Guthrie: Few dents in macho world

Only female qualifier at Daytona says racing remains largely closed

February 12, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Twenty-five years have passed since Janet Guthrie became the first - and, to this point, only - woman to qualify for the Daytona 500. This week, Shawna Robinson will attempt to become the second.

As Guthrie thought about the racing scene from her home in Aspen, Colo., she said she doesn't see that much has changed over the past quarter-century.

The number of female drivers in major-league racing is still sparse. Major sponsors still refuse to commit to a team with a female driver, and, in the case of stock-car racing, Guthrie said, NASCAR is making no effort to help qualified women find a sponsor.

"What I'd tell Shawna, if I could, is that NASCAR is not her friend any more than they were mine," Guthrie said. "NASCAR doesn't want the image of its sport downgraded. It's a dangerous, macho, male-dominated sport. If a woman can do it, anyone can."

When Guthrie, now 63, joined the Winston Cup circuit in 1977, she was greeted with suspicion and criticism.

Even when she made breakthroughs - she was the top-finishing rookie (12th) in the 1977 Daytona 500 and four other Winston Cup races that season, and finished ahead of Ricky Rudd, the eventual Rookie of the Year, in seven of the 18 races in which both competed - she was given credit only grudgingly.

She put up with such cries as "Women in race cars are going to endanger our lives" and the snide remarks that implied she "wasn't racing out there, just riding around."

Today, she can laugh ruefully at those memories.

"I knew from the beginning what was going to happen to me," said Guthrie, who makes speaking appearances and is active in the arts in Aspen. "I knew, logically, in my mind, people would say what I accomplished never happened. I just didn't anticipate how painful it was going to be."

NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, who was managing Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama when Guthrie was racing, has a different perspective.

"I know I really enjoyed Janet's participation," said Hunter. "And I think NASCAR treated her just like any other driver. However she chooses to interpret that is up to her. But, No. 1, she was a good race car driver. She didn't have a front-running ride in equipment, but she did extremely well in what she had. I think she earned the respect of her fellow competitors."

Perhaps she did, but it was so long ago that Robinson said those accomplishments and those of other women in racing who have come before her mean little.

"It's almost like what they've done never happened," Robinson said, shortly before landing her current ride with BAM Racing. "It's almost like what I've done never happened."

Robinson will compete for a spot in the Daytona 500 in Thursday's twin 125-mile qualifying races. She, too, has a record of accomplishment. She was the 1984 Rookie of the Year in the Great American Truck Series, the first woman to win a NASCAR Goody's Dash Series event in 1988 and the first woman to win a pole in the Busch Series in 1994.

At Daytona, in 1999, her runner-up finish in the ARCA race matched the highest modern-day finish by a woman in a stock-car race.

But it took Robinson until late December to find someone to take a chance on her for a run at Rookie of the Year in the Winston Cup Series, and when her Dodge rolls out on the track, it is likely to be unsponsored.

"We don't have one and probably won't until we prove ourselves," Robinson said. "I've just been lucky enough to be introduced to Beth Ann Morganthaue, a successful businesswoman. She is BAM Racing, and she and her husband are putting up the money. If we can make the Daytona 500, it will be huge.

"But I'm not thinking of the history involved right now. I'm only thinking about driving the car. I think if we can make the 500, we'll get a sponsor."

Guthrie's resume includes more than the Daytona 500. In her first stock-car race, the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., in May 1976, she finished 16 spots ahead of the soon-to-be legendary Dale Earnhardt, after qualifying on his bumper. And she is the only woman ever to lead a Winston Cup race, doing so in Ontario, Calif., in 1977.

She is also the only woman to finish in the Top 10 in the Indianapolis 500 (1978) and the only woman to have the fastest time of the day at any Indy-car event (May 7, 1977).

Despite those moments of exhilaration, she was never able to find a full-time, major-league sponsor.

When asked what a 25-year lapse without a woman in the Daytona 500 means, Hunter is at a loss.

"I don't know that I can answer that," he said. "I don't know. The opportunity is there for a woman, just like a man. People could debate whether the same opportunities are there, but if a woman was successful in some form of racing leading up to driving a Winston Cup car, I think the opportunity would be there.

"But for a woman to do that, it takes a heck of a commitment, just like it does for all the guys to make it at the Winston Cup level.

"But I'd love to see a woman become successful. Forty percent of our audience is women, and I know when Janet Guthrie was racing, a lot of fans - including male fans - pulled for her. They didn't view her as a lady gimmick. She proved herself, and she was judged in the same way the men were."

Guthrie, who said she will not be in Daytona for any 25th anniversary celebration, looks at her legacy and sees it not so much as a testament to her capability, but as a criticism of the sport.

"All the problems are still there," she said. "It's 25 years later, and the things I did still stand as records for women. Am I the best ever? No. The problem is others have not been given the chance to excel.

"And, the very sad part about that is that you can look around and see that when fairness does occur, women have excelled - women in fighter planes flying off aircraft carriers, women in the military in Afghanistan, women coming to dominate our Olympic equestrian team.

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