Pilot. Teacher. Physicist. Engineer. Race Car Driver. Author. In her lifetime, Janet Guthrie has been all of these things and more, and she’s not done yet. She may be 78 years old, but Janet is still enjoying life in the fast lane.

Janet was born on 7th March, 1938 in Iowa City. From a very early age, she was a daredevil. By 13, Janet was logging time flying airplanes and by 16, she was busy jumping out of them. She wanted to become a professional pilot. The fact that she was a woman made it impossible for her to do so with the military or the airlines so instead, she decided to attend the University of Michigan where she earned a degree in physics.

Janet’s love of airplanes, combined with her physics degree, soon led her to Republic Aviation where she worked as an engineer in research and development. However, working in aviation wasn’t enough for Janet; she longed to fly, and so she began looking into purchasing a share of a plane.  Upon realising that her current location made the purchase impractical however, she decided to focus on buying a car. She found a classified ad for a 953 Jaguar XK120 M coupé and in that moment her whole life changed.

There is very little in civilized life that demands everything you got intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Driving is living. It’s aggressive instead of passive living.

Janet purchased the Jaguar and promptly fell in love with racing. She was a natural, and that inherent ability soon made her a driver to beat on the solo-driving circuit. For the next 13 years, she continued working as an engineer but her heart was on the racetrack. She poured every penny she had into her racing. But even with the money she made as an engineer, Janet was struggling.  She built her own engines. She slept in her car. It was exhausting and stressful and by 1975, Janet was ready to give up entirely. Thankfully, that was when she got the call — the call that would change her life — the call from a man asking her if she would like to try and race in the Indy 500.

Racing takes everything you’ve got – intellectually, emotionally, physically – and then you have to find about ten percent more and use that too.

It took a year but in 1977, Janet became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. She began a professional racing career that spanned 33 NASCAR premier series races and half a dozen top 10 finishes.

During her career, Janet faced tremendous resistance and backlash from people who were opposed to the idea of having a woman on the track. She was greeted on the speedway by chants of “No Tits in the Pits.” She was insulted by other drivers and harassed by the staff. Even the man who invited her to race on his team told her “You will never be a winning driver, because no one will ever give you a winning car, because you are a woman.” Still, Janet persevered and eventually, her clean races and tremendous skill proved enough to silence her critics and pave the way for other female racers like Danica Patrick – whose deserved success might not have been possible were it not for the bravery and perseverance of Janet Guthrie.

It is a matter of spirit, not strength. It is a matter of doing your best each little moment. There’s never a break. You must have desire, a very intense desire to keep going.

Since retiring from racing, Janet has been busy. She’s written a memoir, Janet Guthrie: Life at Full Throttle, and been inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Her helmet and driver’s suit have been put on display at the Smithsonian and earlier this year, she was honored with NASCAR’s Landmark award. Even though it’s been almost forty years since made her debut at the Indy 500, her impact on the sport still looms large.

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Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.

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