May 22: Janet Guthrie makes history by becoming the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500

Friday 22 May 2020 by René Fagnan

The unusual story of Janet Guthrie is that of an aerospace engineer, who was almost chosen as an astronaut by NASA, and who became the first woman to qualify for the prestigious race of the 500 Milles d ‘Indianapolis in 1977.

Born in Iowa City in 1938, Janet Guthrie never hesitated for a single second to tackle fields that were then exclusively reserved for men. Young women today, I think, may have a hard time understanding how much of a segregation, of skin color and gender, then reigned in America.

In this almost exclusively white and male world, Guthrie obtained his airplane pilot’s license at the age of just 17. After graduating from the University of Michigan in Mechanical Engineering, she was one of four women chosen by NASA to enter its Scientist-Astronaut Program. However, she was not selected because the post required a doctorate level which she did not have.

His analytical mind and his taste for risk and strong emotions make him discover the pleasures of motorsport. She started racing in 1972 at the controls of a Jaguar XK140 in SCCA club races. Ten years later, she won twice in her category at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Guthrie then financed her errands with her engineer salary, prepared her engines herself and slept in the truck that towed her trailer.

In 1976, she made her stock car debut and became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup race on a superspeedway, that of Charlotte, where she finished in 15th place. The same year, she tested the Indy 500, but did not attempt to qualify.

The following year is that of his exploits. It all started in NASCAR where she became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500. Starting 39th, she managed to cross the finish in 12th place. A few months later, she found herself at the controls of a Lightning four-cylinder Offenhauser engine on the famous Brickyard in Indianapolis.

His presence in this very closed “Boys’ Club” is not well received by the majority of drivers, team managers, journalists and spectators. Guthrie faces some hostility that doesn’t give her much confidence to attack this dreaded 2.5-mile oval. Moreover, during the tests, she smashes her car against the concrete wall. She was not injured, but the chassis and engine suffered.

Rolla Vollstedt’s Bryant Air Conditioning Special team is working tirelessly to get the car back in shape and ready for qualifying.

“During my warm-up lap, I quickly realized that my engine was not running smoothly. Probably because of a problem with the distribution chain following my accident, ”Guthrie told NPR magazine. Knowing that the engine was likely to fail, she decided to give it all and complete her four qualifying laps. She is about to live the longest three minutes of her piloting career …

Accelerator fully welded, she sees the needle of the oil pressure gauge panic. Striving to drive as smoothly as possible so as not to penalize the engine too much, it brushes against the wall at each exit of a turn. She speaks to her engine: « Hold on, hold on … ». Last round. On exiting turn 4, the needle drops to zero. More oil pressure. But the brave Offenhauser turns again and propels Guthrie’s car towards the checkered flag.

“I don’t think I breathed once until the finish … I quickly knew that I had driven fast enough to start the 500 Miles,” she added. Guthrie qualified at an average speed of 188.403 mph, or 303.205 km / h.

On the other hand, its race lasted only 27 laps, because the timing chain, effectively damaged, ended up failing.

“It was such an important achievement 40 years ago,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine today, but we finally realized that if a woman could qualify for the Indianapolis 500 Miles, women could accomplish anything in life. It was a pretty revolutionary idea at the time. « 

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