Movie Review – “Qualified”

Janet Guthrie at Indianapolis. [Paul Gohde Photo]

by Paul Gohde

It’s not often that movie-goers will find a racing film on the schedule of the Milwaukee Film Festival, but one appeared this year that combined the competition aspects of motorsports with the struggles that female athletes in many sports face: recognition of their varied skills and financial support that often lags far behind that of their male counterparts.

And so it was that film director Jenna Ricker and producer Caroline Waterlow approached ESPN films with a story that featured those elements along with a racing tale that explored the highs and frustrating lows of 1970’s woman racer Janet Guthrie and her attempts to become the first woman driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500.

Guthrie, a rather shy person is who now 80 and resides in Aspen, CO, was at first reluctant to participate in the movie project, but eventually decided that her story might help to inspire other women to achieve their dreams. “We felt the time was right to shine a light on Janet again and to put her story back in the history books and back on people’s radar because it’s been forgotten a little bit,” explained Waterlow, who has been involved with other sports documentaries for ESPN.

Guthrie’s story is familiar to most racing fans but might be a bit lost on current women athletes who continue to face the challenges that Guthrie dealt with over 40 years ago.

She was an aeronautics engineer with a youthful zest for sports car racing in the 60’s and 70’s who was offered an unlikely chance to try to become the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, a race dominated by male drivers since its inaugural run in 1911.

Through the use of vast amounts of archival racing footage (perhaps 80% of the film), combined with interviews with drivers, crewmen, motorsports figures (think AJ Foyt and Johnny Rutherford) and Guthrie herself, the 80-minute film tells her story, highlighting her success in striving to reach her goal.

But all didn’t end happily for the then 40-year old driver as financial support that could have led to a full-time drive for a top-tier team dried up by 1980, along with a recurring theme among some in the motorsports community that a woman just couldn’t be successful in facing the demanding pressures of the sport.

“She ultimately left the sport in a bittersweet fashion,” Waterlow noted. “A hard departure for her that dredged up a lot of that history when she first saw the movie.”

Along with her eventual three-year run in the 500, Guthrie also raced in many NASCAR stock car races including the Daytona 500.

Ultimately, “Qualified” shows that not only did Guthrie Qualify for the Indy 500, but that women in other sports are every bit Qualified to compete in a man’s world.

This ESPN documentary premiered at a film festival in Austin, TX and another in Aspen at which Guthrie appeared and received a standing ovation from the audience. It can be found streaming on several television outlets and is highly recommended, especially for those who want to know more about this pioneer of the sport and those who helped her reach her goal; and some who brought her career to a sad halt.

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