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Janet Guthrie Transcript
An interview with:
JERRY GAPPENS: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to Charlotte Motor Speedway, at the Time Warner infield media center. I am Jerry Gappens, vice president of events here for the Speedway. We have a real special program. We've talked about this for a few months with our staff. I think you're going to learn a lot, one of the more significant moments in Speedway history as we come up on the 47th running of the Coca-Cola 600 here in a few weeks. Of course, we're getting ready for the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge coming up on Saturday, May 20. We have hooked in with the teleconference for people to be able to dial in around the country.
Bruton Smith is our founder and CEO of Speedway Motorsports and Charlotte Motor Speedway. I will set who we have here in a couple minutes. To get us started with the announcements today, I do have a special announcement to make in regards to the Coca-Cola 600. Our partners at Coca-Cola are proud to announce today that NASCAR fans will have one more reason to cheer this Memorial Day weekend as 19 recording artists, and recording artists Carrie Underwood, will headline the pre-race show at the Speedway on Sunday evening, May 28. Carrie will perform a 30-minute pre-race concert with songs and then she will be doing the national anthem in those magic moments that lead to, "Gentlemen, start your engines." We're very pleased to have last year's American Idol winner and hit recording artist Carrie Underwood.
The good news is for those coming to the race, Carrie's performance is included in the price of tickets for the Coca-Cola 600. Those ticket prices start at $39 and go up. We still have seats remaining for all the events in May. That's important to let you know and fans know. A lot of times they get confused and think things are sold out from the standpoint of tickets. We can accommodate their needs. We are selling out at certain price levels and seating areas as we come closer to the event. With Mr. Smith, Mr. Wheeler up here in my presence, they intend to sell the event out. Please hurry and call so we can get that out of the way and move onto better and bigger things.
The reason we're here today is a very unique situation happened here 30 years ago. I have a little bit of an intro video and slide show to get us started. We'll roll the video.
JERRY GAPPENS: It's my privilege to bring to up Janet Guthrie. She is the first woman to ever compete in the Indianapolis 500. She did that in May 1977, and the Daytona 500 in February 1977. She finished ninth in the 1978 Indianapolis 500 actually with a fractured wrist that year with a team that she formed, owned and managed herself. This remained the highest finish by a woman in Indy until 2005. Guthrie twice set fastest time of the day at Indianapolis on May 7 and 22nd back in 1977. Her IndyCar career totaled 11 races spread over five years, none with a high-ranked team. Her best IndyCar finish was fifth this Milwaukee in 1979 and her best qualifying position was fourth at the Pocono 500 back in 1979. They were not bettered by a woman more than 20 years later.
In NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing, Guthrie finished as a top rookie in the Daytona 500 and in four other Winston Cup at that point races in 1977. She led races at Ontario, California, 1977. Her top Cup finish was sixth in Bristol in 1977. And qualifying positions, ninth at Talladega and at Bristol in '77, remain the best by a woman in modern Speedway era history.
She competed in 33 NEXTEL Cup races spread over five years. What happened as you saw there with the history of the tape, in 1976, she was in some underfinanced equipment, just wasn't up to speed at Indianapolis, and a lot of tension obviously going on to her there, it became evident that wasn't going to happen. Bruton and Humpy was a new general manager at the time. Bruton worked it out to get Janet down here in Charlotte to participate in what then was the World 600, now the Coca-Cola 600.
It's my privilege to introduce Janet Guthrie here with us today all the way from her home in Utah. It's the 30th anniversary of that historic event. We're glad to have you here, Janet.
Also just for those on the teleconference joining us, we have "Humpy" Wheeler, president and general manager here at Charlotte Motor Speedway. To Janet's right we have Bruton Smith, our founder and chairman here at the Speedway, with Speedway Motorsports. To Bruton's right we have legendary car owner, Hall of Fame NASCAR personality Junior Johnson that helped Janet.
Janet, first of all, welcome to Charlotte Motor Speedway. You haven't been here in I think you said since 1977. It's a real eye-opener to come in and see what Bruton has done with the facility. We'd like to have you make some opening comments.
