Janet Guthrie's debut in the Indy 500 began with a neat sidestep by Speedway owner Anton Hulman, who had been caught between tradition and women libbers about what he would say to start the race.
"In company with the first lady ever to qualify for Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines," said Hulman, and Guthrie's stated debt to the women's movement was presumably paid.
Unfortunately, when USAC-licensed mechanic Kay Bignotti fired the No. 27 green and white Lightning Offy, Guthrie was in for another set of problems that were far more serious than words at the start-finish line.
"It happened on the first lap as I came by the pits down the front straight," she said, standing in her garage viewing the stubborn new engine that owner Rolla Villstedt had desperately tried to get broken in for her in one week.
"I held up one hand to the crew. It was thumbs down. And when I got to the back straight it started missing and I told them (by radio communication) that I was coming in because something serious was wrong."
She ended up spending more time in the pit area than on the track. Her first long pit stop was clocked at 33 minutes, 41 seconds, compared to A.J. Foyt's 12 seconds or Gordon Johncock's 14 seconds.
Guthrie, who was game enough to take the ailing car back out on the track was virtually out the trace by the 20th lap although she continued to make trial runs. "We never did figure out what was wrong with it," she said. "They kept changing this and changing that but we never could get it running right. I don't even know how many laps I completed; some people have said it was 14 and others, 19." (She completed 27.)
Guthrie spun out and crashed into the wall coming out of turn two during the qualifying trials.
Vollstedt had a new Drake-Offy engine installed, but it ran rough during carburetion runs when the fuel intake was tested. She was upset, her sister Anne said then, "because there were a few wrinkles in the engine." After carburetion, drivers were not allowed to test their cars again.
Guthrie and Vollstedt contacted the chief mechanic for the STP team, George Bignotti, who agreed to take the Guthrie engine to their shop and put it on a dynamometer to break it in. Such a workout is supposed to dry out the motor and make sure the rings are properly seated.
The $200 investment in the dynamometer did not help during the race.
Guthrie took the reversal philosophically. She was much more interested in learning what was wrong with the misfiring engine than dwelling on her disappointment at not finishing the race. "We think it might be the ignition," she said, ignoring her own disappointment.
Will Guthrie be back at Indy next year(
"You betcha," she said with the kind of determination that got her here in the first place.