Jean Guthrie Amazing Racing Car Driver

Racing Car

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Jean Guthrie is an amazing racing car driver, having gone where few women dare to go. She is an American auto racer and the first woman to qualify for, and race in, the Indianapolis 500.

Growing Up

Guthrie started flying solo at age 13, soloed at 16 and made her first parachute drop. She had her commercial pilot’s license by 19 and instructor’s license at 21.

Guthrie said of her growing-up years, “I never had the feeling that I couldn’t do this or that because I was a girl. I was never pressured into the idea that the best thing for a girl was to marry and raise children.” Her father was a commercial pilot and instructed Jean.

Aerospace Researcher

Jean Guthrie was an aerospace research and development engineer for the aerospace division of Republican Aviation Corporation. At age 24 she was granted her Sports Car Club license in a male-dominated world. 

At age 27, Guthrie her eyes on the stars. She applied to be one of the first scientist-astronauts. Guthrie was one of only four women to pass, but she lacked the required doctorate, or experience. Regretfully, she couldn’t advance any further with NASA and turned her mind to the speed of the race-track.

Amazing Race Car Record

In 1975, she competed in 120 races, an amazing record for any race driver. The all male-world of racing was still unwilling to let her in.

She approached racing team owners, factory representatives, and other drivers, searching for sponsors and owners with cars willing to let her race. Guthrie worked as a physicist and non-professional auto racer and did public relations for Toyota, demonstrating safe-driving techniques, while clawing her way on the race-track.

Finally, she became the first woman to enter and pass the rookie test at Indianapolis 500 trials. Many people believed a woman could not handle a race car at 200 miles per hour but the car she was given to drive was not fast enough to qualify. Guthrie didn’t set out to be a leader in womanomics, but was aware of the limitations women have faced through the generations.

Disappointment Did Not Deter Jean Guthrie

Putting the disappointment of not being given a faster car to drive, Guthrie eventually became the first woman to compete in a super speedway race by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

She was 38-years old. In 1977, she finally competed in the Indianapolis 500 and despite engine trouble, finished in 29th place. Her sceptics were still very vocal.

Three Women Fast Car Drivers

In 1977, NASCAR invited three women drivers, Janet Guthrie, open-wheel veteran, Lella Lombardi, Formula One driver and Christine Backers, endurance racer, to compete in a NASCAR Cup Series’ Firecracker 400. The organizers said the event was a way to celebrate the growing women’s liberation movement, but not everyone agreed. It was fully expected to see NASCAR’s popular male pro-drivers crush the women. Critics say it was a way to prove women had no place on the super racetracks. 

To join the Strictly Stock Car race on the Daytona Beach, road course is quite an event. It was 1949, when they last invited a woman to drive the course.

Following the 1949 race, women drivers were routinely barred from even accessing the pit or garages, let alone be permitted behind a racing car driving wheel.

Never Welcomed

Guthrie had competed in a handful of NASCAR races, but had never been really welcomed. Suddenly, she was invited to compete in one of the season’s largest events. Guthrie’s team owner Lynda Ferrari had her own suspicions: “If they can discredit us in the eyes of our sponsors, they’ll have taken a big step toward purging their fields of women altogether.”

Eleven laps into the race, Guthrie’s engine blew. Beckers and Lombardi both dropped out with mechanical problems. It took a further eleven years before another woman, Patty Moise, took her turn in the Firecracker race and finished 26th. The organizers could say they had given women competitors a chance and that women weren’t cut out for the job.

Jean Guthrie Amazing Racing Car Driver

Jean Guthrie has proved she is an amazing racing car driver. Guthrie’s 1978  Indianapolis driver’s suit and helmet are in the Smithsonian Institute. They inducted her into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, in 1980.

In 2006, she was added to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and the Automotive Hall of Fame, in 2019.

How Can You?

The question most asked of Jena Guthrie, the amazing racing car driver, is, “How can you physically compete with men?” Guthrie was a tall, elegant woman, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. Her soft-spoken response is always polite, acknowledging a remark first made by Belgian driver Christine Becker, “I drive the car, I don’t carry it.”

Sexism In The Car Racing World

Lamenting on the sexism in the racing car world, Guthrie said, “Men are getting sponsorship and women can’t. That sounds unfair. But who cares about unfair? What counts is the bottom line. Sponsors want the publicity that racing brings. But a successful woman driver will get 10 times the attention that a man will get. So, now, what really is important? It keeps coming back to the good ol’ boy network. A lot of corporations are spending a lot of tax deductible dollars to sponsor male racing drivers.”

The 2020 t0 2022, Indianapolis 500 has had no women drivers at all. “You can go back to antiquity to find women doing extraordinary things, but their history is forgotten. Or denied having ever existed. So women keep reinventing the wheel. Women have always done these things, and they always will.”

There is still a call for Formula 1 drivers to be a woman.

Amazing Racing Car Driver Pioneer

Jean Guthrie was an amazing woman pioneer who challenged the world of racing cars, just as there have been other world-changers in sport, like Serena Williams.

Guthrie concluded it wasn’t so much as challenging a man’s world, as enjoying the challenge. “There is very little in civilized life that demands everything you’ve got intellectually, physically, and emotionally,” said Guthrie. “Auto racing demands all of this and more. Driving is living. It’s aggressive instead of passive living.”

She refused to be limited by the demands of society. She used her voice for good and is listed among the women’s amazing firsts across the centuries. Jean Guthrie proves no dream is too big to be a reality. Like Jean you can reach for the stars and at least hit the moon. You have a voice that reaches far beyond your sphere of influence.

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    Wendy is an Inspirational Freelance Writer specializing in offering encouragement to women in all walks of life.

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