'Qualified' Tells The Amazing Rise & Stall Of Indy 500 Racer Janet Guthrie

Jan 8, 2020

The Indianapolis 500 is one of the world’s most famous races. Thirty-three of the fastest drivers of open-wheel cars partake in the ultimate competition — and no drivers are guaranteed spots. Since 1911, drivers earn their starting place based on the order of qualifying time. 

It’s obvious when you look at the drivers on the track that this sport is still dominated by men. But one woman who made racing history is Janet Guthrie.

In 1977, 39-year-old Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indy 500. She was also the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500. During the era of the battle of the sexes, Guthrie’s path to qualifying was not an easy one. Surviving race to race was often the case as Guthrie and her racing team dealt with mechanical issues, the struggle for sponsorships, and public contempt.

Her legacy isn't widely known today, and her quick rise met an equally quick career stall. However, filmmaker Jenna Ricker's first documentary, Qualified, is helping share Guthrie’s story. It tells Guthrie's story both with archival footage and interviews (with her crew and the racer herself).

"What’s interesting about [Guthrie] is that the person you meet today feels very much like the person you meet in archive," says Ricker. "She still feels like, 'Look, all I want to do is race cars, everything else was secondary.' "

Ricker became an instant fan of the Indy 500 after going to her first race about 10 years ago. "I was blown away by the spectacle of it, the endurance of it, the crowds that were there," she recalls.

When Ricker later returned to the Indy 500 she wondered who the first woman to compete in this race was, and then started her journey of researching Guthrie. Ricker cold-called Guthrie to ask if she'd be willing to be featured in a documentary. With ESPN's approval, Qualified was off to the races.

"We had a lot [of material] to choose from, and then Janet had her own personal films and her brother had films that he would follow around the track, so it was a goldmine," notes Ricker.

The sport of racing has changed dramatically since Guthrie was competing. Drivers were responsible for finding, and in many cases building, their own cars, making a crew, and getting sponsorhips. Oftentimes, drivers were at the mercy of mechanics, and not all cars on the track were of equal caliber. Fortunately for Guthrie, her background as an aerospace engineer was an advantage.

"What was really fun was to hear from the people who worked with her who were chief mechanics who would say that they never worked with a driver that had the kind of awareness and ear for the car," says Ricker.

Janet Guthrie began racing in 1963 on the Sports Car Club of America circuit. She was racing full-time by 1972.
Credit Estate of Betty Lane

Guthrie was a reluctant feminist according to Ricker. During her racing days, she only wanted to get the best times and let her driving speak for itself.

"First of all, she didn't understand what the issue was, but then she came to realize, 'Oh, this is something I should embrace. I should use this as an example for other women and I should appreciate that that's what it is.' So, it's kind of great to see her arc in that way ... of embracing it," says Ricker.

Despite her monumental achievements, fellow male racers and racing fans did not largely support Guthrie. And despite racer's fears that she would get more sponsorship money to elevate her story, the opposite happened.

"[Janet Guthrie] was going to do it no matter what ... I think that's the difference between champions or people who are that determined, and the rest of us."

"It did hurt her, she did go back and kick tires and probably wipe a few tears away. But she was going to do it no matter what ... I think that's the difference between champions, or people who are that determined, and the rest of us," notes Ricker.

Guthrie did her best race to race, and even went back to finish ninth in the 1978 the Indy 500. But no matter how well she raced, the sponsorships didn't come so she couldn't afford to race.

Janet Guthrie took an unprecedented attempt to leap from sports car racing to the top levels of motor-sport.
Credit ESPN Films

"Look, she's not happy with how things turned out — and rightly so," says Ricker. "And I kind of love that about her. I love that she wasn't like, 'Well, in hindsight ... ' There is no correct hindsight. She got the shaft."

Ricker notes that racing today is still in the same place when it comes to female drivers.

"We're still dealing with one race a year for some of these women who are incredibly talented, who've proven they can be out there. And the sponsorship still isn't there," she says.

But despite Guthrie's stalled career, Ricker says getting to know her while making Qualified shows that the same grit is present.

"What struck me is [Guthrie] has this quality, like a desire to have fun, a lightness to her," she says. "Even as smart as she is and as thoughtful as she is, there's still this little kind of twinkle in her eye about stuff, and it was fun to see that."

You can watch the ESPN 30 for 30 series documentary Qualified on ESPN+ and Disney+.