JANET GUTHRIE: Thank you very much. It certainly is a nostalgia trip to be back here and also to be sitting here with three gentlemen without whom my NASCAR racing never would have happened. Humpy stirred the pot. Bruton and Lynda Ferreri, who was vice president of a major bank here in Charlotte, got the bit in her teeth after that first race, was my team owner for 31 of the NASCAR races that I drove. She passed away a few years ago. I miss her very much.
But without Humpy and Bruton and without some crucial advice I got from Junior Johnson, none of this would have ever happened.
JERRY GAPPENS: Bruton, a lot of people don't realize, back in the mid '70s, you had to promote hard to sell tickets, to get the publicity and attention, especially with that other race going on in the state of Indiana. What made you watch this and react so quickly to make this happen for Janet to come down here and participate in the 600? Can you talk about the turn of events there.
BRUTON SMITH: I think it was jealousy. I was jealous of her being at Indianapolis. I knew in my mind that she should be here. I never met her, but I knew of her 'cause Janet had a lot of experience driving sports cars. So I talked to Max Muhleman, I guess most of you know who Max is, and also Lynda Ferreri, who was at First Union Bank, a marketing guru. She was also pretty, remember that?
So I talked with them. There's another girl that worked here. I took the three of them. I said, Max, you're in charge. I want you to take the jet and go to Indianapolis and get Janet Guthrie. Don't come back until you've talked her into coming here.
They went up there, they started promoting the idea of her coming here. Well, they went through one day. Max calls, you want us to come home? I said, why? He said, I don't think she's coming. I said, you're not selling hard enough. Just don't come unless you've got her with you. The next day he called and said, she's packing.
That put me in a spot of I had to get a race car. We didn't have a race car. So I bought a race car. We kept it a secret all that time from all the press, NASCAR, because we had Lynda Ferreri as the car owner. A lady race driver, lady car owner. Sold a package to Kelly Girl as a sponsor.
We got a car. The car arrived here about the same time that Janet did. Had to put a crew together. I got Ralph Moody, who was a very knowledgeable guy. I said, Ralph, you're it. You got to put a crew together and crew this car.
The car I bought had run just a little bit in Daytona, one time. It was a new car. Janet was nice enough to qualify in the top 15. How many sets of tires did you get back then when you qualified, Junior, do you remember?
JUNIOR JOHNSON: I think it was four or five sets.
BRUTON SMITH: That cut down on expense. I can tell you everything now. I don't think you ought to tell NASCAR, but what I did is I'm not sure that Lynda Ferreri had ever been to a speedway. I had one of my people to hand carry her through because she had to join NASCAR. So we had to take her from point to point to point and get her registered. When I bought the car, I bought it in a corporation. I sold it from there to another corporation, and from there to another corporation, about three more times. We kind of lost where the car was. You know how you guys are, you're always wanting to know. But, anyway, I was trying to prove that I didn't.
Then later Lynda said, you said something about I could buy the car. I said, sure you can. She said, I don't have the money. I said, that's okay, I'll finance you. I sold the car to Lynda. She paid every dime, did an outstanding job with this lady. What, about a year and a half or so she sold out, I think it was.
JANET GUTHRIE: It was midway through 1978. She had accepted a job offer in San Francisco. But up until that point, she was the woman who made all the decisions, wrote the checks, hired the crew, got the plane tickets for the crew, all the great stuff that the owner gets to do. She was also the voice on the radio, when they worked, which wasn't often.
I had a little trouble over the radio with the deep south accents. Lynda was from Pennsylvania, so she was the voice on the radio. She was also very calm and levelheaded. We had a crew chief toward the second half of '77 who figured he ought to be the voice on the radio, so he was. We had a yellow light. I never missed a yellow. I said, I don't want to know about it. I don't want you yelling at me unless you're telling me there's a big wreck where I can't see it. He got on the radios. At the first yellow, he's screaming his head off. I immediately get off the gas and on the brakes. About 20 cars go right by me. Then we went back to have Lynda running the radios.
BRUTON SMITH: It was a great, great time that we were having. Once you sold out, she called me. She said, I always wanted to live in San Francisco, so I have 400,000 and I'm moving. I said, okay. I didn't see her until about a couple years ago. I didn't see her again
It was a great time. We had the right lady to start this women's knowledge of racing. She did an outstanding job and I'm very proud of you.
