“Qualified”– A Review

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I’ve mentioned before that one of the perks of being a lowly IndyCar blogger is that I am sometimes asked to evaluate books, DVDs and TV specials before they become available to the public. I’ve also mentioned that in some cases, what I test out is sometimes bad…very bad. What I generally do in that case is just silently pass on doing a review.

It seems to me that nothing can be gained by spending time trashing something that someone was nice enough to give me in advance. But if I were to give some sugar-coated review to my readers, who would possibly spend hard-earned money or time on something inferior – I’d have no credibility. Therefore, as a public service, I have sampled many bad things over the years that you’ve never read about here.

I’ve mentioned that I have a good friend at ESPN, who I met through this website. Although he and I usually disagreed on what made for a good IndyCar broadcast, we were able to set that aside and become and remain good friends – even after it was announced that NBC would be taking over the entire schedule beginning this season.

A couple of weeks ago, he asked me if I would watch an upcoming film in ESPN’s Oscar and Emmy award winning 30 for 30 series. While I may not have cared for the way ESPN covered the NTT IndyCar Series, there is no doubt that the 30 for 30 series is second to none. The series started in 2008 as a celebration of ESPN’s thirtieth anniversary with thirty well-prepared film documentaries. They have now produced well over a hundred and they are still going.

Their latest effort is titled Qualified, and focuses on the life and career of Janet Guthrie, the first woman to ever qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

In May of 1977, I was a freshman at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. UT was on the quarter system then and school did not let out until around June 10; so school was still in session over Memorial Day.

I was five years removed from attending my last Indianapolis 500 in 1972. For a little over two months, I had been dating Susan (who, thirty-five years later would become my wife) and throughout the Month of May, I had my mind on other things besides racing. I was very aware that the great Sid Collins had passed away at the beginning of the month, but I had only heard just a couple of mentions that a “girl” had qualified for the race. I didn’t pay much attention to it, and just took it in stride with all the other changes I had seen in society over the last decade.

Having grown up in the turmoil of the sixties with civil unrest, campus riots and the hippie movement that involved a drug-induced lifestyle previously unseen or talked about – I welcomed the fact that the pendulum was swinging back in the mid-to-late seventies. The only revolution that society underwent in the early seventies was the sexual revolution. Being an eighteen year-old away from home for the first time, I certainly had no problems with that one.

But the world surrounding the Indianapolis 500 seemed to be immune from the societal turmoil of the sixties. While there were several revolutions that went on inside the gates at 16th and Georgetown; they mostly involved rear-engine cars, British drivers, turbines, wedge-designs and wings. About the only signs of times changing outside of the track, were long hair, garish sideburns and string bikinis in the snake pit (the real one).

But even though this eighteen year-old met the distant news of a woman qualifying at Indianapolis with a shrug, I learned in later years about the firestorm it created.

Different people have different hot-buttons. While I was outraged last month that certain owners wanted guaranteed spots in the Indianapolis 500; I never had strong feelings either way about female drivers. There are certain traditions that I embrace about the Indianapolis 500, but many will be shocked to learn that I think several traditions were silly and needed to go away long ago.

The color green being bad luck was one. Pat Flaherty was chided by his fellow drivers for wearing a green shamrock on the front of his helmet. When he won the race in 1956, it made many question that superstition. When Jim Clark won in a green car in 1965 that was the beginning of the end of that superstition. Nowadays, a green car at Indianapolis doesn’t raise eyebrows.

As recent as the early sixties, it was considered bad luck for drivers to even eat peanuts, much less have them around a car. One of the dumbest superstitions didn’t go away until the early seventies, when women were finally allowed in the pits and garage areas at Indianapolis. It was previously thought that women were bad luck around race cars.

So to an eighteen year-old at the time, it seemed no big deal to have a woman qualify. But superstitions die hard with some of the more established set, and that’s what Janet Guthrie faced.

