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Guthrie hopes more follow her path

by PAUL NEWBERRY AP SPORTS COLUMNIST | May 8, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.
FILE - In this May 23, 1976, file photo, Janet Guthrie talks to racing car owner-builder Rolla Vollstedt, left, and A.J. Foyt, right, in the pits of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indianapolis. Janet Guthrie is still astonished at all the fan mail that pours in from around the world. And she's honored to hear that Academy Award winner Hilary Swank wants to portray her in a movie. (AP Photo/File)

All these years after her history making run at the Indianapolis 500, Janet Guthrie is still deluged with letters from around the globe.

"I just got a piece of fan mail from Australia," she said Friday. "I've got a stack of fan mail about 3 feet high that I haven't been able to respond to."

And how about the news that Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank is set to portray her in a movie!

Swank called Guthrie "an incredible true story about female empowerment and going after your dreams," saying she "can't wait to bring her inspiring life to the screen."

"Very flattering," Guthrie responded. "Obviously, she's a great actress."

Swank certainly picked a worthy subject.

As the first woman to race at the Indy 500, Guthrie's is a life worth celebrating and remembering, especially as a new generation deals with the gender inequities that continue to hinder female sports.

When Guthrie read reports of the disparate facilities at the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, she had a familiar reaction for someone who endured relentless scorn and ridicule breaking into a male-dominated sport.

"I guess my first thought was, 'What else is new?' " she said, a resigned tone in her voice when speaking by phone from her home in Colorado. "On the other hand, I'm very glad that it's in the headlines again. Perhaps there will be some changes."

One thing hasn't changed all that much since Guthrie, an aerospace engineer and pilot-turned-race car driver, stunned the world by qualifying for one of the world's most famous events in 1977.

Women are still outliers in the sport of auto racing.

Only a handful of females have raced regularly in the IndyCar series since Guthrie's breakthrough, most notably Danica Patrick.

Patrick, now retired, is also the only woman to compete regularly on the NASCAR Cup circuit, where Guthrie still ranks second on the list of most career starts by a woman with 33.

Just two women have qualified for a Formula One race, the last in 1976.

"The talent is out there," insisted Guthrie, now 83. "But the pool of girls who have grown up racing go-karts and then progressed to other forms of machinery is relatively small."

She contrasted that with the gains made by women in equestrian events, another of the rare sports where the two genders compete on an equal playing field.

"Forty years ago, that sport was dominated by men at the Olympics. Now, it's dominated by women," Guthrie said. "But horseback riding has since time been the one way a young girl had socially acceptable access to power. I think that's part of why women have come to dominate [equestrian] competition.

"We haven't really quite reached that point in the lower levels of autosport yet. I hope it will be coming."

There's nothing to prevent women racers from being just as successful as their male counterparts, Guthrie has long maintained, if only they received an equal opportunity.

"In most sports, the fact that men have big muscles and broad shoulders does make a difference," she said.

But that doesn't apply when behind the wheel of a machine that can go more than 200 mph.

"Like I used to say," Guthrie chuckled, "I drove the car, I didn't have to carry it."

Guthrie was the first of nine women to race in the Indy 500, but she and most of those who followed were limited to one-off deals that made it difficult to compete with full-time racers.

That's the case again this year. Simona de Silvestro is the lone woman entered in the 500 later this month, competing for fledgling Paretta Autosport in an Indy-only package.

"I'm really delighted that Simona is entered in this year's race. She's a very capable driver," Guthrie said. "But I can tell you it's nearly impossible to do well when you're racing just one IndyCar race a year, and it's the most important race of the year. I'm hoping for the best. I really have my fingers crossed."

De Silvestro's team is owned by Beth Paretta and part of a drive by IndyCar leader Roger Penske to create more opportunities for women and minorities in a variety of racing-related jobs.

It's an effort that's long overdue.

"The talented women are out there," Guthrie said. "It just depends on which one finds the money to get it done."

FILE - Janet Guthrie is all smiles as her pit crew swarms around her following her run in the Indy 500-mile race in Indianapolis, in this May 28, 1978, file photo. Janet Guthrie is still astonished at all the fan mail that pours in from around the world. And she's honored to hear that Academy Award winner Hilary Swank wants to portray her in a movie. Forty-four years after her history making run at the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie's impact on the growth of female sports is certainly a legacy worth remembering. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - Janet Guthrie is all smiles as her pit crew swarms around her following her run in the Indy 500-mile race in Indianapolis, in this May 28, 1978, file photo. Janet Guthrie is still astonished at all the fan mail that pours in from around the world. And she's honored to hear that Academy Award winner Hilary Swank wants to portray her in a movie. Forty-four years after her history making run at the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie's impact on the growth of female sports is certainly a legacy worth remembering. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this May 9, 2006, file photo, Janet Guthrie smiles during a press conference at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. Janet Guthrie is still astonished at all the fan mail that pours in from around the world. And she's honored to hear that Academy Award winner Hilary Swank wants to portray her in a movie. Forty-four years after her history making run at the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie's impact on the growth of female sports is certainly a legacy worth remembering. (AP Photo/Rusty Burroughs, File)
FILE - In this May 9, 2006, file photo, Janet Guthrie smiles during a press conference at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. Janet Guthrie is still astonished at all the fan mail that pours in from around the world. And she's honored to hear that Academy Award winner Hilary Swank wants to portray her in a movie. Forty-four years after her history making run at the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie's impact on the growth of female sports is certainly a legacy worth remembering. (AP Photo/Rusty Burroughs, File)
FILE - Janet Guthrie poses with a toy race car at a news conference in New York, in this April 6, 1978, file photo. Janet Guthrie is still astonished at all the fan mail that pours in from around the world. And she's honored to hear that Academy Award winner Hilary Swank wants to portray her in a movie. Forty-four years after her history making run at the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie's impact on the growth of female sports is certainly a legacy worth remembering. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)
FILE - Janet Guthrie poses with a toy race car at a news conference in New York, in this April 6, 1978, file photo. Janet Guthrie is still astonished at all the fan mail that pours in from around the world. And she's honored to hear that Academy Award winner Hilary Swank wants to portray her in a movie. Forty-four years after her history making run at the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie's impact on the growth of female sports is certainly a legacy worth remembering. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)
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