On this day in 1938, Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 races, is born in Iowa City, Iowa.
Guthrie was raised in Florida and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a degree in physics. After college, she worked as an aerospace engineer; however, by the early 1970s, her interest in sports car racing led her to devote herself full-time to the sport. In 1976, she was the first woman to compete in a National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup superspeedway race. The following year, she broke the gender barrier again, becoming the first female driver in the Daytona 500, where she finished in 12th place and earned Top Rookie honors. Known today as the “Super Bowl of stock car racing,” the 200-lap, 500-race first was held in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1959.
Also in 1977, Guthrie became the first female driver ever to qualify for and compete in the famed Indianapolis 500. Considered one of auto racing’s premier events, the Indy 500 was first held in 1911. Unfortunately for Guthrie, she was forced to drop out of her first Indy 500 on lap 27 due to mechanical problems. However, she earned Rookie of the Year honors and in 1978 was back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where she finished the 500-mile race in ninth place. Guthrie’s record stood among female drivers until 2005, when Danica Patrick came in fourth place at the 89th Indy 500.
Guthrie drove in her final Indy 500 in 1979 and her last Daytona 500 in 1980. In 1983, a lack of sponsors forced her to quit the male-dominated world of auto racing. In 2005, her autobiography, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle,” was published and the following year she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Today, her helmet and driver’s suit are in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.