Women in Transportation History: Janet Guthrie, Professional Race Car Driver

Janet Guthrie, who blazed new trails for women as a professional race car driver, was born in Iowa City, Iowa, in 1938. Initially, her transportation-oriented aspirations were focused on airborne travel. Guthrie earned a pilot’s license when she was only 17. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she worked for several years as a research-and-development engineer for an aviation company. In 1964, Guthrie became one of the first four women to qualify for NASA’s scientist-astronaut program. She was subsequently disqualified from that program, however, when NASA made having a doctorate one of the eligibility requirements.

Around that same time, Guthrie embraced a new pursuit after she bought a Jaguar XK120 automobile and began to participate in car races. She was soon racing regularly, winning several major competitions on the Sports Club of America circuit.

In 1976, Guthrie became the first woman to compete in a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup superspeedway event. The following year, Guthrie surmounted the gender barrier again when she became the first woman driver to compete in the Daytona 500. She finished in 12th place in that year’s race and earned Top Rookie honors. During that same year, Guthrie achieved yet another milestone by becoming the first woman to participate in the Indianapolis 500 – the premier U.S. car-racing competition. While mechanical problems forced Guthrie to drop out of that year’s Indianapolis 500 after 27 laps, she managed to finish the event in 1978 and place ninth in the field despite a broken wrist.

Guthrie, who continued to participate in car races until retiring in 1983, established herself as a formidable competitor in that male-dominated sport. Her helmet and driver’s suit can be found today in the Smithsonian Institution.​

For more information on Janet Guthrie, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Guthrie.

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