1970s: Break On Through (to the other side)

The 1970s was the height of Second-wave feminism. Women, obtained the right to vote. They now focused on equality in the workplace and all that came with it (including things like child care and reproductive rights). It’s only right that during the 1970s two women stepped forward in motorsports to shatter barriers long standing: Lella Lombardi and Janet Gutherie. As the song goes: okay ladies let’s get in formation

Lella Lombardi

Lella Lombardi was born near Turin, Italy during the height of World War II. Turin was an industrial stronghold of Italy. Due to this, during the Second World War it was strategically bombed by the Allies. It was the automobile industry in the area, Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo, that helped rebuild the city post-WWII. Into this town, Lella Lombardi was born. Perhaps it was the speed coursing through the streets of Turin that gave Lombardi the urge to drive. She saved up funds to buy a used Fiat and passed her driving test. As she wasn’t getting traction in her career she became an assistant for a racing driver. That turned into into being a co-driver during a rally before finally the driver let her race and she won.

She started her professional racing career around 1965 in Italy’s junior Formulae and her final season in 1973 she obtained a second place finish at Casale as well as winning the Italian Ford Mexico series. 1974 she attempted to race in the British Grand Prix, but failed to qualify while driving an older Brabham. Next year though, history was made.

Seventeen years after Maria Teresa de Filippis qualified for a Grand Prix, Lombardi qualified for the 1975 South African but retired before the end of the race due to issues with the car. It is the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix that put Lombardi in the record books.

The 1975 Spanish Grand Prix was, by all accounts, a mishandled race from start to finish. The weekend started with drivers protesting the safety barriers not properly bolted. The track organizers attempted to fix the issues, but the drivers were not convinced and attempted to strike. It took the threat of impounding cars to get the drivers on the track. The race ultimately got off but was marred with crashes from the start. The race ended approximately halfway through the race due to a horrific crash. Driver Rolf Stommelen’s car’s rear wing broke and he went into the safety barrier before ricocheting across the track, hitting the barrier on that side and going over the barrier. Multiple spectators were killed and the race got called. At that time, Lombardi was running in sixth position and earned points for that finish.

She had a downward spiral of a F1 career following the Spanish Grand Prix. She finished seventh at Nurburing, and after the first race in 1976 she was replaced. She tried her hand in other disciplines of motorsports. She ran in the 1977 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. She also competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1975-1980 and ‘finished’ the race twice.  

Lombardi is the only woman to receive Formula 1 championship points. The timeline of women in Formula 1 is sparse. Maria Teresa de Filippis in 1958 followed by Lella Lombardi in 1976 and then Desire Wilson in 1980. How long until another woman drives in Formula 1? Perhaps closer then we can hope, this season Tatiana Calderon became a development driver with Sauber and ultimately tested in an F1 car this year.

Janet Guthrie

So much is written about Janet Guthrie (including her own autobiography). There is a true reason though – this woman is absolutely amazing. If you could hand pick a woman to break into the major racing disciplines in the United States – it would be her. Guthrie graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in physics in 1960. You know, way before women were prevalent in science disciplines. This fed by her love of flying. She was thirteen when she started flying, and made a parachute jump when she was sixteen. Since women couldn’t fly for the airlines or military she crossed over into aerospace engineering.

Guthrie attempted to apply for the NASA scientist-astronaut program, and made it through the first round. It is her thought that she didn’t advance because she lacked the doctorate degree. PRIOR BLOG ABOUT THIS After that failed, Guthrie turned to land to accomplish the feeling of flying. Prior to breaking through she spent years building her own engines, supporting her racing with her engineering career.

She actually won her class in the 12 Hours of Sebring.

In the mid-70s Guthrie made history. In 1976 she became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup superspeedway race. She also became the first woman to drive around the practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That year though, she was unable to qualify, a lot of it dealt with the mechanical issues of her car, but got her a lot of backlash from the men in racing and media.

The only way to deal with that was on the racetrack. There was no other way to do it. The guys just had to get the experience of driving against me and then, as I say, things changed. You could call it cognitive dissonance. If the guys were saying this driver is a female and therefore, she is no good, and then the no-good driver blows your doors off, you have to change your position a little.

In 1977 she busted down everything. On opening day at the Indianapolis 500 she had the fastest speed of any driver that day. She became the very first woman to qualify and race within the Indianapolis 500. Her qualifying day was full with problems. She had hit the wall during a practice day earlier that month and her team had to work feverishly to get the car ready, and made it just in time for the last day of qualifying. Though fixed, in her retelling of the day, Guthrie tells of how her car’s oil gauge was flipping out, but she made it into the race. She did not force the change of the opening prompt, but Tony Hulman did say “in company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis gentlemen, start your engines”.

She had to retire after twenty-seven laps but earned Rookie of the Year. That same year she became the first female driver in the Daytona 500 and finished in twelve-place (earning Top Rookie honors). The following year, 1978, she finished the Indianapolis 500 in ninth place while nursing a broken wrist. That was the highest finish of any women in the race until 2005 when Danica Patrick finished the race in 4th.

Following Guthrie’s smashing of the gender barrier, a slew of women have attempted to and have raced in the Indianapolis 500 including Desire Wilson (1980 race, did not qualify); Lyn St. James (1992); Sarah Fisher (2000); Danica Patrick (2005); Milka Duno (2007); Simona de Silvestro (2010); Ana Beatriz Figuereido (2010); Pippa Mann (2011); and Katherine Legge (2012).

The 1970s lit a fire under the participation of women in racing. There have been moments where it feels like that fire may have been extinguished, but it is still burning…and we have a few more decades to review.

Pre-Modern Times Fast Women

Turn of the Century Fast ladies




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