JANET GUTHRIE: Well, thank you, Bruton. I must acknowledge what Junior Johnson did that first race. The car got here two days after I did actually. There was practically no time left. I had driven a car owned by Joe Freisen, one of the field. Then I got into the car that was supposed to be mine. I was two miles an hour slower than I was in this rather back parking car.
Cale Yarborough had promised my IndyCar owner that he would take the car out and check it out. Junior did. He ran pretty much what I did, the low 140s. He came in and he looked thoughtful. The story is in my book, by the way. I'm so glad that the Speedway has gotten copies of my book for you to take with you. I wrote it myself. It took me 20 years. You'll find the story in the book.
But anyway, Cale got out of the car. He's looking pretty thoughtful. Junior came along and he said, what's happening? So Cale and Junior talked in their shorthand. Junior looked at me. He looked at Ralph Moody. He looked at Herb Nabb, his crew chief, and said, give them the setup. He took a day to get the different shocks, sway bars and stuff into the car, the suspension set differently. It was a different animal. I went from 141 to my first lap with the new setup was 150. You know, it doesn't sound like much nowadays, but it was pretty good back then. Then after seven laps of that, it was time to put it in and qualify it. So I qualified it, first it was 152, the second was 153. Without Junior, that never would have happened. So that was a huge gift.
Then when we got a little more practice, one more day later, I got another three miles an hour out of it. It was a memorable, memorable event to be sure.
JERRY GAPPENS: Obviously Janet was a lot faster on the track than writing books. Don't take 20 years to write this story.
Junior, talk about your impression of seeing a woman race car driver in the garage area. That was very different back in that era. Obviously she wasn't welcomed with open arms by other competitors and media, certainly race fans. What was your impression? What made you decide to help her and go against the grain a little bit from what the common feelings were in the garage?
JUNIOR JOHNSON: Well, in talking to Cale, he told me, you know, he couldn't handle the car his self. He could about handle a bear if he had to. I just decided that she'd be in a lot of people's way out there, probably cause a wreck and what all. We did that a lot. When we seen somebody was in bad trouble, we'd try to help them get fixed so they didn't hurt themself or somebody else because you're competing against them and you need them to be in a stable condition with their car and stuff.
I told Herb, I says, you take the setup we got under our car and take it over there and give it to them. She'll get hurt, we'll be involved in a wreck, maybe we'll be with her, somebody will get hurt with it. We did that a lot in racing. When a newcomer came into the sport, if he was in trouble, my team would help him out. She wasn't no different. She was a race driver. She needed help. We helped her. We'd do it again.
JERRY GAPPENS: What was your impression of having a woman driving on the track?
JUNIOR JOHNSON: Well, at that particular time, you know, I hadn't paid a whole lot of attention to her because when I went to the race track, I was looking at my own business. When Herb went over and worked on the car and stuff, we got a little bit interested in it, we learned things, we'd tell her boys, help her get it going a little better, too.
She did a great job I thought for a woman. I didn't think they could break a speed limit, but she did a great job. We had a lot of fun with her, too.
JERRY GAPPENS: Humpy Wheeler is with us, too. That was your first 600 after Bruton hired you to promote a race. Talk about some of the things -- you tell a great story about what happened with ticket sales and what happened during the event that really helped change the complexion of not only the sport but the facilities we have. Talk about what the Janet dynamic did to you as a promoter and the facility?
HUMPY WHEELER: Bruton was living up in Illinois at the time. We were talking every day. We weren't selling any tickets. All Janet had to do at Indianapolis was breathe, she was on the front page not only of the Indianapolis Star, but the Charlotte Observer.
We were trying to do everything down here we could to promote this race. It just wasn't going anywhere. You know, it was my first race. Bruton had bought control of the thing back. We didn't want to end up being embarrassed and not have a sell-out for the 600. That's exactly where we were headed because of the tremendous, tremendous publicity.
You got to understand, we're talking about 1976, this was not a woman competing just in a sports event. This was really a sociological revolution that was going on. The media sensed that big time. The big-time media had jumped all over it. Bruton and I just kept talking, something's got to happen, somehow or another it would be great to end this thing up here.
