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McGEE: Racing legend Guthrie has sympathy for Sorenstam

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Ryan McGee

 
   
 
Bravo, Annika Sorenstam. Despite Vijay Singh, despite all of the male duffers who feel the same as Singh (but are sane enough not to say it out loud), and despite all the high-handicap columnists who act as if she¿s neutering the entire history of golf, Sorenstam will be teeing off this Thursday morning in a genuine PGA Tour event. Not LPGA ¿ PGA. All the while, she will have to try and ignore the looks, the stares, the whispers, and the shouts at every tee, every fairway, and every green. Moments like this have always had a tendency to bring out the idiots. Somewhere in Colorado, 65-year old Janet Guthrie will be shaking her head understandably. For her, it¿s déjà vu all over again. In 1976, Guthrie showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, helmet in hand. A 38-year old engineer, pilot and flight instructor, the Iowa native was invited to the Brickyard to test a car for long-time Indy car owner Rolla Vollstedt. One problem ¿ the boys didn¿t much like the idea. Most everyone in Gasoline Alley, including track owner Tony Hulman, quickly voiced their displeasure. Hulman famously remarked that if a woman were to make the field for the 500, he would still refuse to change his traditional cry of ¿Gentlemen, start your engines¿ to acknowledge her. But why? Guthrie¿s credentials were certainly respectable enough. In addition to thousands of hours in the air, her part-time passion for rally racing and hill climbs had evolved into a full-time Sports Car Club of America gig, including two class victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring. In the mid-1960s she even made it past the first round of NASA¿s search for new Apollo astronauts. So, what exactly was everyone¿s problem? ¿You have to remember,¿ says 2-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser. ¿Women weren¿t even allowed in the garage or the press room back then. Well, here she came and it was like, ¿What¿s going on here?¿¿ Just like Sorenstam, Guthrie found herself surrounded by a pack of men who at first attempted cordiality, but soon degenerated into the He-Man Woman Hater¿s Club. No one likes to admit it now, but there was an almost audible sigh of relief when Guthrie failed to qualify for her first Indy 500 in 1976. Expect a similar group exhalation to emanate from Fort Worth, Texas on Friday afternoon if Mrs. Sorenstam fails to make the cut. But Guthrie returned to Indy in 1977. She opened the month of May by setting the quickest practice speed. One week later she became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. In admittedly second-tier equipment, she completed 27 laps before succumbing to an engine failure and finishing 29th. The finish didn¿t really matter; the start was enough to win over even her most vocal critics. ¿I think she¿s done a hell of a job,¿ Mario Andretti admitted at the finish of the event. ¿She's got a good head on her shoulders. I've seen many guys who had much more trouble with Indy than she has had, from the standpoint of belonging on the course. Anyone who says she doesn't belong just feels threatened.¿ Earlier in the year Guthrie had already become the first woman to run the Daytona 500, finishing 12th and earning Rookie of the Year honors. She ran 19 NASCAR Winston Cup races in 1977, earning four top-10s and 13 finishes inside the top 16. Not bad ¿ for a girl. That same year, Guthrie pulled a -style double duty by running the Ontario 500 Indycar event in Southern California and the Southern 500 at Darlington during the same weekend. ¿Wonder Woman, or course, is make-believe,¿ wrote Tom Higgins of The Charlotte Observer, the greatest motorsports writer that ever walked the face of this planet. ¿However, Janet Guthrie is going to attempt a feat this weekend worthy of the fabulous female. She will try driving two tough 500-milers on opposite ends of the continent in 24 hours.¿ After qualifying at Ontario, she caught a flight to South Carolina for practice at ¿The Track Too Tough to Tame¿. She sprinted toward the garage area just as the warm-up session was beginning. Enter the good ol¿ boys. Not one, but two different track security guards kept her from entering the paddock, citing the ¿no women in the garage¿ policy. The second suggested she try a backdoor entry through the kitchen of the infield cafeteria. It almost worked, but she was stopped again at the chain link gate. ¿We were at a stalemate at the entrance to the garage,¿ Guthrie recalled in her memoirs. ¿A member of someone else¿s crew came along, but his positive identification of me cut no mustard whatsoever.¿ Eventually, she got through. Irritated, sweating in the South Carolina sun, and woefully behind after her shortened practice stint, Guthrie wrecked early on race day, but nursed her Chevy home in 16th. She finished 19th at Ontario. These days it isn¿t such a big deal for women to compete in racing¿s big leagues. Since Guthrie¿s three Indy 500 starts, two other women have run at the Brickyard, including Sarah Fisher, who will make her fourth start this weekend. Since Guthrie¿s Daytona 500 start in 1977, five women have started at least one Winston Cup race and seven have raced in the NASCAR Busch Series. As Guthrie was breaking ground on ovals, Shirley Muldowney was breaking records on the dragstrip, winning three NHRA Top Fuel titles in 1977, ¿80, and ¿82. Angelle Savoie is the three-time defending NHRA Pro Stock Bike champion and just this week Top Fuel ace Melanie Troxel appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. ¿He asked me the fastest speed I had ever reached and when I told him 326 miles per hour, he was blown away,¿ Troxel said. ¿He said, ¿I don¿t think we¿ve ever had anyone on this show that went over 300 miles per hour before.¿ ¿ Twenty years from now, when a woman stepping up to the first tee at Augusta National just isn¿t that big of a deal anymore, we can all tell our kids and grandkids that we remember the day it became normal. May 15, 2003. The day the Janet Guthrie of golf had her name announced at the Colonial Country Club. Good luck, Annika. Don¿t let the jerks keep you down.

Ryan McGee is the managing editor of and on Fox Sports Net. He can be reached at his e-mail address: rmcgee@foxsports.com.

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