women’s sports generally. It’s no longer front-page news when a woman is driving at Indianapolis. The other drivers are no longer saying, “Women are going to kill us.” And that kind of thing. So, things have changed in the 40 years since I first got to Indianapolis.
KS: What do you think about the #MeToo movement?
JG: Well, it would be a rare woman who hasn’t had some experience along those lines. I remember an executive for a company that I was doing a media tour for—this was probably around 1980 or so—took me to dinner one night, and offered to escort me to my hotel room, which I accepted, because what woman likes walking down empty hotel corridors late at night? But when we got to my room he attempted to push his way in through the door. Fortunately, I was a very strong woman and pushed back, and succeeded in keeping him out. That was my #MeToo moment. I’m sure that every woman has had one.
KS: What perspective does age provide for you?
JG: When I was young, I thought, When I get to the end of my life, I don’t want to think, I read about people doing this or that. I wanted to be able to think, I did this and that. So, I’ve done various things and enjoyed them along the way.
KS: I know you would have liked to have raced for longer. That’s what mattered the most to you. But the cultural reverberations of your experience were so significant. How do you feel about being a feminist icon?
JG: Well, it is a little odd. So many people told me, “Do you realize what’s going on in your wake?” And so, I came to feel it as a responsibility. I also educated myself about the history of women in racing. For example, the first woman I knew of to compete against men was Madame Laumaille, who competed in a field of men including her husband in a two-day race along the south coast of France in 1898. Then there was Camille du Gast in the Paris to Berlin in 1901 and the Paris to Madrid of 1903. It’s important that what these women did be remembered. Women do extraordinary things, and then these things are forgotten, and then they are denied ever to have existed. So, we keep reinventing the wheel.
KS: Can you tell me a little bit about your life after racing?
JG: I always knew I would write a book, and I moved to the mountains of Colorado to do that, because among accessible experiences, skiing is about the closest to racing. So, I worked on the book in the morning and skied in the afternoons. And I would say I think of the book as my real legacy.
KS: You mention in the documentary the experience of watching fathers hold up their daughters during the 1977 Indianapolis 500 parade in downtown Indianapolis so they could see you. I don’t have a specific memory of that. But I do remember my dad talking about you with such respect. I’m certain your presence in the 500 solidified in him the idea that a woman could do anything, and he became my primary supporter in my own [failed] sports career. So, I wanted to thank you because you really did make a difference to me, personally.
JG: Well, thank you.