Todd Gibson of Richwood, Ohio, an Indianapolis 500 driving rookie at 40, broke from the starting grid quickly yesterday as the first entry received for the Memorial weekend auto race. He was speedily shunted to the background by Janet Guthrie, who for her second time around has been provided the vehicle that could carry her to - who knows, what dizzy fame?
Guthrie, bidding to be the first woman to race in the 500, failed to qualify last year as her Vollstedt-Offenhauser encountered a series of mechanical failures and she couldn't get it over 173 miles per hour.
Later given a chance to practice in A.J. Foyt's backup car, she zoomed 181 m.p.h. in short order - but Foyt wouldn't let her use it for qualifying. Now car owner Rolla Vollstedt has given her what she gleefully termed "the right tools (to) be in an excellent position to take a good shot at some fine results . . . A race driver must be confident of his or her own abilities; now I'm confident in my car (too). Last year, we knew we had marginal equipment."
The subject of Guthrie's enthusiasm is the Lindsey Hopkins Lightning, which Roger McCluskey drove at 198.7 m.p.h. in tire test over the resurfaced Indy Speedway in October. That's the fastest clocking ever at the "Brickyard" under present U.S. Auto Club technical limitations (80 inches of manifold pressure). It compares with 199.071, the fastest official lap ever clocked at the 2 1/2-mile oval, by Johnny Rutherford in 1973 qualifications when there was no restrictions on manifold pressure.
Vollstedt bought the Kopkins for Gutherie and will have a new car also for veteran Dick Simon, who returns as "lead driver" for the team. Both will compete March 6 in a 200-miler at Ontario, Calif., Gutherie in her new machine. After that one, we should have a better idea if Simon is correct in his assessment that there is "no question" Guthrie has the ability to make the Indianapolis starting field - "I am sure this year you will see that girl up front."