We also did not have a television deal. This was back in the days when ABC was doing Indianapolis. Still are. The whole emphasis was there. We were trying to work on a television deal, and we couldn't get one here. It finally got worked out she could come down.
One of the things that's interesting here, I'm sure it's -- the book is excellent. AJ Foyt did one thing that I think really gave not only her credibility but the whole thing, and that is when Bruton bought the car from AJ, he also agreed to let her go out in his backup car. I believe when you went out in that backup car, you ran more than fast enough to have made the race.
JANET GUTHRIE: It was a stint that would have put the car in the field at that point. A.J. asked me, might not by the end of the day, can you go faster than what you just ran. I had nine laps in his car and I was going, if I remember right, 15 miles an hour faster than what I'd been going in the other car, which had not made the field the year before. I said yes. Yeah, I would have put that car in the field if he let me to make a qualifying attempt with it.
HUMPY WHEELER: That was incredible because she left Indianapolis with people knowing she could have made the race to come down here. I told Bruton, I said -- he said, we have to get a press conference when she gets down here. We don't need to call a press conference, they're following her down here. I thought then, this is going to be interesting.
But a great thing that happened, and I'm glad the car was late, even though it was driving Janet crazy, because this was back in the days where you qualified on Wednesday for the pole, the first 20 positions, then Thursday you filled out the rest of the field. Janet had to wait until Thursday to qualify. Well, she was the fastest qualifier on Thursday, 21st position. This was also back in the days when NASCAR was not exactly totally mainstream across America. I know some paper out in California said she had gotten the pole because she had been the fastest qualifier that day. She got a lot more publicity qualifying Thursday than she would even if she made the field on Wednesday.
But the incredible thing about it was that after she qualified, we sold more tickets the next day than we have ever sold in one day in the history of the Speedway. It was an avalanche of publicity that was unbelievable. John Martin called me from New York at the network and said, this was the best part of it, he said, we want to make a deal with you and make the World 600 part of the Indy 500 telecast so we can tell the story of Janet Guthrie. That's precisely what happened. That was the only Indy 500 telecast that was kind of a double feature going on at the same time because it was taped. They ran the race that afternoon, then they had it on network television that night. They had a chance to get a lot of footage from here and combine it with that. It ended up being a great day.
The greatest part of it was that so many people said she'd not finish. 600 miles, it's too long. It's in the hot afternoon. She not only finished, but she finished 15th. It was also one of the greatest mistakes I've ever made at a Speedway. I should have seen it coming. First of all, we sold every ticket we had. You know, I don't care where you are, usually you're going to have some tickets left over. They're usually going to be singles, particularly ones behind post. I called down to the ticket office. Bruton said, if you have every one of them sold, because if you do, we're going to sell standing room only. I couldn't find a ticket, not one. That should have tipped me off to something, but it didn't.
The next tip that we should have picked up on was, I saw something that morning I'd never seen at a big speedway. That is cabs, taxis bringing people to the track. Taxis don't come out here, not race morning. They were coming out here. They were delivering one person. It was always a woman.
Well, halfway through the race, that was back in the days when we used about half a million gallons of water, we use a million now, but halfway through the race we ran completely out of water. Now, why did we run out of water? Never run out of the water before. It's my first race, but I knew we never run out of water before. Why did we run out of water? All the women. Y'all use three gallons, we only use about a quarter of a pint.
But at any rate, we fortunately had a guy lot smarter than me around here that recovered, had a plan if we ran out of water. We were on a well system at the time. He had all the gals here call the volunteer fire departments in a 50-mile radius. They all got a tanker truck sitting there. Fortunately, there were no brush fires that day. He said, I'll give you $500, just bring the truck to the track, empty it. I remember about 45 minutes later, I thought it was a nuclear explosion because there were fire trucks coming from 360 points flying in here with their sirens going on. We got through.
But it was a great day here. It was tremendous history made. The first race in a major oval speedway by a woman. The fact she finished 15th was really, really extraordinary.
