Excerpts from my autobiography

H O M E  Biography  Career Highlights  Quotes From Her Peers  NASCAR  Book Excerpts  Contact Us

“Janet Guthrie:
A Life at Full Throttle”

(Sport Classic Books, May 2005)


Janet Guthrie’s own account of her
racing adventures

is available online at Amazon.com.
for autographed copies, click on
"Contact Us" at top.



All material in this "Book Excerpts" section is protected by Copyright © 2002, 2005
Janet Guthrie, used with permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.

INDIANAPOLIS 500, 1977. May 7, the opening day of practice.

...back on the track, the engine now behaved as it should. The real work could start. I cranked it on, started feeling my way around the Speedway for the first time since last year. All seemed well with the engine. The handling was something else. In a couple of laps, I pitted.

"It's darting," I said. The slightest change in pressure on the steering wheel altered the car's direction of travel more radically than I intended. "If this were my taxicab," (that was the Indianapolis expression for the big Chevrolet I had been racing at Daytona and Talladega) "I would associate the problem with a soft front sway bar."

"No," Dick said, "that can't be it." We mulled it over, sniffing around the front end. It wasn't long before he spotted the cause. "Look at this!" he said. Two pieces were missing from the front spring assemblies. They hauled the Lightning back to the garage and fixed it, returning it to the pits within three quarters of an hour.

The car was now a different animal, lively and responsive. In three or four laps I was at 181 mph. Then suddenly the engine went soft and sluggish, a dramatic loss of power.

Now what?

I killed the switches, simultaneously hitting the clutch, and flipped it out of gear. Searching the mirrors for smoke or an oil trail, I saw nothing. Offenhausers rarely left an unseemly drooling of slippery fluids in the path of traffic behind. With no reason to pull off the racing surface, I could coast nearly two miles.

As I pulled the car down toward the inside of the track in Turns 1 and 2, the relative calm of a dead engine unmasked a faint improper noise that seemed to come from the right front. Was it just the sound of air rushing past at well over a hundred miles an hour, or was it something else? I undid my belts and hitched up and out to hear it better; played with the brakes, which cut the speed to eighty or so, and concluded the source was a wheel bearing. That bearing hasn't disintegrated, I thought, but we had better take a look at it.

The track went yellow--the caution lights came on--as I coasted to a stop on the inside of the back straight. Emergency crews arrived. They tossed me the end of a rope attached to the wrecker. I passed it around the roll bar a couple of turns, gripped the loose end, and gave them a thumb up. They hauled the Lightning around to the pits.

When our guys looked it over, relief! It wasn't a catastrophic failure. A clamp had come off a hose on the intake log, and was easily replaced. It was nearly the end of the day; the track would close at six. We had just a few minutes left.

"You know," Rolla said, "you're only a couple of miles an hour off fastest time of the day."

"Yeah?" My heart leaped. "Let's go!"

Although careful not to say so, even to myself, I knew that mark was ours for the taking. And that's the way it was, at 185.605 mph. Danny Ongais was nearly three miles an hour slower in a Cosworth-engined Parnelli, Wally Dallenbach third in George Bignotti's Wildcat-Offy. Those were teams that operated with five or ten times the budget that Rolla Vollstedt had.

What cheer, what great good cheer!

We didn't make a fuss about it there in the pits. We still had a long month ahead of us, and plenty of competition. Eighty-five cars were entered in the 500 this year, the second-largest entry in history, and only the fastest thirty-three would start the race. In the privacy of Vollstedt's garages, though, we could loosen up a bit. Hugs all around; the guys grinning and punching each other on the shoulder; Rolla's blue eyes sparkling.

"Well, Guthrie," he said, "that ought to get their attention."

Indeed. Just a year earlier, the preponderance of racing opinion stated firmly and passionately that no woman could possibly handle a 750-horsepower, 200-plus mph Indianapolis 500 Championship race car. Rolla Vollstedt, a respected team owner and long-time car builder in United States Auto Club racing, had flown in the face of sixty-five years of tradition when he announced his intention of bringing a woman driver to the Indianapolis 500. There must surely have been moments when he regretted it.

The resulting heat was blistering. Established drivers complained loudly, publicly, and at length. "Women don't have the strength, women don't have the endurance, women don't have the emotional stability, women are going to endanger our lives." The records of women in European auto racing, stretching back to the nineteenth century, and those of American women sports car racers might as well not have existed, for all the roundy-round boys cared. My own thirteen years of experience on the road-racing circuits, my Two-Liter Prototype class win at the Sebring 12-Hour, my North Atlantic Road Racing Championship seemed to count for nothing in the world of oval-track racing. Tradition was all, and tradition said that women, peanuts and the color green were not allowed.

Just a few years earlier, women had not even been allowed in the press box at Indianapolis, much less the garage area or the pits. A woman might be a reporter, a photographer, a timer/scorer, she might own the race car--but she couldn't get near it at any time for any reason. A woman on the track itself was unthinkable.



At the beginning of 1963, after two seasons of running gymkhanas and hillclimbs in my 1953 Jaguar XK 120 coupe, I acquired a 1956 Jaguar XK 140 roadster and began racing in the Sports Car Club of America. By the end of the season, its engine (purchased from a wreck) clearly needed rebuilding.

On a cold brilliant day in February, when the flat farm fields of central Long Island were covered with snow that squeaked underfoot, I tackled the Jaguar again. The barn that sheltered it had neither heat nor electricity, and I was still using flat wrenches. It took a flashlight to get them solidly around the deeper nuts and bolts.

