Four Women Getting Behind The Wheel At Indy 500

A record four female drivers will compete in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. Melissa Block speaks with Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in the Indy 500 and NASCAR, about women and racing.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

When the Indianapolis 500 is run this Sunday, there will be four women among the 33 drivers, and that's a record. Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher of the U.S. will be in the field along with Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland,and Ana Beatriz of Brazil.

Well, no one knows more about how this sport has changed for women than Janet Guthrie. She was the first woman to race at Indy, back in 1977. And Janet Guthrie joins us now from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Janet, welcome to the program.

Ms. JANET GUTHRIE (Professional Racer): Melissa, good to be here.

BLOCK: Let's talk about your history with racing. You broke the men-only barrier more than 30 years ago. How does it feel, knowing that there are going to be four women racing at Indy on Sunday?

Ms. GUTHRIE: Well, I'm really delighted. I said at the time that I would be happy when all the fuss died down and I was regarded as just another driver. And that seems to have happened. When I was driving here, had I looked out the garage door, there would have been a 10-deep layer of cameramen and photographers and reporters. And this is just sort of like a normal Carburetion Day here.

BLOCK: Along with all the publicity that you're talking about, what was the attitude towards you, as a woman driver, back in the late '70s - from other racers, say?

Ms. GUTHRIE: Well, by the time I made the field here at Indianapolis, I had been running in Indy car races for the better part of a year. And I - among the drivers, the attitude had changed completely.

BLOCK: So you didn't get a hard time?

Ms. GUTHRIE: Not by '77, I didn't. No. In '76 - was a different question.

BLOCK: Ah. Tell us about that.

Ms. GUTHRIE: Well, in '76, the oval track drivers have never had the experience of running against a woman, and they were sure they weren't going to like it. And they were not shy about making those opinions known. The general idea was women don't have the strength, the endurance, the emotional stability. Women are going to endanger our lives. And you could read that on the newspapers most every day. So, it was a great relief to see that change completely.

BLOCK: How did you confront those opinions you were hearing from men, about how women were not suited to racing? How do you handle that?

Ms. GUTHRIE: The only way to deal with that was on the racetrack. There was no other way to do it. The guys just had to get the experience of driving against me and then, as I say, things changed. You could call it cognitive dissonance. If the guys were saying this driver is a female and therefore, she is no good, and then the no-good driver blows your doors off, you have to change your position a little.

BLOCK: I guess so. I guess that would show you right there. When you think back to 1977, when you broke the gender barrier, would you have thought back then that there would be a time - of course, it has taken 30 years - that there would be four women in the field of 33 racing at Indianapolis?

Ms. GUTHRIE: Well, I thought it might take two generations, but it's really only taken a generation and a half. So in a way, I am surprised, yes.

BLOCK: Well Janet Guthrie, you are standing in the garage - I gather - of one of the racers. This is the the Swiss racer Simona de Silvestro. I wonder if you would mind passing the phone to her?

Ms. GUTHRIE: I'd be delighted. And thank you so much, Melissa.

BLOCK: Great. Thanks for talking to us.

Ms. SIMONA DE SILVESTRO (Professional Racer): Hello?

BLOCK: Hi, is that Simona?

Ms. DE SILVESTRO: Yes, that's me.

BLOCK: Well, tell me how you feel going into the race on Sunday.

Ms. DE SILVESTRO: You know, it's just an unbelievable feeling, you know, to have qualified for the field here in Indy. And you know, I don't know, it's just like a crazy place. You know, the 500 is something really special. I think every driver kind of dreams about it. And to be part of the 33 drivers, to be a part here in the 2010 edition, is something really special.

BLOCK: Do you think attitudes have really changed about women racers since Janet Guthrie was racing back in the '70s?

Ms. DE SILVESTRO: Yeah, for sure. You know, I've heard that before Janet, like, a woman couldn't go into the pit lane and now, I think it has changed. You know, a lot of people actually are really accepting us.

And I think if a woman, you know, can have good results and win races, I think we're going to be accepted out here and, you know, I think a lot of fans are appreciating that this year, there's four women who qualified in the 500.

BLOCK: Well, Simona de Silvestro, good luck on Sunday.

Ms. DE SILVESTRO: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland. She'll make her debut in the Indy 500 on Sunday. I also spoke with Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race at Indy, in 1977.

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