Most of what I knew about Janet Guthrie came from the excellent “Decades” series of DVDs that IMS put out in the early 2000s. In “The Seventies: A Decade of Legends”, Guthrie discusses some of the pushback she faced when trying to qualify for the 1976 race. Al Unser gave a particularly harsh assessment of her abilities, but said it wasn’t based on her gender. He just said he didn’t think she was a very good driver. That’s fair enough. Bad drivers come in both genders.

Oddly enough, it was the cantankerous AJ Foyt who allowed her to climb into his backup car and practice it fast enough to qualify. But in that “Decades” DVD, she says she has no idea why Foyt didn’t allow her to qualify it – even though she was grateful for giving her that opportunity. The rest of the DVD notes that she had made the race in 1977, gives her credit for doing that and also points out that she finished ninth in 1978. But that was about the extent of my knowledge (or interest) concerning Janet Guthrie. Until now…

When I sat down to watch Qualified, my fear was that it would have political overtones and would be just an extended infomercial about how men are nothing but sexist pigs and are threatened by women taking over their turf. Since I’ve never felt that way personally, I don’t care for being preached to on that subject. If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you’ve noticed that I don’t really separate women into a sub-group and compare them as “best in class” against other female drivers. Instead, I consider them drivers and compare them to other drivers. To do otherwise is condescending, in my opinion.

Although I wasn’t blogging at the time, I never compared George Mack to Willie T. Ribbs as black drivers. I considered Willie T. Ribbs to be a good driver, and Mack to be a bad driver. Would some have called me a racist for criticizing George Mack’s driving ability? Probably.

There have been nine female drivers to drive in the Indianapolis 500. Some were good drivers and some weren’t. But in 2010, I wrote a not-so-complimentary post about Milka Duno. That post generated a record seventy-five comments for this site. While most agreed with my assessment, there were some who called me sexist and guilty of perpetuating the good old boys network. I think that being female or black should not make you immune from criticism, when you are a bad driver. Bringing driving skills into question should not label you a sexist or a racist. That’s why I thought Al Unser was giving a fair assessment of Guthrie, based on what I knew. But I digress…

That’s why I was glad I watched Qualified. It opened my eyes on some things and I learned an awful lot about Guthrie – both as a driver and as a person. My concerns about an infomercial were put to rest early on in the documentary, when Guthrie says that she confesses that she never considered herself a feminist. That told me that this was going to focus on racing, which it did.

I was not aware that Janet Guthrie held a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan. She was also an accomplished pilot and held a commercial license as well as a flight instructor’s license. Did I mention that she was also a skydiver?

It was not until she got into the working world and pursuing her engineering profession that she earned enough money to buy a seven year-old Jaguar XK140. She found she loved the thrill of going fast and began entering SCCA races with it. She soon abandoned her engineering job and began racing professionally.

Guthrie caught the eye of Rolla Vollstedt, who tested her in his Indy car at Ontario in 1975. With coaching from Vollstedt driver Dick Simon, she soon became comfortable in the car and got the car up to competitive speeds – all while nursing a broken foot she had suffered just a few days earlier.

Vollstedt decided to enter her for the 1976 Indianapolis 500. In the program, Guthrie, who is now eighty-one, recalls that in all of her racing days, she never received any pushback for being a woman until she got to Indianapolis. In an unusual move, she was told by USAC that she had to drive first at Trenton. Her driving would be closely scrutinized before she would even be allowed a rookie test at Indianapolis. She shares her own accounts as the video shows some very mean-spirited signs at Indianapolis that would be frowned-upon today. She recounts a time when two fans asked her if she was going to qualify. When she responded with “I hope so”, their answer was that they hoped she crashed in the first turn. Nice.

Ultimately, she did not qualify for the 1976 race, but at the last minute she was approached to drive in the World 600 at Charlotte; NASCAR’s Memorial Day answer to the Indianapolis 500. She had never driven a stock car in her life. With little time in the car, she qualified twenty-seventh and finished fifteenth in her NASCAR debut.

Guthrie drove in several more NASCAR races, including the 1977 Daytona 500. In the 30 for 30 program, the ABC telecast of that race says she finished ninth – but all the record books I checked says she finished twelfth. Still, she proved she belonged, despite multiple jabs to the media by Richard Petty.

Although she had picked up NASCAR sponsorship from Kelly Girl by 1977, Guthrie still had her eyes on Indianapolis. Vollstedt had gotten a better car for her in the offseason, but his shoestring team still struggled throughout the month. The program does a good job at documenting her plight as she finally put together four laps quick enough to make the race. Unfortunately, her No.27 car lasted only twenty-seven laps. Still, she had made history.

Unfortunately, making history did not translate into sponsorship for 1978. It shows an appearance on Good Morning America where David Hartman allowed her to plead her case before corporate America asking for sponsorship. It worked. The next day, Texaco stepped up and gave her enough money to put her own team together for the 1978 Indianapolis 500. Guthrie qualified in the fifth row and finished ninth – two spots behind AJ Foyt, three spots ahead of Mario Andretti and four spots ahead of Johnny Rutherford – who were all still running at the end.

Although Guthrie wanted to translate that success into a fulltime season, it was not to be. She was doing well to fund her bid for the 1979 Indianapolis 500, where she again qualified for the fifth row. But burned pistons ended her day after only three laps. She was credited with a rare thirty-fourth place finish that year (there were thirty-five starters in 1979). She failed to qualify in 1980, and Janet Guthrie would never drive in the Indianapolis 500 again.

In May of 1982, Guthrie appeared on SportsBeat with Howard Cosell. She bemoaned her lack of support at Indianapolis, both from corporate America and from within the sport itself. Cosell led her into an uncomfortable area by asking “And you are saying it’s a sexist sport?” Her reply was “I think that would not be an unfair statement”. He then asked if she thought she had damaged her case by coming out and speaking the truth and she replied that it was quite possible.

Dick Simon said it best when he said that she had the goods, he just didn’t think corporate America was ready. I think he was right, but I don’t understand it. I was always perplexed at how Sarah Fisher was always struggling for sponsorship. It always seemed to me that a company would be buying a lot of exposure for backing a woman driver. Even though I don’t put female drivers into sub-groups, let’s be honest – Madison Avenue does. Indy car racing as a sport, may have had a sexist culture in the seventies; but from what I see, I certainly don’t think that is the case today – although some may disagree with me on that point. But I do think that corporate America has trouble backing a woman, and I just can’t understand it.

Like so many others over the decades – success at Indianapolis doesn’t depend strictly on talent. It also takes money, and a lot of it.

Guthrie admits that for a long time, she avoided going back to Indianapolis. She confesses that she should be content with having made the most of the chances she had while racing there, but she’s not. But she’s gone back over the last few years and has been warmed by the reception she has received.

The very last scene of the 30 for 30 special, pretty well sums up my newfound appreciation for Janet Guthrie. She is being interviewed by someone who asks how she would like to be remembered. She says “As a damned good racing driver…and a lady, I hope”. The interviewer then asks “And if you had to choose?” Guthrie then gets steely-eyed and sternly says, without hesitation “Damned good racing driver”.

Guthrie

Qualified airs next Tuesday May 28 at 8:00 EDT on ESPN and again at 9:30 EDT; pretty much back-to-back. After watching it, I came away with a whole new appreciation for Janet Guthrie and her story. Most importantly, I learned a lot – about Guthrie, the Indianapolis 500 and how much has changed since I was eighteen years old.

