Janet Guthrie, 'First Lady' of the Indy 500 This weekend's Indianapolis 500 boasts only the fourth woman ever to qualify for the legendary race. Steve Inskeep talks with Janet Guthrie, the first woman to break the gender barrier at Indianapolis. Her new book is Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle.

Janet Guthrie, 'First Lady' of the Indy 500

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`Gentlemen, start your engines.' That's the call at the opening of the Indianapolis 500. At least it was until 1977.

(Soundbite of 1977 Indianapolis 500)

Mr. TONY HULMAN (Track Owner): In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines.

MONTAGNE: The first lady at the Indy 500 was Janet Guthrie. Since then, only three women have qualified, including one in this weekend's race. Steve Inskeep spoke with racing pioneer Janet Guthrie.


Twenty-eight years after her historic race, Janet Guthrie joins us now to talk about her career and this Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

Janet Guthrie, good morning.

Ms. JANET GUTHRIE (First Woman Driver in Indy 500): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we played that piece of tape of the way they started the race because it underlines what a big change that was for auto racing. They even had to negotiate over what they were going to say at the start of the race.

Ms. GUTHRIE: That's true. That was the late, great Tony Hulman starting the race, he owned the track. And Tony said that he was going to go ahead and say, `Gentlemen, start your engines,' because, he said, the mechanics start the engines. Well, frankly, I couldn't have cared less what they said as long as mine was one of the engines that started.

Anyway, Kay Bignotti came to me and said, `We can't let Tony get away with this.' Kay was the daughter of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Louie Meyer. `I have a mechanic's license,' she said. `I've been around these cars all my life. I'll start your engine.'

INSKEEP: Well, now there's qualification for the race. You have to do a number of laps, get the best speed you can. What's it like to be the only car out there on the track--and especially knowing that you're trying to make history by qualifying for the race?

Ms. GUTHRIE: Probably the longest three minutes you'll ever spend in your life are qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Everything has to be right: the focus, the concentration. You must have reached the appropriate frame of mind, generated just the right quantity of all those mysterious biochemicals that enable you to do something that's basically impossible.

INSKEEP: On top of all the other pressure, the pressure of trying to become the first woman must have been great. I mean, you must have known that if you failed even to make the field, that would have been quite an embarrassment.

Ms. GUTHRIE: I would indeed have been an embarrassment. And during the course of the week, when we were struggling with an unpredictable car and not getting anything like the speed we needed out of it, there was some very, very low moments. But by Sunday morning, we finally had the car back in shape again, and I knew I had the speed. The question was simply: Would the engine last through the four laps?

INSKEEP: And you lasted?

Ms. GUTHRIE: Yes, it did. I must say that when I came out of turn four at the end of the fourth lap and nothing was left but that run down the straightaway to the checkered flag, I was holding my breath because I had stolen one more look at the oil pressure gauge and it was flat, zero. And had the engine blown between there and the starting line, that was it. I wouldn't be in the field because there was only one chance to take the checkered flag at the end of the qualifying round. But we made it. It was a great moment.

INSKEEP: As we prepare for this weekend in which Danica Patrick is going to be part of the Indianapolis 500 field, what do you think of her chances?

Ms. GUTHRIE: I think Danica's chances at Indianapolis this year are very good. She has one of the fastest cars in the field. She's backed by a winning team, and Danica has the talent and the determination so I think she'll do very well.

INSKEEP: Janet Guthrie is the author of "Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle."

Thanks very much.

Ms. GUTHRIE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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