JANET GUTHRIE: I just wanted to make one or two comments here. It was so heretical then. Although there were women in the early days of NASCAR, Sara Christian, Louise Smith, Ethel Flock, no woman had ever driven on a high-bank superspeedway or at a distance longer than 200 miles. They were all flat dirt tracks back in '49 and the early '50s when these women were driving. So here we have a 600-mile race on a high-banked track. It was a pretty universal opinion that, A, I wouldn't qualify. Some of these stories are in the book, too, how the rumor had gotten around that the speedway was going to falsify my time so I would be sure to make the field. When I made my qualifying run, there were a lot of stopwatches and a lot of hands. My speed was not falsified.
By the way, the row in front of me consisted of Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott, both of them running their second or third Cup races back then after coming out of Sportsmen. I made the race. Then the word was, she'll be all worn out after 40 laps and have to get out of her car. Of course, that didn't happen either.
I do hope you'll take a copy of the book. Allegedly I'm going to go out and drive a car here in a minute. I know that the Busch cars are supposed to be on the track at 1. If any of you want your book autographed after I get out of this car, assuming I manage to get into it, I'd be glad to do it. I put a lot into writing this book trying to convey to the person who might not know anything about motorsports what the experience is like trying to put the reader inside a driver's mind. There are some excerpts from it. By the way, I have a website with quotes from data if you want to know any of it. I hope you'll read the book and enjoy it. I hope you'll tell people about it. Thank you.
JERRY GAPPENS: Let's open it up for some questions here.
Q. Janet, I know the word "pioneer" gets used too much in reference to you. That was 30 years ago. Are you satisfied now with the role that women have in racing? We've had Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick. Are you happy with the progression that's been made over three decades?
JANET GUTHRIE: Well, obviously I'd like to see a lot more women on the track. Danica is the first woman to come to Indianapolis with top-notch equipment and the full backing of a winning team. Obviously she has the ability to make use of it.
I have high hopes for Katherine Legge in Champ Car. She's very, very talented. I really regret that Sarah Fisher didn't keep her IndyCar ride. She had two poles, she had a second and a third in relatively few races. I think she had the talent to go to the front.
Money is still a big problem. I mean, the last I heard, it was $15 million a year to run a Cup car. That kind of money doesn't come easily for anybody, less easily for a woman I believe. I think that's the hard part.
Q. You said something earlier about you didn't know what to expect going into the 600. Exactly what were your thoughts after the 600? Was it as strenuous as you thought it was going to be? Would you do it again?
JANET GUTHRIE: Oh, absolutely I would do it again. Are you kidding? I spent the last 13 years building my own engines and doing my own bodywork and sleeping in the back of my $75 tow station wagons. Here all of a sudden I get a chance to compete at the top levels of competition in the United States. I would have walked over hot coals barefoot from New York to San Francisco to do that. I wish so much I had been able to continue longer. I ran out of money.
BRUTON SMITH: While she was out there racing very hard, Bill Connell, I know some of you know him, he was our announcer. As she was moving up, she gets to 10th. I said, wow, we got a winner. I called Bill. I said, Bill, I want you to announce that you love Janet Guthrie. So Bill, you remember how he was, you tell him anything, he'd say it. He said, I love Janet Guthrie. You got up to ninth. I said, Bill, I want you to change it. I want you now to announce you're in love with Janet Guthrie. He announced that. You didn't know about that.
JANET GUTHRIE: To answer the question you asked first. At the end of the 600 miles, I was about as wiped out as I'd ever been in my life. I was running faster at the end of the race than I had been at the beginning because I had gotten used to the traffic, I started to figure out who was who in my mirrors and next to me and all that. So I ran my fastest laps at the end of the race.
A header had broken. I was getting carbon monoxide poisoning. It was definitely a difficult thing, but it worked out all right. I went on from there.
Q. What was it that Max and the others said to you that changed your mind from day one to day two that put into motion everything you did that essentially saved the butts of the two guys next to you?
JANET GUTHRIE: I wouldn't say that. These guys would have come out golden no matter what. They didn't have to persuade me. I didn't want to hear about it until my last chance at Indianapolis was gone, and that was on a Sunday. My team owner, to whom I owe very much, kept his finger on the pulse of the offer floating around. That came the last day of qualifying. I drove A.J.'s car. Was fast enough to make the field. As the afternoon went on, we're waiting and waiting to see will AJ let me qualify the car. In the end, he didn't. So I had to deal with the fall-out from that.
