In 1977, auto racing's Janet Guthrie practically redefined badassery when she became the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500, still recognized as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
As a young girl, Guthrie already displayed the fearlessness and adventurous spirit that would serve her well once she entered the male-dominated world of auto racing where she faced passionate rejection, relentless doubt, and a level of sexism that, while far from having dissipated, is overwhelmingly cringeworthy a little over 40 years later. First attracted to flying, one of Guthrie's first experiences in a plane led to skydiving and a fierce love for the skies. However, at the time female pilots were still banned from both the military and the airlines and, as such, Guthrie's enthusiasm waned and she set her sights on studying aeronautical engineering. It was while studying aeronautical engineering that Guthrie first discovered sports cars and, not too far down the road, became obsessed with fast speeds and fast cars.
Janet Guthrie becoming an auto racer was inevitable.
Directed by Jenna Ricker, Qualified tells the story of Janet's overcoming of overwhelming obstacles and unfathomable odds to become one of the first women to be truly identified with auto racing and easily the pioneering spirit for women at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The film takes us painstakingly through those years, using both engaging interviews with Guthrie and a wealth of archival footage to paint a picture of a woman with unwavering commitment to racing success and a racing industry that wasn't quite ready to let her in to what was then essentially a "boys' club." Qualified also vividly captures the painful truth that unlike recent IndyCar drivers like Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick, Guthrie never really was able to find the fame and fortune that seemed inevitably and was certainly deserved.
As a lifelong Indy resident and auto racing devotee, Qualified both entertained me and disturbed me. It's hard, if we're being honest, to watch some of racing's most famous names being so relentlessly and overtly sexist without wondering why you actually idolized them all those years. Fortunately, Ricker balances out the haters with the drivers, crew chiefs, and team owners that she would eventually win over including the likes of Dick Simon, AJ Foyt, Rolla Vollstedt and a host of others. Having had its world premiere at March's SXSW Film Festival, Qualified is screening this week at the Indy Film Fest going on all week at Newfields in Midtown Indy.
If you're from Indy, you likely remember the great dilemma faced by Tony Hulman of whether or not to change the wording in the traditional starting line of "Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!" You may very well remember Guthrie herself, an engaging presence who experienced everything from second-rate equipment to mechanical issues to difficulty attracting sponsors willing to "risk" their advertising dollars on a female driver.
Sexist. Sexist. Sexist.
A rather straightforward yet effective feature doc, Qualified is intelligent, entertaining, and a surprisingly moving film that should unquestionably serve to inspire the up-and-coming generations of drivers both female and male. Guthrie herself makes for a compelling screen presence, a woman who has every reason in the world to be bitter but whose love for all things racing still shines through far brighter than any sort of lingering bitterness.
Being an ESPN 30 for 30 film, the odds are strong that you'll get your own chance to check out Qualified. It's an opportunity I suggest you take and a definite must-see cinematic experience for fans of both IndyCar and NASCAR.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic