When Janet Guthrie was informed that Ana Beatriz was the fifth female entered in the Indianapolis 500, the racing pioneer reflected on how far women have progressed in the sport.
“Frankly, I thought it would take longer than this,” Guthrie said. “I thought it would take two generations, and it only seems to have taken one.”
Guthrie, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in physics and started competing in sports cars, is the first female to compete in the Indianapolis 500. She started 29th and finishing 26th in 1977. She fared better in 1978 (her Lola-Cosworth from that year is shown below), advancing six positions to finish ninth. Guthrie was an owner/driver in her final Indianapolis 500 in 1979, with a 14th-place start and a 34th-place finish (a year in which 35 cars took the green flag).
Lyn St. James would follow Guthrie's path to Indianapolis, competing from 1992 to 2000, with a high finish of 11th in her inaugural race. Sarah Fisher was a rookie in St. James' final Indy 500 and is in her third season as an IZOD IndyCar Series owner/driver.
Danica Patrick became the first female to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500 during her rookie campaign in 2005 and went on to finish fourth. Patrick's third-place finish in last year's race is the highest by a female. Venezuela's Milka Duno has competed in the past three Indy 500s, with a high finish of 19th in 2008.
This year, Simona De Silvestro of Switzerland and Beatriz of Brazil join female veterans Duno, Fisher and Patrick for the first day of practice May 15. Guthrie believes both drivers are prepared to make the jump to the world's biggest race.
“I have watched Simona's first races with very great interest,” Guthrie said. “So far, luck has been against her. It has been said that between being good and being lucky, one might rather be lucky. Simona has shown a lot of talent and so has Ana Beatriz. My impression of Ana Beatriz is she really knows what she is doing. She is very capable.”
Guthrie also has followed – and at times advised – Fisher during the transition from driver to driver/team owner.
“Both Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James are having a bigger impact now than when I first started, because I was 19 and stubborn,” said Fisher, who will attempt to qualify for her ninth 500. “It was hard for me, because I hadn't really grown up yet, to take a step back and look at the big picture. Now being able to share what I do with both Janet and Lyn – Janet wrote the foreword to my book, and Lyn took part in it, too. They have both been really good to bounce off ideas with and share where my business is going. They've learned a lot in racing.”
Guthrie will attend the Indianapolis 500 Old Timers Hall of Fame Banquet on Thursday, May 27 and will be at the National Auto Racing Memorabilia Show on Saturday, May 29 but will not be at the track on race day.
“Even now, all these years later, since I didn't quit willingly – I ran out of money – it's a little painful for me to be around it,” Guthrie said. “I never have liked to be there as a hanger-on. That doesn't suit me.”
She does acknowledge a sense of pride in the number of cars that will have a woman behind the wheel, however.
“I'm very glad to see it,” Guthrie said. “I thought it was going to take longer than that. I'll be watching with the greatest interest, for sure.”