Born to Drive

In an accomplished new memoir, the first woman of Indy recounts the twists and turns of her life in racing
June 05, 2005

JANET GUTHRIE: A LIFE AT FULL THROTTLE

By Janet Guthrie

SportClassic Books $24.95, 383 pages

before Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, in 1977, a lot of people laughed. Imagine "Ms. Guthrie fishing in her ... handbag for her keys," giggled The Boston Globe, "with bobby pins and Max Factor beauty aids ... and clipped newspaper recipes flying through the air ... as the other 32 drivers angrily blow their horns." Ha, ha, ha. Prejudice is never crueler, or stupider, than when it tries to be funny. In her all-too-brief racing career Guthrie absorbed thousands of similar jibes, but persevered and won over every doubter who gave her a fair shake. "There is no question about her ability to race with us," said Cale Yarborough. "More power to her."

But where have you gone, Janet Guthrie? Nearly three decades after you broke the gender barrier in the highest echelons of American motor sports, only to disappear into the ether, a nation turns its curious eyes to your book--one of the most distinctive ever written on racing, and one of the best.

Guthrie was no ordinary driver--she would sometimes pray to the goddess Athena before a race--and she is no ordinary writer. Her book (it's not ghostwritten) vividly recaptures the racing world of the 1970s, when Indy was the most prestigious track in the country and NASCAR fought for publicity. It was the hope for publicity that led Charlotte Motor Speedway boss Humpy Wheeler to invite Guthrie to drive in her first NASCAR event, the 1976 Charlotte World 600. When NASCAR president Bill France found out, he called Wheeler in a fury. But Guthrie's participation resulted in national television coverage, and she amazed the racing world by placing a respectable 15th.

The daughter of an airline pilot, Guthrie soloed in a Piper at 16 and had contests with her boyfriend to see who could fly higher. Planning on a career in aeronautical engineering, she earned a bachelor's degree in physics at Michigan in 1960. Shortly after, though, she bought a used Jaguar XK 140 and spent months rebuilding its engine, with a growing sense of elation as she caressed "the shape and heft of each carefully machined component ... the geography of a whole new world." She writes of driving at Indy, with her "nerve endings exquisitely in touch with the tire contact patches," and the car's "grip on the smudged black line through the turns ... as intimate as my skin." She recalls going "into the turn balanced ever so delicately on the edge, like a ballerina holding an arabesque on one toe," while tensely aware that "no engine could long survive the thrashing that resounded six inches behind my head."

So ... what happened? Why, after running in three Indy 500s, did Guthrie call it quits just a few years later? One word: sponsorship. Guthrie couldn't get it. Typical was the potential sponsor who put Guthrie's agent on speakerphone, allowed him to make his pitch, then burst out laughing and hung up. Had she continued to subject herself to this degradation, Guthrie writes, she might have been tempted to "jump out of a high window." Guthrie is grateful for all that racing gave her but still tastes the insults she swallowed--from fans and from drivers like Richard Petty, who spat that Guthrie was "no lady" because, "if she was, she'd be at home."

"Life breaks everyone," she writes, "and, after, some are stronger at the broken places. I can say that the job got done. The price I paid was long-term damage to the gift of joy."

Thank goodness a book like this is joy of another kind.

ROAD TRIPPING:SI special contributor Jeff MacGregor's Sunday Money (HarperCollins) recounts the author's yearlong 48,000-mile motor- home odyssey to 36 NASCAR races. The book, which was excerpted in SI (April 11), offers an affectionate, profane and very funny look into America's new national pastime.

COLOR PHOTOSPORTS MEDIA PUBLISHING (GUTHRIE BOOK) B/W PHOTOAP DRIVEN Guthrie took ninth at Indy in 1978. COLOR PHOTOHARPERCOLLINS (SUNDAY MONEY BOOK)

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