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


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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With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”