The Indy 500 That Bettie Cadou Knew

Bettie Cadou receives media credentials from Tony Hulman on May 28, 1971.

May 28, 1971 was a mild Indiana morning, with a clear spring sky hanging over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Men filed into the track in jackets and slacks, women in dresses and heels. One of them would make history that day: Bettie Cadou, who became the first woman reporter granted access to Gasoline Alley and the race pits 50 years ago today.

A photograph from the Speedway archives captured the moment she received the credentials: the Borg-Warner Trophy looms taller than both her and track owner Tony Hulman, Jr. who had just lost a lawsuit brought forth by Mari McCloskey, a twenty-five-year-old writer for Women’s World magazine. McCloskey won a restraining order which made it illegal to for the Speedway officials to not allow women the same access provided to men. For decades before, women were considered no different from the color green in those parts of the Speedway: simply bad luck.

In the photo you can see the little metal faces frozen in victory on the trophy who watched that history get made, as well as a few real-life ones looking on from metal chairs, including Johnny Rutherford, Steve Krisiloff, and Mel Kenyon. And there’s Bettie, alone in sunglasses in the middle of it all, winning her fight for the right to do her job for the Indianapolis News.

Her reporting at the track to that point was limited to stories about the driver’s wives, children, and track fashion, and confined to its “Women’s Section.” She was a fan of the spectacle, sure, but what she really wanted was the opportunity and the responsibility any other reporter would have — to cover the most important news events in the state, like the 500.

Debbie Godsey and Debbie Grider walk with a cooler at the Indy 500.

Cadou’s first column after being granted normal media credentials, “Gasoline Alley Goes Feminine,” is a first-person account of her walk through the pits that day. The reaction to her presence was mixed. She wrote that some men were happy for her, others combative and ugly. Few drivers wanted to speak with her. She closed the column on a wistful note, writing “The tradition is broken and in a way, it makes me feel kind of sad.”

The history of the Speedway is defined by traditions, and a half-century later many more of them have been broken. On the second day of qualifying for this year’s race I sat with Tad Fruits, one of Bettie’s three children, in the shade of the high penthouse seats while down on the track a red and white car driven by Simona De Silvestro ripped out of pit lane. De Silvestro is one of just a handful of woman drivers to race in the more than 100-year history of the race, and the only one this year. She’s racing for Paretta Autosport, the first ever 500 entrant both owned and driven by women.

It was Bump Day, with five drivers fighting for just three spots in the race. De Silvestro took off and the power of the engine pushed her back in the seat; the g-force on the turn jostled her to the right, gravity indifferent to gender. Her car whistled down the front straightaway like an earthbound jet plane. Then she was alone, at 230 miles an hour, as the car rolled over the yard of bricks at the finish line and into the pits where she would await the results with the rest of the Paretta team.

When the announcement came across the speakers that Paretta and De Silvestro made it, the crowd erupted. Tad texted one of his sisters, and they agreed: Bettie would have loved the moment. (Later De Silvestro was interviewed by Katie Kiel, one of two full time reporters working for the IndyCar Broadcast Team, a scene that surely would have startled Cadou’s contemporaries far more than her stroll through the pits.)

Mrs. Al Unser, Sr. (Wanda) getting into the family car.

Somewhere in those pits A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti, who both ran in that 1971 race that Cadou covered, were hard at work for their teams. Both men supported Janet Guthrie, who within that decade would make history as the first woman to race in the 500.  Traditions change, but sometimes too slowly. In the four-plus decades since Guthrie hit the track, still fewer than a dozen women have raced at IndyCar’s highest level.

We gather at this roofless church to worship innovation and ambition. And still we celebrate tradition, both public and private — Tad, for example, followed his mother’s interest in documenting Hoosier life with a camera.

History can give us clarity about who we are, or want to be. When we’re too stubborn, it can keep us from accelerating like we should. The past year shoved us violently into the future, even while it sometimes felt like we were standing in place. After all that, and with Bettie’s legacy in mind: here’s to welcoming a new generation to the track, ready to set their own pace just like the racers before them.