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ESPN to Premiere Janet Guthrie Documentary

by Frank Santoroski           @seveng1967 

While there is still a long way to go, the search for gender equality has made large gains over the past several decades. It is commonplace this day and age to see women successfully filling important, high-profile roles in business, commerce and government.

In the world of sports, however, males and females are routinely separated into their own leagues. Motorsports is one of the few sporting disciplines that will allow women to compete directly against men, although female racers are still largely considered the exception, rather than the rule.

The Indianapolis 500, and the Indycar series in general, have been more open to the idea of female racers competing than say, Formula One or Stock Cars. The 500 has seen as many as four women in a single field on three separate occasions.

But, it hasn’t always been that way. Each of those drivers, while experiencing struggles of their own along the way, owe a debt of gratitude to the person that first kicked that door open, namely Janet Guthrie.

Premiering on May 28, 2019, the latest installment of the ESPN 30 for 30 film series will feature Janet Guthrie as the subject. The film, titled Qualified, chronicles her bid to become the first woman to compete on the biggest stage in racing, the Indianapolis 500, a feat she achieved in 1977.

Additionally a number of other notable firsts from Guthrie, including running the Daytona 500 and the World 600 in Charlotte are covered, combined with an intimate look at her behind the scenes struggles with sponsorship, equipment, and gender-bias.

Jenna Ricker sets up a shot at IMS

Director Jenna Ricker sets up a shot at IMS

The film is the brainchild of New York City based filmmaker Jenna Ricker, who served as both producer and director on the project.  Having had successful festival runs with the films Ben’s Plan (2007) and The American Side (2012), the thought of producing a documentary feature came to her after developing a love for the Indianapolis 500.

“I grew up listening to the radio broadcast and watching the tape-delayed TV coverage of the 500 with my Dad. So I knew a bit about it peripherally, but I really wasn’t a race fan,” explained Ricker.

“About ten years ago I was asked if I’d like to go to the Indy 500. I was a little skeptical. I thought, It’s going to be hot, it’s a long race, do I really want to do this? But, I was told that if I went, I would not be disappointed.  And, I wasn’t.”

“I instantly fell in love with the Indy 500 specifically,” continued Ricker, “but also all of the dynamics that go along with Motorsports. It’s just fascinating to me, and I was overwhelmed with the epic nature of the event itself.”

A trip to Indianapolis in May then became an annual pilgrimage for Jenna Ricker. In her quest to learn more about the first woman to race at the Speedway, she picked up a copy of A Life at Full Throttle, Janet Guthrie’s autobiography.

“The book was an amazing read. I looked Janet up, surprised her with a phone call, and asked if she would be willing to work together on this documentary.”

After flying out to meet with Janet Guthrie in Colorado, and spending a few days with her, Ricker and her production team put together a pitch and brought it to ESPN where they were given the green light.

The ESPN 30 for 30 series has grown a reputation for showcasing exceptional films that tackle a variety of subjects. Qualified fits the mold quite nicely.

The completed film combines contemporary interviews with tons of archival footage from the period. Additionally, viewers will be treated to digitally-restored Super-8 home movies from the Guthrie family that will be seen by the public for the first time.

Among the more daunting tasks for the director was poring through the thousands of hours of film available and deciding exactly what bits would work best to tell the story.

Janet Guthrie with the production team fromQualified’

“The challenge of moving from a narrative style of film making to a documentary lies in shaping the story points that I hoped we would find in the edit, versus knowing what you’ve got going into the edit.” said Ricker.  “Because so much of the film is told archivally, it was a a bit of a search and rescue mission.”

The contemporary footage includes interview segments with some of Guthrie’s competitors including Johnny Rutherford and A.J. Foyt, as well as those that were involved in her racing effort, like Dick Simon, Bruce Vollstedt and Jim Lindholm.

The most compelling thing about the film is the fact that the bulk of the narration is provided by Janet Guthrie herself. Ms. Guthrie, who still looks amazing after all these years, lends an unfiltered first-hand account to the story, giving the film true texture and depth.

Qualified is set to air on ESPN on May 28, 2019 at 8 pm EST. After that, look for rebroadcasts on ESPN or any of their affiliated channels.

Click Here to hear Drafting the Circuits’entire interview with Jenna Ricker.

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