Then at the end of the day, he asked me, Janet, do you want to entertain this offer from Charlotte. My Indianapolis is over at that point. I said, do you mean do I want to hang around here and bask in the whatever or do I want to go racing? You should know the answer to that by now. The next morning we sat down with Max and Lynda, all I wanted to know was, when do we leave.
Q. In an interview for a story I was doing about three and a half years ago on another female driver, you said he were fairly well persuaded that NASCAR didn't want women in its ranks. Have you changed on that opinion? Do you think they're progressing?
JANET GUTHRIE: Well, actually that's a bit I put in my book, too. You'll find the complete story there. Lynda Ferreri said it. She said, haven't you noticed how when a profession starts to be engaged in by women, it loses some status. She said, that's why NASCAR doesn't want us here. They're afraid that the sport will be denigrated.
There are all these letters to National Speed Sport News after I ran my first IndyCar race at Trenton and even later that year saying, since the women can run IndyCars, that proves that IndyCars are for panty wastes and we all ought to go back and watch sprint car racing where the real men are. They can't say that any more now that Erin Crocker has won an Outlaws race.
Yeah, it was definitely a different era. Now that NASCAR has a diversity program, I hope they realize women drivers will just put more money in their pockets.
Q. We've all heard the stories about the resistance and the push-back, comments made in private and public. Over the years, back in the '70s or now, do you get some apologies from some of these folks that did some things that were a little unsavory back in that time?
JANET GUTHRIE: That started happening really quite quickly, a little quicker in IndyCar than stockers. I took about a year in NASCAR before I could walk around the garage area without groups of guys looking at me squinty-eyed.
But, yeah, things changed enormously, a huge change. They found out I was what I said I was, a sports car racing driver making the transition to the ovals. What I did on the track was just like what they did on the track. I was a clean driver and could give them some good competition.
I mean, don't forget, I did lead a race, although there's more to the story than that. I did qualify and finish in the top 10.
You know, any rookie has to persuade the other drivers that they're not going to endanger their lives. It just takes a little longer for a woman and certainly a bit longer back then. Things changed enormously. It was one of the most gratifying things that happened.
Q. Junior, why did you decide to help? Did somebody coerce you into helping her? What was the reaction in the garage at the time? 30 years later, they're still asking women if the guys are running harder against them. What was the reaction back then?
JUNIOR JOHNSON: Well, back then everybody thought she was just going to be in the way out there. You hear a mix of comments about it that weren't very decent, too.
I helped her because she needed help. I helped a lot of other drivers, people like Richard Childress, I used to help him all the time because I thought he was going to kill somebody on the racetrack. It wasn't because she was a woman or man; it was because she needed help. Herb, he kind of snugged up a little bit when I said, you go over there and help them. He went on and done his job. He was glad he did after she ran as good as she did.
Q. Could you give us your first impressions of Humpy Wheeler, that was before he became the legendary promoter he is now, can you tell he was going to hype this event in a respectful way and it was going to be more than a publicity stunt?
JANET GUTHRIE: In my book I describe Humpy as a mischievous man who probably gets more fun out of what he does for a living than any other 10 people in the world. That was my impression of him then, and I don't think he's changed.
Q. Could you talk about the way they promoted your involvement in the race. Did it come off as a very kind of respectful way of could go it rather than just being, come see a woman race?
JANET GUTHRIE: Well, of course, everybody did call it a publicity stunt. The thing was, I was actually the real thing. I was very grateful for the opportunity I had. I was never comfortable in the spotlight. I didn't enjoy it. It was something that came with the territory. I wanted to be in that territory so badly. I figured I could deal with whatever came with it.
HUMPY WHEELER: I think Bruton and I really approached this whole thing as, yeah, sure it was publicity, but we also recognized the fact this was history. Any time you have a chance to make history, you want to do all you can to do that.
JERRY GAPPENS: Bruton, you've talked about it in the past, too, about how the media intensity helps to sell tickets. Obviously, that's one of the things you were thinking about with what was going on.
BRUTON SMITH: I said earlier, doing this was out of jealousy because we were trying to be somebody here. The Speedway here really had not arrived. Of course, as Humpy said, I had purchased the Speedway, and we needed to do something great, in the face of Indianap