Janet & Gentlemen, Start Your Engines
About The Author: Don Smyle is the owner of Smyle Media & Marketing, a motorsports consulting, licensing and media development company. Don currently manages a photo database featuring more than 200,000 classic racing images from every level of motorsports, including NASCAR, Indy car, Formula One and drag racing. Learn more about Don Smyle and Smyle Media & Marketing by visiting www.smylemedia.com.
On Friday, April 30, 1976 Janet Guthrie arrived at New Jersey’s Trenton Speedway for her first USAC sanctioned race, the Trentonian 200. What followed her through the gates that day was a wave of anger, fear and resentment from a large section of the male racing fraternity. Despite a decade of successes in SCCA racing and two class victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring, her involvement in the USAC event was met with near panic.
“I’m not happy about this whole thing. I’ve made that perfectly clear before,” grumbled Indy 500 winner and five-time Trenton victor Bobby Unser. “I’ve said all I’m going to say on the subject for now. Let’s just hope we all come through this in one piece.”
Not one to be easily swayed, Guthrie had achieved success in nearly every endeavor undertaken in her life. A graduate of the University of Michigan in 1960 with a B.S. in physics, she soon joined Republic Aviation as a research and development engineer. There she found herself working on programs that eventually morphed into the Apollo moon project. In 1964 she applied for the first Scientist-Astronaut program at NASA and despite not making the final cut, she did succeed in making it through the first round of eliminations.
Her response to Unser was both softly direct and entirely scathing.
“I’m sorry Bobby feels the way he does. I hope I can change his mind about me,” said Guthrie, who referred to Unser as “a male chauvinist pig.”
Driving for team owner Rolla Vollstedt, Guthrie had taken part in a test session at the track two weeks prior on April 16. Her practice times during that test were more than respectable, only a second off Penske driver and perennial contender Tom Sneva. Her appearance sparked a sea of media and photographers, eager to stir up the hornet’s nest created by Unser’s comments.
Earlier that season another female driver Arlene Hiss had broken the sex barrier and paved the way for Guthrie by competing in the season opening USAC event at Phoenix. However, her lackluster performance and inability to yield to faster drivers had caused a firestorm among the competitors and press. There was even talk of a driver boycott should another female driver be allowed to compete. Unfortunately Guthrie now carried the weight of that criticism having never turned a lap under green with those that protested her presence.