Coffee With Kyle: Janet Guthrie recounts her first starts at Indy 500 and Charlotte 600

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The first time Janet Guthrie got the call to make a run at Indy 500, she thought it had to be a prank.

An accomplished sports car driver who had been a two-time class winner at the Twelve Hours of Sebring, Guthrie still was skeptical when she was cold-called by Rolla Vollstedt, who left a message about driving his car in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“I thought it was a joke,” Guthrie, the first woman to start the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500, told Kyle Petty during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” episode (watch the video above). “I called (motorsports journalist) Chris Economaki and asked, ‘Who is this guy?’ I was wary because a couple of women got egg on their faces announcing they’d drive Indianapolis, and then it never happened.”

Guthrie said she eventually got in touch with Vollstedt, and they agreed, “let’s have a private test, and if you like me, and I like you, and the car goes fast enough, and I can make the car go fast enough, then you can make whatever publicity and noise you feel you need to, but until then, it’s our secret.”

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Race Car Driver Janet Guthrie in Racing Outfit
Janet Guthrie was the first woman to start the Indy 500 (Getty Images).

The test went well, but practice and qualifying at Indianapolis in 1976 did not. Guthrie couldn’t bring Vollstedt’s car (which missed the race the previous race) up to speed amid a series of mechanical failures.

“Rolla went looking for a car to drive that was capable of making the field,” Guthrie told Petty. “A.J. Foyt agreed to let me take his car and practice. So at noon, the last day of qualifying, there I was getting ready to get into A.J. Foyt’s car that was worth about 100 times more than everything of value I owned in the whole world. And I had to bring it close to its potential without doing harm.

“Oh my Lord. Talk about pressure. I did bring it up to speed. It was quite a different animal. I ran fast enough to make the field, but they decided not to let me make a qualifying attempt, so I had to wait until the following year.”

Though Guthrie didn’t make the Indy field, Charlotte Motor Speedway promoter Humpy Wheeler recruited her to drive at the 1976 Coca-Cola 600 (then known as the World 600).

“It was like Indianapolis: ‘She’ll never make the field,’ ” Guthrie told Petty. “I very well might not have made the field had it not been for the late, great Junior Johnson. The car arrived at the track three days late and could not get out of its way. I was terrible.

“Cale Yarborough drove for Rolla at Indianapolis, and he asked Cale to take the car out in practice, and he went a 10th of a second faster than I did. It was really disgraceful. And here comes Junior Johnson. Oh my God. One of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time for whom Cale was driving at that time. He turned to Herb Nab, his crew chief, and said, ‘Give them the setup.’ I knew perfectly well what a huge gift that was. When I went back out again, it was a different animal. There were a lot of stopwatches and a lot of hats because the word had gone around the only way I’d make the field is if NASCAR falsified my time. But I did make the field.”

1980 Daytona 500 NASCAR race
Janet Guthrie on the grid at Daytona International Speedway before finishing 11th at the 1980 Daytona 500 (Robert Alexander/Getty Images).

After qualifying 27th (behind a row of Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott), Guthrie finished 15th as the first woman to start on a superspeedway in the Cup Series – the first of 33 starts she made through 1980 in NASCAR’s premier series.

Guthrie also made three Indy 500 starts, finishing ninth in 1978 while shouldering a massive burden that paved the way for Danica Patrick and many more female drivers.

“If I made a serious mistake of some sort, it would be a very long time before another woman got a chance at the top levels of racing,” she said. “I’m sure it did make a difference. Look at Danica’s first race at Indianapolis, she had top-notch equipment and made the most of it.”

Janet Guthrie told Petty that the reception and response to her Indy and NASCAR starts at Charlotte and Indianapolis did change

“I was just a race car driver,” she said. “The woman part made no difference whatsoever. It certainly was a pleasure to see that more widely recognized after I had driven at Indianapolis and Daytona. But there was no denying the responsibility.

Janet Guthrie Driving Race Car
Janet Guthrie made three Indianapolis 500 starts, finishing ninth in 1978 (Getty Images).

“I didn’t even know about the big parade through downtown Indianapolis (on the Saturday before every Indy 500) until the first time I put a car in the field. Guys with little girls in their hands, picking them up and waving at me as if they thought what I had done augured well for their daughters’ future. I did hear that quite a lot. So I came to feel it is a responsibility. That’s not why I did it. But I came to feel it is a responsibility.”

During the sitdown with Petty, Guthrie also discussed her love of racing, her origins in aviation engineering and her experiences as a pilot and prospective NASA astronaut.

You can watch the latest full episode of Coffee With Kyle by clicking here or on the video embed above the story.

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