Watch CBS News

'I Would've Won Races': Janet Guthrie, First Woman To Qualify For Indy 500, Featured In New ESPN Doc 'Qualified'

(CBS Local)-- Janet Guthrie is a name some people may not have heard of, but she's one of the most important athletes of the past 50 years.

The former professional race car driver was the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 during the 1970s. Guthrie broke the barrier for women in the male-dominated world of race car driving and had five top 10 finishes during her short career. A new documentary about her life called "Qualified" appears on ESPN Tuesday night. Guthrie always had an adventurous spirit, but got into car racing later on in her life.

"I was flying planes from a very early age," said Guthrie in an interview with CBS Local's DJ Sixsmith. "When I got out of college, I went to work as a research and development engineer. There was no place to go and have fun on airplanes, so I bought a Jaguar. That was the big watershed... the beginning."

The Sit Down: Janet Guthrie by CBS Local News on YouTube

Guthrie spent 13 years racing sports cars before taking the next step in her career. With no money and no job, the legendary race car driver got a call from someone she didn't know that ended up changing her life.

"I got a call from a guy I never heard of saying how would you like to take a crack at the Indianapolis 500," said Guthrie. "I'm thinking, yeah right. It turned out to be true and away we went. At that time, 85 cars could be entered and only the fastest 33 could enter the race. That's a moment you'll never forget. The next year, I formed a team of my own and was also the first woman in the Daytona 500."

The former engineer earned a 9th place finish at the Indy 500 in 1978 and 12th place at Daytona. While she had success, Guthrie dealt with many men across the sport and the country that didn't want a woman racing against men.

"It was a great surprise to me, the commotion at the time," said Guthrie. "I had no idea that there were so many men in the world who believed women couldn't do this, that, or the other thing. In sports car racing, there had always been women. It wasn't a big deal. It was sort of a bell curve from hostility at one end, a lot of skepticism in the middle, and a little open-mindedness at the other end. As long as I got my hands on those cars, I could deal with the rest of it."

Sponsorship was the single most difficult thing Guthrie dealt with during her career. She struggled to get the money to support her career and her crew. Guthrie hopes people will remember her career fondly.

"If I had the chance to run a full season with a team in stock cars NASCAR cup racing, I'm sure I would've won races," said Guthrie. "I only drove 33 races, but I lead a race and ran with the leaders."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.