George Phillips

10 Responses to ““Qualified”– A Review”

  1. Janet is absolutely amazing, just amazing. A couple months ago I caught a Fox Sports special about her, the ESPN one sounds pretty similar. I had no idea what an incredible person and racer she was, and there’s no doubt that she was a racer to the core. In the Fox special they took her to a track with a Jag like the one she used to race and let her fling it around a bit, awesome. Sounds like the ESPN one will be just as good, everyone MUST watch it!

    Her first race was the year I was born, I have the program with her picture on the cover hanging on the wall in my pool room.

  2. Must be Janet Guthrie Day. See my Bump Tales.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Back in the 1960’s I had the good fortune, while volunteering in Flag & Communications in the New England Region SCCA to be on track corners during events at the tracks – Thompson, Lime Rock, then Bryar (now New Hampshire Speedway) , and occasionally Watkins Glen, and once at Sebring. The days of Corvette vs Cobra, Formula 5000, Can AM, McLaren, Lola, Lotus …………..

    The SCCA Drivers Schools were the best due to being able to be closer to the drivers and the “students” ……. Janet Guthrie & Paul Newman .

    Two opposites when it came to their equipment & financial resources but equal in their on track skills.

    While I recall Paul arriving that particular driving school weekend at Thompson having at least two plus different race category race prepared vehicles at his disposal so that he was able to have more on track time that weekend at the driver school in order to qualify for his SCCA competition license, Janet had only her trusty Jaguar and less on track time.

    I would say that Janet made more of an impression among us since we were aware of her educational background and more impressed by her professional status as an aerospace engineer.

    Reading her biography one learns that she became a self-taught mechanic, out of necessity due to lack of financial resources at her disposal when she started to race her Jaguar and her dedication of her long hours repairing/maintaining her Jaguar, when it should have been replaced had she had the funds to do so.

    I recall reading that when she was first on the track at INDY that she was given advice to drive as close to the outside wall and was told that was the best line to drive since that was the line that the seasoned drivers took. At the time she was allowed to drive (I believe it was) a Toyota sedan around INDY to get a feel for the track. When she came back into the pits after a couple laps someone noticed scuff/scrape marks on the passenger side (as a result of drifting close to the wall as previously being suggested to her to follow the seasoned drivers line). As a result, she proved to her mentor that she in fact could “drive.”

    Janet was and is yet another driver who experienced starting with the spark and talent and persistence to follow and achieve their dream against the odds.

    If one has the occasion to see Janet at Indy, be sure to speak to her. You will not regret it.

  4. Keith R Says:

    As aways great post and a great blog. When i attended my first indy500, Sarah Fisher was driving and i became a fan. Man or woman talent is talent and the most talented belong. I would truly like more skilled females on teams outside of the car also.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    The Dinner with Racers episode with Janet Guthrie is excellent as well.

    She is one of the best driver interviews I have ever seen or heard because of how well she conveys the passion for speed and for racing that she and most racing drivers have. I think she broke barriers and changed minds in the racing community as well as she did because she had and displayed a passion for racing on par with anyone at Indy to go along with her talent. She has a racer’s mentality no different from the best male drivers, and most all of those male drivers (even the skeptics) came to realize and respect that eventually. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see anyone from toddlers to 75 year old men wearing a female driver’s merchandise, the same as any other driver.

  6. hindsight

  7. Though it was well before my time, I’m definitely looking forward to watching this. Like you said, the 30 for 30 series are usually on point, and I feel this one will be no exception.

    I also didn’t know about her aerospace engineering degree, which is very impressive. Reminds me of today’s drivers like Hildebrand and Servia that have the smarts to go along with the talent.

    I’m glad you got to see this early, and I’m glad you were able to share your thoughts on it.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    I dumped cable long ago, so I will watch on YouTube. I also had a Jaguar XK140 when I was younger. Wonderful car! Milka Duno also had an engineering degree.

  9. SkipinSC Says:

    I’ll keep this one short and simple. I was there in ’76, ’77, and ’78. If not for Janet Guthrie, there would not have been a Sarah, a Lynn, or a Danica.

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