The Lady is a Champ



Women’s liberation was barely a pipedream when a little-known young woman fulfilled a dream of her own. Pilot, flight instructor, aerospace engineer, technical editor and PR rep for some of America’s big corporations, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete at both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 (where she was Rookie of the Year in 1977). Here, in an exclusive interview, she speaks with Accent magazine about speed, style and life without jewelry.

How does a nice young girl from Miss Harris’s Florida School for Girls find herself flying around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

I was always adventurous. I was always riding my bicycle improbable distances; I made a parachute jump and soloed an airplane at age 16, got my private pilot license at 17 and my commercial and flight instructor license by the time I finished college. I guess you could say flying was my first love. When I graduated college with a physics degree, I went to work as an engineer in the aerospace industry. I needed a car so I bought a 1953 Jaguar XK 120 Coupe, just because it was beautiful. Then I found out what I could do with it! Besides the pleasure of exercising sohisticated machinery, racing added the element of door handle-to-door handle competition. That was a very compelling combination and I got hooked.

You had a B. S. in physics from the University of Michigan, a great engineering job at Republic Aviation and you were a candidate for the early astronaut program; why give it all up for racecars?

I realized that I was clever in my profession as an engineer but I wasn’t original, and I felt without originality, there’d be no joy in this vocation. I spent some jobless time while I worked on the Jaguar and built a Toyota Celica racecar with the help of some friends (which I won Sebring with a couple of times) but it wasn’t enough. After four and a half seasons, things were pretty bleak: I had no job, no money, no jewelry, no husband and I was in debt. At that point I received a phone call from someone I didn’t know who asked me if I would test a car for the Indy 500. Thanks to my reputation as a racecar driver known for finishing well, this opportunity came out of nowhere and my life took a dramatic turn for the better.

What would you consider your most memorable achievement?

I would have to say qualifying a car at Indianapolis in the era I raced in, where there were 90 other cars with some of the world’s greatest drivers trying to be among the fastest 33 cars to take the field. It’s a moment I will remember until my dying day. I have to add that finishing in the top 10 on a very low budget was quite memorable as well, as was setting the fastest time at the opening day of practice in 1977.

What are your days like lately?

I live in Colorado and love hiking in the mountains there. When I’m in Florida I do a lot of bicycling. I do some volunteering and for a long time I’ve been an officer at a group that supports the arts in Aspen. I spent a good bit of time writing my book, A Life At Full Throttle, which came out a few years ago. Any regrets? In 1978, when I was at the top of my sport, I was asked to lunch at the University Club in NYC with Rolex executives to discuss appearing in a Rolex advertisement. Although the offer was exceptional, I felt I had to decline since I’d been in contact with Timex for sponsorship of my upcoming race season. I’d say turning down Rolex was regrettable!