Only one Indianapolis 500 exists. Just one. The granddaddy of open-wheel racing – long the bastion of testosterone and male sweat. Up until 1977, no woman had ever qualified for the storied race. No woman that is, until Janet Guthrie. Produced by ESPN films and debuting at SXSW 2019, director Jenna Ricker‘s inspiring documentary Qualified is a testament to the sheer will and courage of Guthrie.
The film opens with super 8mm footage of her driving, and we find that in many respects Guthrie was lucky. Most young women are shooed away from their ambitions by social pressure and family, but she came from an academically-driven household. However, while she attended school to study engineering, she was also jumping out of planes. Literally. She’s lived on the edge since she can remember.
Nevertheless, it’s not until her purchase of a Jaguar XK120 coupe that she begins to race. And you know what? She’s pretty damn good at it. So good that she comes to the attention of Rolla Vollstedt – famed race-car builder and innovator. He tells her that he’ll invest to get her into the Indianapolis 500, and what follows in Ricker’s film is the sad, yet familiar story of gender discrimination.
There are plenty of men who – at the time – dismissed Guthrie with sexist baiting and pure ignorance. Men like Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. The headlines written during the 1970’s, questioning her stamina or the fear of her getting herself hurt, come like high-speed crashes into wall, disabling the viewer with shaken disbelief. Posterity is a cruel bug, indeed.
Still, Guthrie – then and now – is utterly inspiring. She possesses astounding will and resolve. Where many would have departed, she continues on. She proves herself in NASCAR and other Indy-Car races in lesser cars and poorer equipment, managing to finish in the top 10 several times.
Her journey is immaculately traced by Ricker, who worked on OJ: Made in America and is currently filming the ESPN Chicago Bulls documentary. We ride in the passenger seat with Guthrie through her deepest trials and tribulations, believing the payoff won’t come for her or us. Not because we hope against it, but to hope would hurt too much when it’s not given.
However, when she does qualify as the first female driver in the Indianapolis 500, the elation is nearly too much to bear – as well as the hurt when her career is taken away. Indeed, the ending will leave you wanting more just as Guthrie did from her racing career. Nevertheless, you’ll also come to appreciate and applaud a woman and athlete’s performance who became an icon and made the world better one left turn at a time.