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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Best of Mike Neff: Spending Time With 1 of NASCAR’s Pioneers

Editor’s Note: This column originally ran on May 12th, 2006. Like what you’re reading? Look for Mike’s original commentary every Tuesday this season with Full Throttle, moving to its new date effective February 6th.

During the Busch Series test at Charlotte on Tuesday, there was a press conference to celebrate a special anniversary. This year is the 30th anniversary of one of the first woman drivers in NASCAR, Janet Guthrie, participating in the World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600). Guthrie was in attendance, and took a couple of laps around the track to help commemorate the occasion.

I wouldn’t say I was a Guthrie fan. I grew up an IndyCar fan, and I saw Ms. Guthrie run in the Indianapolis 500. I knew she had run some stock car races, but I didn’t know the circumstances around her first foray into the sport. My eyes were opened to the entire story during the press conference.

Guthrie first attempted to make the Indianapolis 500 in 1976. She didn’t make the race until 1977. After failing to qualify for the 500 in ’76, she didn’t have anything to do, so she was planning on hanging around Indy. Bruton Smith, the consummate promoter, saw a prime opportunity to fill the seats in Charlotte for his upcoming NASCAR race at the end of May. Bruton admitted during the conference that he was motivated by jealousy at the time. He was jealous of the amount of press coverage that Tony Hulman’s race was receiving simply by having Guthrie there attempting to make the race. When he discovered she failed to qualify, he immediately purchased a car and sent some of his employees, headed by Max Mulliman, to Indianapolis with the instructions to not come back unless Guthrie was with them. After some persuasion and realizing she wasn’t really going to have anything to do at Indy, Guthrie consented to come to Charlotte.

Smith moved the ownership of the car through several corporations to avoid himself being linked to the car. It eventually was registered to Linda Ferreri, a banking executive in the Charlotte area with extensive PR credentials. Bruton hired Ralph Moody, the legendary car builder, to put together a crew and make the car ready to race. The car was relatively new. It had only been run at Daytona early that year by AJ Foyt, and retired early with electrical problems. In the meantime, Smith had his people hold the hand of Ferreri to get her through the process of acquiring a NASCAR license because she was completely naive to the sport.

Guthrie arrived in Charlotte before the car and was able to run some practice laps in another competitor’s car to gain some experience. Her times in that car were more than competitive enough to make the field. When her car arrived, Guthrie was considerably slower. The newly formed team was definitely struggling to find speed. Enter Junior Johnson.

Junior was the car owner for Cale Yarborough. Junior’s team was the premier team in the series at the time, and Cale was in the midst of his first championship run. Johnson didn’t want to see anyone on the track that might be a danger to themselves or others. As he had done in the past and did in the future, Johnson talked to Moody and had his (Junior’s) team give their setup to the fledgling team to help make them competitive.

Guthrie was immediately faster. She ended up qualifying 15th for the race. Interestingly, she started the row behind Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Contrary to the beliefs of many of the drivers and media, Guthrie was able to complete the entire 600-mile distance. She was able to run in the top 10 for part of the race and finished in 15th position.

30 years later, Guthrie still looks like she could climb behind the wheel of a 3,400-pound stock car and compete. She wasn’t the first woman in NASCAR, but she was the first one to compete on a superspeedway. She admitted that NASCAR was actually slightly more accepting, albeit far from inviting, of her competing in the series than the IndyCar series was. But she said the Indy drivers eventually were more receptive to her once she proved herself in competition.

Janet surprised me when she said that one of the most vocal opponents to her participation in that first race was Richard Petty. Some three decades later, it seems those sentiments still touch a nerve. That said, there is no doubt that Guthrie was a true pioneer for women competing at the highest level of motorsports. Lynn St. James, Sarah Fisher, Erin Crocker, Danica Patrick and others all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ms. Guthrie for the effort she put forth back in 1976. Janet wishes there were more women involved in motorsports, but she is very proud of the women who are competing and those who are trying to break into the big leagues of motor racing.

Personally, during the whole experience I felt that it was an honor to be in the company of such a compassionate legend. Having looked through the fence into Gasoline Alley back in ’76 and watched her exploits in an Indy car all those years ago, I knew she was special, and from then to now, nothing has changed. When you watch the races from Charlotte and Indy over the next few weeks, and you see the women who are competing, remember that it was the courage of a physicist some 30 years ago that paved the way for them to compete today.