It was at the 1977 Indy 500 when Tony Hulman stood at the starting command uttering the words, “In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines!”
And that trailblazer he referenced was Janet Guthrie, the first woman to earn a place in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Her ascension in the world of motorsports despite the adversity and obstacles she faced along the way is chronicled in Qualified.
The latest installment of ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 documentary film series brings Guthrie’s inspiring story to the forefront using archival footage, as well as interviews with the now 81-year-old pioneer, her former team members, fellow legendary racers, family and more.
“It was very vivid in my mind and still is,” Guthrie said on reliving her career history. “It was a sport I had loved a great deal 13 years before I got my chance at the top level. A lot of it was as if it had happened yesterday.
“… I’ve watched [the documentary] twice. The first time, an hour after, my pulse was still over a hundred. The second time was a little calmer. It was just amazing.”
She was taken aback by what director and producer Jenna Ricker and her team created. Ricker, an avid Indy 500 fan, became engrossed in subject while researching and reading the racer's book, Jane Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle.
“It’s one of those rare moments where you think, ‘I’m so lucky I do what I do and get to be here with Janet, who tells me some stories I would never have access otherwise,” Ricker said of working with Guthrie.
“It was really a special experience. You start with an idea of somebody based on what you read. There is just nothing like getting to know them and really expanding on that. It was really special and getting access to so many people who were involved in her story and wonderful supporters of her is something I feel very honored to do.”
Looking back, there isn’t anything Guthrie would have done differently. The aerospace engineer turned auto racer feels she always gave her best. However, one thing Guthrie deeply regrets is not being able to realize her true potential.
“I wasn’t able to continue racing and accomplish what I was sure I was capable of accomplishing. Apart from that, it was an amazing period of my life,” she said.
Guthrie admittedly doesn’t follow the sport closely but follows the women of the sport. There is the realization not much has changed. The racetrack is far from leveled in her eyes. The hope is the doc spurs change.
“There are still many capable woman drivers like for example Pippa Mann who did make the field for Indianapolis this year,” she said. “… There are so many capable women out there. Katherine Legge, Simona de Silvestro, many have not been able to get the funding for a full-time ride. I do believe it’s still more difficult for women to find sponsorship than it is for men.
“It is funny, because a capable woman driving for a good team and winning races will always draw more attention than a man doing the same thing. As more women become executives at major companies, I do hope more of them will see a good woman driver would be good for their product and for their brand.”
For Ricker, there are many parts of Qualified viewers can relate to beyond just the racing aspect. Through the film-making process she discovered a kinship with Guthrie.
“When I was reading Janet’s book, I kept finding myself thinking, ‘This is me. This is my story.’ And that’s not to say I’ve dealt with the same struggles Janet met or that I can begin to understand being an aeronautical engineer or that I’ve driven a car at 200 miles an hour,” Ricker said.
“She was putting her life on the line, and certainly as a filmmaker I’m not doing that. I think great stories have a theme that resonates much deeper. I think in this case for me with Janet, I felt inspired by her and like I could relate.
"One of the lovely takeaways for me is this film premiered at South by Southwest and some of the other festivals, so many people have said they could take from what she had been through and were so inspired by it.
"I think the more stories we can tell like this, the more women can identify with and realize they are not alone, and that there is a way forward to climb barriers and make change. I hope in some way Qualified contributes to that.”
30 for 30: "Qualified," Tuesday, May 28, 8/7c, ESPN