Janet Guthrie outraced insults to make history

Janet Guthrie holds the record for the best finish by a woman in a top-tier NASCAR race, a sixth-place finish at Bristol in 1977. ISC Archives/Getty Images

The sign said, "JANET GRAB THAT POLE."

It was May 14, 1977, pole day for the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. A conga line of cars eased down pit road, pushed by their crews and chaperoned by their drivers. Fans packed the grandstands on either side of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's fabled frontstretch. Most were there to cheer the legendary likes of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and the Unsers.

Then there were the fine folks who had gone to the trouble of making this sign. Janet was Janet Guthrie, the engineer-turned-sports car racer attempting to become the first woman to make the field for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. "Grab that pole," for any other driver that day, would have been encouragement to crack the elusive 200 mph barrier and the No. 1 starting spot for the Indy 500. For Guthrie, it carried another connotation. The pole painted on this piece of poster board was striped, like a barber's pole, and was drawn in the distinctive shape of male genitalia.

"My whole team had already experienced that kind of greeting in '76 when we first attempted to qualify at Indianapolis and missed the field," Guthrie recalls now. "During the year in between I had heard plenty of it at NASCAR tracks, too. So when we saw this sign in '77, reporters asked me, 'Does that stuff bother you?' I told them no, I figured it was their problem or the Speedway's problem. Not mine."

Then the 74-year-old breathes deep.

"What a lie."

Times have changed

The tidal wave of Danica Patrick coverage that engulfed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during her seven-year IndyCar tenure began in 2005, when she finished fourth, setting the record for highest Indy 500 finish for a woman.

The record she broke belonged to Guthrie, who finished ninth in 1978.

The latest three-year surge of Danica Mania, accompanying her move from open-wheel racing to NASCAR, reached its peak on Sunday afternoon, when she became the first woman to win the pole not just for the Daytona 500, but for any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

Again, that broke a mark previously set by Guthrie, who qualified ninth at both Talladega and Bristol in '77. Patrick's next target will be Guthrie's best Cup finish, a sixth-place effort, also at Bristol in '77.

But to compare the roads that the two women traveled to reach the major leagues of motorsports would be to compare Lewis and Clark's westward journey to a road trip down Route 66. Patrick's path hasn't been easy. The pre-GoDaddy, pre-Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Edition years consisted of countless nights away from home, family bank accounts emptied for go-kart parts, dropping out of high school and moving from Illinois to England to race against future Formula 1 stars in open-wheel racing's lowest levels.

And yes, Patrick does have to endure the occasional inappropriate catcall or public criticism from a rival. And yes, she has grown tired of being asked to autograph copies of her ill-advised FHM photo shoot from 2003. Each of the 16 women who have competed in NASCAR, and the 10 who have raced in the Indy 500, have had to deal with some level of frat boy chauvinism.

But only Guthrie was welcomed to Charlotte Motor Speedway by a throng of men chanting, "No tits in the pits!" Only Guthrie was given the runaround by track security during her first visit to Darlington Raceway, forced to run from gate to gate begging to be admitted into the garage, then a by-rule men-only domain, in a move that some suspected was designed to keep her from attending the mandatory rookie orientation meeting. Only Guthrie saw her car repeatedly, inexplicably, held aside so that it would be last in NASCAR's technical inspection line, often causing her to miss huge chunks of valuable practice time.

"The strangest thing was the rubber chicken hex," Dick Simon, Guthrie's former teammate, recalled two years ago, during the Indy 500's 100th anniversary celebration. "One of the Yellow Shirts [Indianapolis Motor Speedway track guards] that was positioned at the entrance to Gasoline Alley would shake this rubber chicken at Janet every time she passed by him. Just cursing at her and shaking that chicken. It sounds stupid, but his intent was very hateful."

