Commentary

Patrick's victory a proud moment for pioneer Janet Guthrie

Struggling for acceptance was a way of life for racing pioneer Janet Guthrie. The 70-year-old likely had the talent to be the first woman to win in NASCAR or IndyCar, but that honor went to Danica Patrick. And Guthrie couldn't be prouder, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: April 20, 2008, 7:58 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

When Danica Patrick crossed the finish line at Twin Ring Motegi, two thoughts immediately popped into my brain.

  1. Thank heavens she won't have to answer any more Anna Kournikova questions.
  2. I wonder if Janet Guthrie is watching.

"I haven't seen it yet," the groundbreaking Guthrie said from her home in Colorado on Sunday afternoon. "But I am very excited to watch it this evening."

Like the rest of America, Guthrie wasn't able to keep up with the rain-delayed television schedule of the Honda 300, but the news of Patrick's win brought a smile to the 70-year-old former racer's face. Why? Because the victory belongs as much to her as it does to the young woman celebrating halfway around the world.

"This was the next step," she said with more than a little pride shining through the phone line. "The last argument remaining was, 'Well, a woman has never won a race.' They can no longer use that excuse."

Danica's chance to stand in Victory Lane and steal the headlines from the NBA playoffs came tucked into the draft behind Guthrie's lifetime of hard work. An uphill battle that withstood decades of verbal abuse from Indianapolis to Daytona and survived roadblocks from a Hall of Fame roster of racing legends, not to mention hundreds of nameless chauvinist grease monkeys.

Forty-five years before Danica's big day, Guthrie was already doing battle with the Ol' Boys Club of the sports car paddock.

Her aeronautical engineering career and even her pilot's license hadn't been enough to feed her speed cravings, so she bought a secondhand Jaguar XK 120. That led to racing, which led to an amateur stab at sports cars, and eventually a full-time racing career.

In 1976, she ran the World 600 in Charlotte, N.C., becoming the first woman to run a NASCAR speedway event, and one year later she became the first female to crack the Indy 500 field. Along the way, she was called every derogatory term man has devised to describe women and was forced to read newspapers packed with insults from the likes of Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Richard Petty, and well, pretty much everyone else.

[+] EnlargeJanet Guthrie -- shown here preparing for the 1976 Firecracker 400 at Daytona -- knows a thing or two about competing at the highest level.
AP Photo/MFJanet Guthrie -- shown here preparing for the 1976 Firecracker 400 at Daytona -- knows a thing or two about competing at the highest level.

In other words, a racing life as far from Danica Mania as one can imagine. No big sponsorship, no TV commercials and certainly no spreads in the SI swimsuit issue or FHM (moves that still don't sit so well with Guthrie and Title IX sports pioneers of the 1970s). And there were certainly no chances to land a ride that came with a realistic shot to win races.

But less than 24 hours after Patrick's victory, there was no bitterness from her predecessor or mention of past tensions, but rather an elated wish of congratulations … and maybe a tiny touch of smiling jealousy.

"I am a racer and I do have a racer's ego," Guthrie said with a knowing laugh. "So of course I believe that if given the chance to drive for a team as great as hers is [Andretti Green Racing], then I would have been the one that got the first win. There have been numerous women over the last 30 years with the talent to win races but were never put in a position to prove it. She has gotten that opportunity and she has certainly made the most of it."

She also understands that Patrick certainly has it easier than she did, but doesn't exactly have it easy.

"I go around and fish the blogs when I get a chance," Guthrie said, "and even after she started having success, I was so surprised to see all the naysayers, even though she was obviously more than capable. Now that's taken care of."

Meanwhile, Guthrie continues to scout and track young women who may become the next Janet or Danica.

She has long been a staunch supporter of Sarah Fisher, who will return to Indy in May, and has her eye on 23-year-old Indy Pro Series racer Ana Beatriz. She is also a huge fan of Ashley Force, who took over the NHRA Funny Car points lead the weekend prior to Patrick's victory.

"It has been a good week," Guthrie said.

When Janet Guthrie first strode into Indy's Gasoline Alley in 1976, women weren't allowed to be in the pits, including wives. Now there might be three women racing the IndyCar Series full-time by season's end.

"In the end, it didn't matter who made it to Victory Lane first," she said. "It matters only that someone now has. I am thrilled for her and I am thrilled for the young women who will benefit from what Danica has done."

But only because Danica benefited from what Janet did first.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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