When pace-car driver and movie star James Garner ambled over to beam a smile at Janet Guthrie yesterday afternoon, you got the impression from the way both of them acted that SHE was in celebrity and he was the eager fan. "Oh, hi," she said casually, as he grasped her hand. "Do me a favor, will you?" she asked, and he was nodding before she got to the qestion mark, only too happy to accommodate the hottest property in Gasoline Alley and give sister Anne Guthrie a spin around the track in the specially built $20,000 Oldsmobile pace car.
Yes, Guthrie is the big things at Indy this year. The first woman to qualify for the race, she is hounded by authograph seeker and the press wherever she goes. Stacks of congratulatory telegrams litter owner Rolla Vollstedts small desk in garage No. 27. Things are so hectic, he complained cheerfully, that he has to make an appointment to talk to her.
Guthrie had the fastest qualifying speed the first day, 188.403 miles per hours, 190 m.p.h, the next day and 191 following Tuesday. And she came back from a spinout and crash to qualify in a car with an engine that sounded like ball bearings rattling in a tin pail.
She is not at all nervous.What she is is analytical - about her driving, about racing in general, about male reactions to her as a woman driver, about women's lib, about the Indy 500 coming up. She always answers in crisp tones with precisely phrased sentences. Her long, slim hands rest quietly in her lap. No, she's not nervous. At least, not so it shows.
No, she says, the crash did not unnerve her, "I said to myself, "Uh-oh,' and for a couple of twitches I tride to catch it a little one way and a little the other way. Then I said next time I catch it I'm going to put it in the wall nose first, so I'd better just turn right and lock 'em up. I did that and went around and I could see my trajectory was looking pretty good and there certainly was a lot of tire smoke . . . I really thought I had it made and I cased up on the brakes to see if I could'nt keep it going down the track. But the car turned right and into the wall.
"I said to myself, 'Oh, no. Damn." And that.
Doctors who examined Guthrie afterward reported her blood pressure was a quiet 115 over 90. "I was not shaken at all; it was incredible. But I was extremely chagrined that I'd crashed the race car, that I'd done damage to this fantastic new car. I really felt bad about that."
Still, she was able to climb back into the car after team driver Dick Simon paced and sorted it. "I gritted my teeth," she remembers. She took the checkered flag on her qualifying run with "a smile as big as the hole in my helmet."
Guthrie has a terrific smile. It's charming and friendly and sexy all at the same time. And it lights up her otherwise very intense expression whenever it pops out. She dropped such a smile on a burly man who stuck a glossy photo out for her to autograph. It was as if, she was giggling inside at the thought of being the first to inspire a cult of male groupies.
But Guthrie politely refuses to accept the mantle of a crusader fo r women's lib. "I'm not proving anything. What's to prove/It's obvious that a woman can be as good a race driver as a man."
But there is this ticklish problem about language when speedway owner. Tony Hulman entones the tradtional words. "Gentleman, start your engines."
At first it was explained by Indy officials that the wording would not change because of a feminine presence in the lineup. They said the phrasing was that way because, after all, it is really the mechanies who start the engines.
Well, wouldn't you know it/Up popped Us-AC (United States Auto Club) licensed mechanic Kay Bignoni wife of chief mechanic George and daughter of three-time Indy winner Louis Meyer (1923, 1933 and 1938). She said she'd step in and start Guthrie's engine and Guthrie replied, "It's a deal."
Its not exactly revenge on the men who snubbed her for 13 years along the way from road racing to championship tracks. "Everybody has things in their life that make them mad along the way and you always say to yourself, 'When I get rich and famous. I'll get even.' I've thought of one of two such situations but I don't feel vindictive at all. It just doesn't matter anymore. You find out things about yourself, realty." There are indications that the wording may be changed.
Guthrie was warmly congratulated for her qualifying feat by almost all the drivers here.
Bobby Unser and Bill Vukovich were two who did not. Both have been vocal against her participation in championship racing ever since her debut at Trention, N.J., last year. "Well, I haven't seen either of them yet," she said with considerable generosity. "But Bobby has said he'd apologize for past actions if I made the field, so maybe I'll have to look him up." There was no maliciousness in her dig.
If she were left along by the press, she would busy herself with race-car driving. But she recognizes that she is unique and that she must put up with the repetitve questions and the autograph hounds.
At one points, the Guthrie garage was invaded by a hefty 39-year-old woman from Cincinnati, Barbara Taylor, who boasted that she had been the first woman to go through SWAT (Special Weapons Attack Force) training. She said she came to Indy especially to see Guthrie and to get her autograph.
"I've carried live bombs out of buildings but that things scares me to death," said Taylor, pointing to the dismantled machine Guthrie will drive Sunday. "She's really got guts. I wouldn't get in that for a million dollars."
Yes, Guthrie is caught in a crunch this week. She's still suspect in most of the male-dominated garages along Gasoline Alley.
Guthrie say she talks to herself continually, telling herself that Indy is just another track and that the 500 is just another race, but she still gives into the normal elation felt by any race driver who qualifies for this inner circle of racing.
"I still can't quite grasp the idea of being in the Indy,' she said. "I regard it as the most important accomplishment of my life. Other drivers have told me about the electricity in the air on race day and I expect I'll wake up too early Sunday - around 5 a.m. - and then I'm going to hide until race time. I look around at all the small cramped garages at Indy and I wouldn't change a stick of them.
"There is a special air about the place. Every time I see the winged wheel hanging over the center of Gasoline Alley it gives me a thrill. I enjoy all the traditions of the Indy. It's like the world's biggest country fair. you can practically feel the direct line of descent from country fairs with their dirt tracks and horse racing and people setting up tens to sleep out. Now they have camper vans instead. I am fighting to convince myself that this is just another race track."
She will go to bed early Saturday night. She says, and hide from the gawkers until race time. Once the green flag drops, Guthrie will complete with 32 other drivers for a victory and with six other rookies for "rookie of the year," usually given to the highest finisher.
Guthrie is know for her cautious starts. She is not averse to falling back to last place to allow the rest of the pack to string out before making her move. She calls the few drivers who start darting through the crowd at the green flag "damn fools," and says she has a little list of them and she watches out for them in races.
"If I see somebody acting spookly, I take a wide berth of them. I'll lift on the back straight and let him go by and when things string out then I'll take him on one-one-one."
"I anticipate an extremely conservative first lap. I think it's poor judgment to crash a car on the first lap of an endurance race. When the field starts stringing out, we'll get down to serious business."
Guthrie says she doesn't think she can challenge the big names of championship racing her first time out.
"I think I stand a good chance of finishing in the top 10," she said with quiet firmness. A friend she describes as "something of a psychic" called her this week from Connecticut to describe and interpret a dream she had about Guthrie. "She said it worked out that I'd finish in the top three," Guthrie said.
And she obviously means to do more than just finish the race. She is not relying on dreams, although Rolla Vollstedt facetiously suggested one day that the ceremonial song, "Back Home in Indiana," be changed in Guthrie's honor to "The Impossible Dream."
Guthrie stepped into the conversation at that point with a small contradiction I'd actually prefer the Flight fo the Valkyries' myself," she said, breaking into the Guthrie grin in spite of herself.