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 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 shewed away from their ambitions by social pressures and family, but she came from an academically-driven household. 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. Drivers 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 viewing 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. A charming speed queen, she never heeds the ignorance of those around her.
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, and even we don’t believe the payoff will come ever come for her: qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Not because we hope against it, but to hope would hurt too much when it’s not given.
However, when it’s achieved the elation is nearly too much to bear — as well as when her career is taken away. Indeed, the ending will leave you wanting more, just as Guthrie did from her racing career. ESPN’s 30 for 30 brand has taken on a life of its own, demonstrating quality in investigating and presenting not only major events, but vaguely remembered ones as well, and bringing them back into context. In Ricker’s film, you’ll also come to appreciate and applaud an athlete who became an icon and made the world better one left turn at a time.
An official selection of SXSW 2019 and an upcoming 30 for 30 film