Getting an engine ready to pull without a ratchet wrench, sockets, and extensions is something like cutting up a chicken with fingernail scissors: it's an exercise in frustration, although it can be done. I had the benefit of ignorance; I didn't know that the project was entirely unreasonable...

It took two months for me to tear the engine apart, down to the last nut and bolt, and rebuild it. A 1956 Ford station wagon ($95) replaced the old Buick tow car, as engine assembly progressed. The Ford had room for the engine block, crankshaft, rods, pistons, and myself, if I knelt or sat cross-legged. I borrowed tools here and there: a torque wrench from the gas station across the street, a piston-ring compresser from another Republic engineer. The oil pump got intensive scrutiny, as the clear suspect for the most recent failure. Nearly every page of the shop manual bore my blackened fingerprints.

There was so much to learn! How to lap in valves, and what a properly lapped valve seat looked like when it was done, and how to check it for the slightest trace of leakage. How to check the clearances of the new lead-indium bearings, by laying a thin strip of Plastigauge on the crankshaft journals, tightening the bearing cap bolts to the right number of foot-pounds, then undoing the assembly to examine the width of the crushed strips. And on and on.

It was enjoyable, in a way, to explore the geography of a whole new world, to feel in my hands the shape and heft of each carefully machined component of my engine-to-be. Had I had the money to engage a competent mechanic, though, I'd never have started the job. Some of my friends figured I'd never finish it.

Besides the engine, the car needed bodywork. The Jag's motheaten look was due in part to old fender damage that the previous owner had knocked out roughly with a hammer, then painted with a brush. A bright shiny appearance ought to go with the new engine.

I did the bodywork in the rented barn--hours of puttying and sanding, to smooth out the Jag's voluptuous fender curves. But a fine coat of paint required spray apparatus, and that meant the use of an air compressor. I started asking around...

...by Sunday night, the Jaguar was an elegant shade of blue. So were my fingernails and eyelashes. I was truly proud of the results; there was only one little run on the whole car, and no orange-peel texture anywhere. It looked beautiful. With a light heart, I picked out a blue dress to go with my eyelashes and the streaks in my hair, and went blithely off to a party at Tom's big house in Lloyd Harbor. He and friends rented it from humorist-poet Ogden Nash, whose memorabilia were everywhere, and we spent the evening giggling through framed verse that hung on all the walls...

...May wore on, and the pressure grew as my engine neared completion. Ralph Farnham had once crewed for a driver at the Indianapolis 500, and he started to take an interest. When I finished assembling the engine, he helped me drag it out of my station wagon and drop it into the Jaguar. It was a fine fair Saturday when I spun up my engine for the very first time.

There was no oil pressure.

I took out the spark plugs, hitched the Jag to the Ford, and towed it up and down New Street in gear. That brought the rpm's all the way up to 4000, much faster than the starter would turn the engine over. There was still no oil pressure.

At dusk, my tail between my legs, I went home to fix dinner for Tom, who was due back from his first race in his newly-built Sprite. He never showed up, nor called. I checked with his roommates; they hadn't heard from him, either.

By ten in the morning there was still no word from Tom, and I could think of no way to find him. In Oceanside, Ralph and I checked the oil lines for crimps and blockages. I pulled the filter assembly and checked the pressure relief valve, changing filters as well. Ralph found adapters while I removed the oil pressure gauge, and we checked that with calibrated air pressure.

Nothing explained the problem.

How could I have done something so drastically wrong in assembling this, the first engine I'd ever built?...

...Monday morning early, I hauled the Jaguar to a shop where two British mechanics specialized in XK's. If anyone could figure out why there was no oil pressure, it would be they.

By Wednesday they had given up.

Thursday passed. Friday. Saturday. Sunday. Monday. I read and re-read the shop manual, asked questions of every mechanic I knew.

On Tuesday after work, I took the Jag back to the British shop and put it up on their lift, drained its twelve quarts of oil. A plethora of little bolts held the pan in place. The cost of oil and pan gaskets was mounting up. As I undid the bolts and pulled the oil pan down for the fifth time, my frustration teetered toward despair.

It was a mild sunny evening in early June. Golden light slanted through the surrounding woods, deep green now that summer was truly under way. Tom would be sipping a martini about now, I thought wistfully, on the flagstone terrace by the apple trees, a few miles away.

I carried the oil pan outside and set it down on the white gravel drive. Bees hummed toward the nearby wildflowers, and clustered at the sparkling spillage of a leaky faucet. I stared glumly at the pan--and suddenly, there was the answer, as if I had been blind. Without visible dents or scratches, the bottom of the pan had been uniformly pushed up, subtly distorted, so that when the pan was fitted to the engine the oil pump intake sat in a blind alley amid the baffling. It must have happened when that XK 140 coupe was wrecked. The pump couldn't possibly suck up any oil!

Quickly, a pan from my old, blown engine; bring the car down off the lift, start it, and there's oil pressure!

I whooped and skipped like an Indian...

...Driving the Jaguar to work put easy break-in time on its engine. At day's end, I pointed its long nose east and north among Long Island's great estates. The Jaguar purred gently through green meadows and shadowy woods toward Planting Fields, where hundreds of rhododendrons neared their peak of bloom. In the late spring dusk, masses of flowers glowed lavender to cream to crimson under the pines. Far away, out over Long Island Sound, a summer thunderstorm rumbled south.

In two days, other thunder would fill my ears: the urgent, exuberant roar of sports cars at speed. The Jaguar was ready. So on this peaceful evening, as the little racing windscreen brushed back a bug or two, I was most peacefully content.

Copyright © 2002 Janet Guthrie, used with permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.