Race to Equality – History of Women in Racing Page Two
To fully understand the road to becoming the first female Indy 500 driver, I contacted Janet Guthrie. After long hours of research on the internet I came across an email, in which I was able to ask the legendary driver a few questions. She has been racing for 13 years and had a good racing record, she explained. That was the reason why she received a call from a long-time Indy 500 car builder and team owner, Rolla Vollsedt, asking if she would like to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500. She revealed,
“At some point he decided he wanted to be the first team owner to bring a women driver to Indianapolis. He would talk with his sports car friends and would always mention my name, which is when I began to gain a reputation. What I didn’t anticipate was the outrage it would cause. The general idea was that women didn’t have the strength, the endurance, the emotional stability; women were going to endanger the men’s lives. The only way I could put a stop to this was on the racetrack.”
Guthrie failed to qualify for the 1976 Indy 500 but later that year she began competing in NASCAR, which was even more difficult. “This was in 1976 with meaty tough guys racing; they associated feminism with sissies. There were certain amounts of controversy associated with it because the guys didn’t want her there. Sponsors don’t like controversy” (Why). “They just didn’t know me yet, and they got used to the idea that I wasn’t going to be intimidated. I gained the title “Rookie of the year” and I think it was something that I could be proud of.” In the 1977 Indy 500 race, she credited her car-not herself-with the improvement. “It was a better car; I knew from the tachometer that the speed was fast enough to earn a starting spot in the field. I was thinking to myself that my life was never going to be the same, and indeed it wasn’t,” Guthrie described. Unable to cure a sick engine she was unable to finish the race. But the next year in 1978, she ended up in the top ten spot, ninth place, and that was the best finish by a woman at an Indianapolis race. She stated,
“After that Ninth place win, and the publicity I brought to the track, finding money for me would be falling off a log and it didn’t happen. I didn’t quit willingly, I ran out of money. I am reconciled to the fact that I wasn’t able to continue and set the kind of record that I know I was capable of setting and I will never be reconciled to that but that’s life you don’t always get what you want.”
Janet Guthrie opened many doors for many females to come up and start to pursue driving. I was thrilled to have a conversation with such a racing legend, an opportunity I shall never forget. After weeks of research and reading, I had heard from the driver who paved the way for many others. I also learned how networking pays off. A Danville resident who races classic cars, helped me immensely by meeting with me and lending me some books. Peter Giddings has been racing for 30 years, is an icon of vintage racing and is known all around the world. He owns and races about a dozen cars — Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, Ferraris and Maseratis — dating back to the 1930s.
During a visit to his home in February, he took me for a ride in a 1928 Lancia Lambda around his neighborhood, and we talked about racing in his custom built car garage that looks like a racing club house. His kindness in providing me contacts led me to meeting new people in the racing world who were more than happy to assist me with my project. In late March, I was off to the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, where I had an appointment with Lyn St. James, a seven-time Indy 500 driver.
The Classic Sports Car Racing Group (CSRG) was holding its 45th anniversary season opener at Infineon Raceway. I observed all the different colored cars lined up row by row followed by drivers in their race suits either checking the engines of their cars or chatting among the other drivers. All the cars ranged from the year 1910 to early 1970s. The scent of the air smelled of burnt rubber and gasoline, the smell was welcoming. The ear-splitting roars of the engines turning on and speeding around the racetrack were constant. It felt surreal seeing over a hundred cars lined up each carrying a unique history. I was introduced to a female driver who has been racing for six years, Sharon Wardman, who agreed to give me a ride around the track when the event allowed drivers to bring a passenger arrived. She owns a red 1963 Rene Bonnet DJet; it is the first mid-engine car ever made in Brussels, Germany. There were 196 built and 95 are left in the world; only 5 remain in the United States and it is the only one of its kind on the western side of the United States. I strapped on my helmet and seated myself inside the small car. I listened as she explained the technical aspects of the car and safety precautions. I felt the hum of the engine at our backs once the car was started up. We took a short drive toward the track and instantly I felt the change of temperature of the engine and the track increase. Once given the signal to start our laps around the track were off the engine getting louder as we shifted gears. The gravity pulled me side to side as we made our way around the turns, reaching speeds up to 110 miles per hour even though it only felt like 50 miles per hour. The engines were all I heard when zooming around the track and I watched the scenery flash by. After the memorable experience I headed toward the press conference room where I would meet Lyn St. James. The room had floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the racetrack.