Monday, March 07, 2016

Janet Guthrie, the only race car driver I've ever heard of who could fall back on their job as an aerospace engineer

Janet Guthrie was raised in Florida and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a degree in physics. After college, she worked as an aerospace engineer and flight instructor

Guthrie joined Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, New York, as a research and development engineer, working on programs that were precursors to Project Apollo. In 1964, she applied for the first Scientist-Astronaut program, and got through the first round of eliminations. She treasures a letter from astronaut Deke Slayton, a memento of that attempt.

Meanwhile, Guthrie had purchased a Jaguar XK 120 coupe, and began competing in gymkhanas, field trials and hill climbs. This led to the purchase of a Jaguar XK 140 for competition in Sports Car Club of America races. Her career in physics slowly yielded to the allure of sports car racing, and by 1972 she was involved in racing on a full-time basis. Along the way, she posted two class victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring.

By the early 1970s, her interest in sports car racing led her to devote herself full-time to the sport. In 1976, she was the first woman to compete in a National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup superspeedway race. The following year, she broke the gender barrier again, becoming the first female driver in the Daytona 500, where she finished in 12th place.

Also in 1977, Guthrie became the first female driver ever to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately for Guthrie, she was forced to drop out on lap 27 due to mechanical problems. However, she was back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1978, where she finished the 500-mile race in ninth place. Guthrie’s record stood among female drivers until 2005.

in 2010, 4 women were on the starting line for the Indy 500. 


  1. Had the pleasure of meeting Janet when she came to our area in search of a sponsor in hopes to continue her racing career. She spoke before a packed house of fans and racing enthusiast at the Fountains Pavilion in Johnson City N.Y. She was a guest at the area shopping mall the day before where I was able to present her with a portrait sketch I did of her with and Kelly Girl Chevy Laguna she drove at Daytona. Just fond memories from a time gone by Jesse. Thanks for posting this.

    1. you're certainly welcome! Did you know about her early career as an engineer and flight instructor? Those certainly shocked me!

  2. Honestly Jesse, no I didn't. So I am just as surprised to read this too. Hope she's doing okay. Haven't heard anything about her for years.

  3. Not to belittle Janet or her career - i believe she never got the rides she deserved - but "only" is a dangerous word.

    For instance, Mark Donohue: degree from Brown University in Mechanical Engineering; Indy 500 winner; Trans-Am champion; first IROC champion; raced in 24 hours of Le Mans, Formula One and NASCAR.