Patrick will start from the pole position in Sunday’s Daytona 500 — the showpiece of NASCAR’s top-level Sprint Cup series — after setting the fastest qualifying time the previous week (with a top speed of 196.434 mph, for those keeping track). A woman in that spot is a historic first for NASCAR and an achievement that transcends motor sports.
But while we celebrate, it’s also reasonable to ask: Why has it taken so long to update the record books? For 36 years, until last Sunday, I had been the best female qualifier in a Cup race, with ninth-place starts at Talladega and Bristol in my rookie season. And as of this writing, my sixth-place finish at Bristol, also in 1977, remains the best Cup finish by a woman. That wasn’t what I was after, of course. I wanted to win Cup races, and I believe that I would have done so if I’d been able to find the money to continue.
Since then, many capable female drivers have come and gone — it’s not that there’s been a lack of talent. And it’s not just that the racing world is conservative or sexist, although those elements are there. The explanation lies in the extremely expensive nature of the sport. Patrick is the first woman who has been able to summon the mega-dollars necessary to field a front-running car, and last Sunday she made the most of it.
I’m often asked about the prejudice female drivers face, and it’s true that it was highly visible when I got my shot at the top. In 1976, when team owner Rolla Vollstedt announced our intention to try for the Indianapolis 500, the blowback was astonishing. Established drivers complained loudly, publicly and at length. “Indy racing is too demanding physically for women,” said Billy Vukovich, who had finished second at Indianapolis three years earlier. “After 40 laps, Guthrie won’t be able to steer a car.” (Vukovich had never even seen me drive.)
When I raced at Charlotte that year, the grandstands reverberated with calls of “Get the tits out of the pits.”
On the track, I had to prove myself to the fans and other drivers. Off the track, I had to prove myself to my team. In motor sports, team chemistry is important, and this is one area where women may have a higher hurdle to overcome than men do. In my case, it helped that I had a background in engineering and had spent more than a decade building Jaguar engines and doing all my own mechanical work. I could often detect an engine or transmission malfunction before we were in trouble.
The guys assigned to my car at Indianapolis soon picked up on that. In a pinch I could, and did, help them change an engine. That made a difference. In 1978, when I formed and managed my own team for the Indianapolis 500, I was deeply touched that my NASCAR crew from the second half of 1977 wanted to join me.