The Toyota Celica that launched Janet Guthrie's Indy career

Photography Credit: Chuck Andersen

Story by James Heine

To the casual fan, Lisa Weinberger’s 1972 Toyota Celica is just another old race car saved from oblivion by a series of owners. 

Yet the serious fan knows the 50-year-old Toyota contributed to a milestone moment in motorsports history: It helped Janet Guthrie launch her professional career and become the first woman to race at Indy.

I love this car,” Weinberger says. “It’s a dream to drive. I enjoy every minute in the car.”

Weinberger and her late husband, vintage racer and Chicagoland automobile dealer John Weinberger, who passed away in 2020 after a long illness, acquired the Celica in 1998. The seller was Robert “Bob” Pass, St. Louis classic car collector, successful SVRA racer and one-time co-owner of the organization, and founder of Passport Transport. 

Pass himself had bought the car from Guthrie, parking it for more than a decade before undertaking a restoration. He then raced it in vintage events, where it eventually came to the attention of the Weinbergers.

I love to drive, and I’ve always had a lead foot,” Weinberger said over a recent lunch. “After we attended a three-day Bondurant race school, my husband, who already was an established racer, said, ‘You’re a great driver. Would you like to race?’ And the next thing I know, he found the car with Bob, and he bought it for me.”

Two caretakers, separated by half a century. Janet Guthrie, pictured on the far left at Long Island’s old Bridgehampton Race Circuit, ran the Celica in SCCA competition from 1972 through 1975, winning the 1973 North Atlantic Racing Championship along the way. Lisa Weinberger now campaigns the car on the vintage circuit. Photography Credits: Courtesy Janet Guthrie (top), James Heine

But first, back to the beginning, to the early 1970s and the professional aspirations of Janet Guthrie, a young and already accomplished aerospace engineer and commercial pilot.

The Road to Indy–and the Big Screen

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a B.S. in physics, then landing a job with Republic Aviation, Janet Guthrie joined the SCCA and began racing a Jaguar XK140 with some success. 

As the decade wore on, she gradually expanded into professional sports car racing–including class wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1967 and 1970–with an eye on a full-time motorsports career. In January 1972, the then-30-something engineer bought a 1972 Toyota Celica with the goal of duplicating Bob Sharp’s success with his Datsun 510s and 240Zs. 

She set out to make the Celica into a winning race car. Her aim: the SCCA’s 2.5 Liter Trans-Am Challenge.

I think it’s the only new car I’ve ever owned,” Guthrie recalled in a recent telephone conversation. “I drove it about 50, 60 miles to the shop of one of my small crew of volunteers. We tore it apart, down to the last nut and bolt, and then built it back up as a race car.”

Even with knowledgeable friends, it was a learning process, Guthrie adds, with “a lot of difficulties” along the way. “It was a very hard year,” she says, noting also that the bank pretty much “owned” her life at the time.

Obviously, it wasn’t professionally built,” she explains about the Toyota. “It was built by a bunch of amateurs, myself included, who were sort of feeling their way through this. Really, none of us knew what we were doing. I did the engine building and all that kind of stuff.”

Disappointingly, the series that she intended to race in, the SCCA’s professional 2.5 Liter Challenge, ended before the car was ready. That left the SCCA’s B Sedan, the amateur ranks for small-bore sedans, as the car’s only logical home.

Beginning at Lime Rock in October, Guthrie went on to campaign the car 51 times from late 1972 to the end of the 1975 season, winning the North Atlantic Racing Championship in 1973 and finishing second in 1974. 

Having given up her engineering career, first at Republic Aviation and then at Sperry-Rand, where she served as a technical editor, Guthrie supported herself through odd jobs, putting every spare hour, minute and dollar into her racing efforts–and into making that effort a viable career choice.

The goal was never money, Guthrie explained to Ross Olney in 1978. The most she hoped for, she told him, was a “good ride and some sort of living.”

Yet by the close of 1975, the prospects of her racing career seemed dismal. Aside from modest support from A-1 Toyota in East Haven, Connecticut, her efforts to engage Toyota as a significant partner had come to nothing, or almost nothing. 

