May 17, 1976 12:00 PM

Janet Guthrie is, by all odds, the best female driver in the country, and now she wants in at the Indianapolis 500, a race that has never seen a woman driver. The entrance requirements are fearsome. This month the leggy, 5’9″ 38-year-old must compete with 70 men for one of the 33 starting positions in the world’s most famous auto race. She will have to zoom around the huge 2½-mile oval at speeds above 165 mph, as well as impress an all-male panel of tough judges with her driving skill. “If her car is as good as she is,” says former sports car champion Mary McGee, “she should have no trouble qualifying.”

“The car is a beauty,” says Janet of her baby blue, 750-hp, 1,500-pound formula 500 machine. It was designed by Rolla Vollstedt, who has yet to win at Indianapolis despite 11 attempts. “I wanted to satisfy my own aspiration of being the first to enter a woman at Indy,” explains Vollstedt. “I asked around for the top female driver and everyone answered Janet Guthrie.”

For Janet the road to Indianapolis has been long. “All I did was race and starve to death,” she recalls of the discouraging years that followed her 1967 decision to take up sports car racing full time. Janet discovered her calling after she bought her first car, a light gray Jaguar XK 120, and entered it in amateur weekend races at supermarket parking lots. She taught herself to take the machine apart and put it together again to increase the speed.

Janet’s technical skills are considerable. A graduate of the University of Michigan where she earned a degree in physics, Janet once worked for Republic Aviation as an experiment coordinator for orbiting solar observatories. Her father is a retired airline pilot (who thinks auto racing is too dangerous). Janet herself has flown 23 different types of planes and has logged more than 400 hours in the air. She was so intrigued by space that she applied for NASA’s astronaut-scientist program in 1965 and was one of four women to qualify in the first round. Lacking the Ph.D. required for final acceptance, however, she was cut.

Janet has found the racing world occasionally hostile. “No one will ever give you a top car,” warned one male driver when she first broke in. In 1971 she presented another driver with a set of tires, hustled from a sponsor, and he made her his co-driver. They won the race, and since then she has established a winning record in such competitions as the 1973 North Atlantic Road Racing Championship and the 1975 Vanderbilt Cup, where she beat 27 male drivers. At last week’s Trenton 200, a prep for Indy, she first wound up “in the marbles” (sand and gravel) and then suffered a gearbox break, but still placed 15th in a field of 22 drivers. “If you know you’ve driven one hell of a race, when you step out of the car, it’s life-enhancing,” says Janet. “The sky looks bluer, smells are crisper, water tastes better. The whole world is a better place.”

She scoffs at the pop-psychological view that racers have a death wish. “I don’t believe that drivers are suicidal. They have an outlet for their aggression. I don’t think fans come to see drivers get killed, but to see them come close, and close doesn’t count.”

Away from the track, Janet is a cautious driver. On a recent round trip between her Manhattan apartment and Trenton, she stayed under the 55-mph limit all the way in a borrowed Toyota. She lives in a sparsely furnished, one-bedroom flat, devoid of her trophies; her one indulgence is a fondness for curried Oriental dishes. Unmarried, Janet spends much of her time giving driving demonstrations and lectures entitled “The Sensuous Driver.” In her rare moments of leisure, Janet reads, attends the ballet and walks. She says driving in New York is almost as tough as Indy. “I try,” she says, “to keep from vanishing in the potholes.”

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