"People said she would give out physically at high speed, that she couldn't make it 500 miles, that she couldn't race at certain times of the month," said Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was Wheeler who got a plane to pick Guthrie up from Indianapolis when she failed to make the 500 in 1976. He had arranged a ride for her in his World 600. "I'm not just talking about racers and fans. I'm talking about sportswriters. Everyone likes to do revisionist history now and say, 'Oh well, I supported her all along' or 'It wasn't as bad as she likes to say it was,' but I'm telling you that it was. It was probably worse than she says."

The era

To fully appreciate what Guthrie endured, you must think back to when it was endured. This was the 1970s. The era of Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs. A time when the female staff members at Newsweek had to sue their co-workers for equal reporting opportunities. Roe v. Wade. Title IX. When President Jimmy Carter's earliest damage control stemmed not from foreign oil or a sagging economy, but from the supposed insanity of allowing wife Rosalynn to sit in on cabinet meetings.

How naive of a time was it? When Guthrie made the field for the Indy 500 in '77, Jane Pauley flew in from New York to conduct an interview for the "Today" show. Among the questions: "Will you put on makeup for the race?"

Like many at the front edge of their chosen corner of the women's equality movement, Guthrie smiled through it all. But privately, like her contemporaries, she was hurt.

"People have always asked how we kept going," she recalled during a visit to Charlotte in 2006, the 30th anniversary of her groundbreaking World 600 start. "As we went along we found that for every person who was ready to hurl an insult, there was also someone to shout support. When a competitor might do something to make things more difficult, there was almost always another that was ready to offer up help."

Richard Petty, so vocal in his support of Patrick winning the Daytona 500 pole, was back then a master of the backhanded Guthrie compliment. In her book, "A Life at Full Throttle," Guthrie recalled The King's comments after her stunning Talladega qualifying run in '77. Petty, two spots behind her, said, "The doll out-qualified me, didn't she? I guess she out-drove me, too. ... It just goes to show what I been saying all the time, on a track like this it doesn't matter who is in the car."

But drivers such as Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker balanced out such coldness with unsolicited pointers. Likewise, one day A.J. Foyt might be holding court in Gasoline Alley, giving a rival a hard time because he was "outrun by a girl!" Then the next day he might send over a part or even a backup car to help Guthrie's lower-budget team get up to speed.

"It just became normal to have her around," recalls three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, a longtime unwavering supporter. "There are always going to be idiots, but anyone with common sense eventually comes around."

One of the guys

Eventually, after five years of racing and 45 starts across NASCAR's and IndyCar's top series, Guthrie was viewed, as much as she could be, as "one of the guys."

"When you're out there racing with someone and you see what they're really capable of, they can't help but win you over," said Baker, who raced against Guthrie for all 33 of her NASCAR starts. The 1980 Daytona 500 champion beat her 20 times and finished behind her 13 times. "Especially when you know what they're doing with second-tier equipment and all the BS she had to deal with. I don't care who you are, you have to respect it."

When Guthrie qualified for the '77 Indy 500, among the mountain of roses and telegrams piling up in her Gasoline Alley garage, she found a flower box that didn't contain blooms. It held that rubber chicken. Tied around its feet was a note that read, "Who said she didn't have the guts and the will? I did, and my face is still red. Oscar is at your disposal. Good luck."

By the time she made her final big league start, a 28th-place finish after a blown engine at the Pocono Raceway's NASCAR event on July 27, 1980, racing's glass ceiling certainly hadn't been broken, but it had been marked with sizable cracks. Today, finally, those cracks are gaping holes through which the likes of Patrick, Johanna Long and the four women who started the Indy 500 in both 2010 and '11, can race.

"I root for them all," said Guthrie, proud enough of Patrick's success to set aside her past questions about how the racer has handled Danica Mania. "As a racer, I wish so badly that I had been given the opportunities that they have now. To race those amazing machines they now have at their disposal. But to think that I may have had a hand in helping them all get to get these chances now, that's humbling. It's truly an honor."