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'Qualified' Documents Indy 500 Trailblazer Janet Guthrie's Roadblocks In Male-Dominated Sport

DON GONYEA, HOST:

It is among the most macho of American sports - and that's saying something - but racecar driving is dominated by the legends of men like Mario Andretti and Dale Earnhardt. But one woman, Janet Guthrie, broke down barriers in racing. She was the first woman to qualify for racing's most famed event - the Indy 500. Her story is the subject of a new documentary on ESPN called "Qualified." It's part of the network's 30 For 30 series.

I spoke with Guthrie and the film's director, Jenna Ricker, about the difficulties women faced in racing during the 1960s and '70s. Guthrie began by telling me about Tony Hulman, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He's the guy who came up with that famous line - gentlemen, start your engines.

JANET GUTHRIE: Tony Hulman, who had rescued Indianapolis Motor Speedway from oblivion after the Second World War, said that he was going to go ahead and say, gentlemen, start your engines - because the mechanics started the engines. Well, Kay Bignotti, who was married to master mechanic George Bignotti, came to me and said, we can't let Tony get away with this. She said, I have a USEC mechanic's license. I'll start your engine. So that made Tony change his tune. And what he said in the end was, in company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines.

GONYEA: Jenna, that moment in the film?

JENNA RICKER: Yeah. No, that was a really nice thing. You know, it's funny. In the journey of working on this project, I remember being annoyed the first time I heard him saying company with the first lady ever. You know, I thought, oh, come on. Why don't you just say it? And then as the project grew and as the film was reaching completion, when it got to that part, I would always well up a little bit because I thought, yeah, damn straight in company with the first woman, you know. And so it was an interesting progression for me around that whole statement.

And you kind of laugh today thinking, God, what was the problem? But it was, it was a big deal to have to change the call of the race, to have to admit a woman on the field. I mean, only a few years prior to Janet coming to Indianapolis, I mean, women weren't allowed in the pit area. And it was a sports writer along with a couple of other writers who sued the track to get access to do their job. So she definitely broke ground.

GONYEA: You did an interview that we see in the film with Howard Cosell. He was one of the biggest names in sports journalism at the time, maybe the biggest name. He asked a tough question of you about sponsorship. You gave him a direct answer. Let's listen to that clip on our show.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "QUALIFIED")

HOWARD COSELL: Why don't you tell us, Janet, why you're not at Indy right now?

GUTHRIE: Well, a matter of funding, Howard. Funding has always been a problem for me and for other women.

COSELL: And you're saying that it's a sexist sport.

GUTHRIE: I think that would not be an unfair statement. I can win races. I proved it at the lower level of the sport in cars I built and funded myself. I can also do it at the top if I get the chance.

COSELL: You want to continue driving.

GUTHRIE: Darn right I do.

GONYEA: You can hear the edge in your voice in that interview.

GUTHRIE: Yes. I was just thinking that it had become pretty clear that I wasn't going to get the funding to continue, and I was darned unhappy about it.

GONYEA: Jenna, tell us about that moment. We're actually near the end of the film there, and we've, to this point, seeing the story of this pioneering woman racecar driver and all she's accomplished. But we're also getting this very real sense of resignation that the barriers aren't really coming down.

RICKER: Yeah. It was a very powerful interview. And at that point, she, you know, without giving much away, she finishes the Indianapolis 500 - her second Indianapolis 500 - in the Top 10 with a car she'd only had a month to work with and a team that she pulled together in a month's time. It's insane. It's the kind of stuff that, you know, proves her capability. And yet she's coming up to this moment. And I just think that in that interview, there's such an honesty in Janet and the frustration in her that, you know, is pointing out the fact that it is coming down to my gender, and if that means I'm in trouble for saying it, then so be it. But let's not beat around the bush anymore.

GONYEA: And, Janet, your career came to an end shortly after that - officially - with your retirement.

GUTHRIE: Well, by 1983, I decided that if I continued spending every living moment looking for a sponsorship to continue at the top levels, I was going to be jumping out of a high window. So I turned my attention to writing my book, and I moved to the mountains of Colorado to do that. And the book was published in 2005 to - if I do say so myself - considerable acclaim. Sports Illustrated called it an uplifting work that is one of the best books ever written about racing.

GONYEA: If you look back, what do you see as your best moment?

GUTHRIE: Well, that's a tough one. Putting a car in the Indianapolis 500 for the very first time, especially back in the '70s when there'd be 80, 90 cars entered and only the fastest 33 in qualifying would start the race. When you finally do that, it's a moment you'll never in your life forget. But the following year, when I formed a team myself at the very last moment and ended up with a Top 10 finish, that was a very good moment also.

GONYEA: Jenna, I want to ask you the same question about Janet. What do you think her best moment has been in this life?

RICKER: From a storytelling perspective, as a storyteller, when she has to pull together her own team in 1978 at the last minute and with a month to go, all of these people get behind finding a way to help her succeed, from George Bignotti helping with the car, her crew members Jim Lindholm (ph) and Kenny Ozawa and the other guys that came up from NASCAR.

When you see that there is these people that believe in what she believes and get behind it, it's really stunning. And it's a beautiful moment in her life that, to witness it in archive and to see her come across that finish line with a broken wrist, with everything she's put into it, she says in the film, you know, I felt on top of the world. And I feel like that's one of those moments where every time I feel on top of the world watching her do that.

GONYEA: Janet Guthrie is the first woman ever to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and for the NASCAR Daytona 500. We also spoke with director of the new documentary about her, Jenna Ricker. Thanks so much to you both.

RICKER: Thank you.

GUTHRIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.