When she was 16, Janet Guthrie stepped out onto the struts of an airplane her dad was flying and, with a parachute strapped to her back, leaped into uncertainty. It was an inkling of what was to come.
How Guthrie became one of the most important figures in the history of motorsports, and a reluctant trailblazer for women everywhere, is the subject of "Qualified," an ESPN 30 for 30 film that will debut Tuesday at 8 p.m., two days after this year's Indianapolis 500.
Guthrie was as smart as she was brave, and when gender barriers in the late 1950s prevented her from becoming a commercial airline pilot, she earned a degree in physics at the University of Michigan and began a career as an aerospace engineer. That lasted until she discovered sports car racing, and she might have remained relatively unknown if not for an unexpected call from a man she'd never heard of in 1976.
"Qualified" chronicles Guthrie's improbable rise to become the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, and her inexplicable fall when corporate America showed it wasn't ready to back a female driver. Combining riveting period interviews and commentary with Guthrie's candid and sometimes wrenching personal accounts, the film explores the sexism and biting resistance Guthrie faced from fellow drivers, fans and the establishment, and how she won most of them over with skill, courage and perseverance.
In the process, Guthrie, now 81, helped changed history.
"I'm actually quite shy," she says in a historical interview in "Qualified." "But people would come up to me and say, 'Do you realize what's going on in your wake?' And then they would tell me I was the key figure that women were pointing to and saying, 'Look, she can do this; I can do this.' It was a role that I did not seek but came to recognize as a responsibility."