She was, as she has often explained, alone, exhausted and in debt, with a worn-out race car and no real job–and after three years of intense effort, no doors to a stable motorsports career had opened for her. In effect, she had sacrificed her career, her social life, and even her apartment to racing–she was living in the back of a storefront.

A low point in life, indeed.

That was the point at which Rolla Vollstedt, whom I had never heard of, called me and asked if I’d like to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500,” Guthrie says.

Vollstedt was a veteran car builder and team owner, and Guthrie determined that his offer was legit and not a joke. She cautiously said yes.

I am eternally grateful to him,” she says about Vollstedt, who passed away at age 99 in 2017. “He changed my life.”

At the end of the 1975 season, Guthrie had an old race car–and not much else. Then Rolla Vollstedt offered her a ride: Indianapolis. In 1977, she became the first woman to drive in the Indy 500. She made starts in 1978 and 1979 as well. Photohraphy Credits: Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

If this seems like the plot of a movie, it is, according to announcements last year. Oscar winner Hilary Swank will star and also serve as the film’s executive producer. Guthrie is as much in the dark about the project as you and I are. “I’m not involved,” she says.

As Guthrie notes, her success with the Celica as well as elsewhere in road racing probably influenced Vollstedt’s Indy offer.

The last race I ever drove with that Celica was at Bridgehampton, and I led it from start to finish,” Guthrie recalls.

Bridgehampton, her all-time favorite track, was also the site of her first win in the Celica in the fall of 1972, shortly after her debut in the car at Lime Rock.

Goodbye, B Sedan; Hello, Vintage Racing

Guthrie parted with the Celica in 1978, consigning it to a Kruse auction in Atlanta, where Bob Pass acquired the little white-and-blue racer. He then squirreled it away, awaiting an appropriate opportunity to resurrect it.

“I couldn’t race it, because it wasn’t good enough for SCCA anymore,” Pass explains, “and for vintage racing, it had to be 20 years old. So I put it in a garage and sat on it. It was in good shape, but it wasn’t like it is now. When it came of age, we restored it.”

The 1991 restoration, Pass adds, was handled through his shop by the late Steve Krinsky, and Pass debuted the car at the Chicago Historics in 1992, racing it until he sold it to the Weinbergers in 1998. At the ’92 Chicago Historics, the Celica also won a concours award, Pass recalls.

“It’s a cool car,” he says. “It’s never been anything but a race car. It’s well built, balanced and easy to drive.”

Weinberger concurs. “I love being on the track with this car,” she says. “It fits me like a glove. John even offered to buy me a faster car, like a Porsche, but I told him, ‘No, I really love the provenance of this being Janet’s car. It doesn’t have to be the fastest car on the track. I just have to get the best performance out of it and do my best and be happy. I don’t want to race another car.’”

In keeping with the day’s SCCA regulations, Guthrie’s old Celica remains fairly close to stock, as a single-cam, four-cylinder engine is still found under the hood. Front fenders are fiberglass, though. Photography Credits: James Heine 

This delights Guthrie. “Lisa has done a very good job driving the Celica,” she says. “I saw her race it once, at Road America in 2005, and as I watched her talking with someone she’d had a close race with afterwards, her enthusiasm and euphoria reminded me very much of my own racing days.”

For Weinberger, there’s another connection, too: “I remember being a teenage girl and watching Janet race at Indy and thinking how cool that was, that a woman was on the track. I was glued to the TV set. I was into racing–and into Janet Guthrie racing. To meet her when I acquired the car, and to know her to this day, has been wonderful. She’s a wonderful woman.”

And the future of the car?

“I don’t want to ever get rid of this car,” Weinberger says, smiling. “I think it belongs in a museum. Janet built it. She raced it. It was the beginning of her career. When I get tired of driving it–which might be, hopefully, like my husband, when I’m in my 80s–then I want it to go to another female driver.”

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Comments
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sir_mike
sir_mike Reader
3/2/22 4:37 p.m.

Great piece of history.Nice to see it still being used as designed.

hobiercr
hobiercr UltraDork
3/3/22 12:31 p.m.

Really great article! Seeing this car vintage racing motivates me to move forward on my vintage build.

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