By Lewis Franck, Special Report
Most people will remember Janet Guthrie as the first woman to qualify and race at the Indy 500 only she wasn’t the first woman to, officially, participate at the Brickyard.
Five years before Guthrie; Wanda Knepper was the first woman USAC (then the sanctioning body) licensed to be a mechanic at Indianapolis. Until that time no woman was allowed to work in the garages or pits.
Arnold “Arnie” Knepper was a scrappy, basically, one-man-band building and racing oval cars from midgets and up. He had everything he needed to race – except big money.
One day he told his wife, Wanda, “’I need your help in the garage’ from there it got worse and worse,” the 84-year old told KicknTheTires.net, laughing.
Arnie kept his racing all in the family including Wanda and their three children “When we’d go on the road there was no one to help. It was up to me to help load the car” and do anything else that was required.
“In those days women weren’t allowed in the pits,” said Wanda but, “everywhere we’d go the officials got used to seeing me. Me lying to them, ‘I’d say “I’ll leave (the infield) in a minute’” she chuckled. “They ignored me. I got to be one of the guys.”
The nighttime races brought their own quirks. If she had to return from outside of the track
“I learned to bang on the back of the cars so I wouldn’t surprise the guys taking a leak” in the unlit areas.
In the winter of 1971, some of Arnie’s buddies scraped up enough money to buy a used Gurney Eagle. But Arnie’s full-time job kept him on the road three weeks every month.
“When he was home he started working on the car” she continued. “But when he left, he’d leave me a list of things to do when he was gone.”
“I had to learn to weld.” She had friends who taught her how to pop rivet and others teach her how strip off the old paint.
The next hurdle was at the USAC Indy credential office. Arnie knew that no woman had ever been permitted to work in the garage before. He filled out the form “W. Knepper”. The officials said, “where’s Wally?” meaning Knepper’s cousin.
“He shoved me… I hit the counter” and all of them flew back, hit a wall, stunned.
At first, her license was denied. Arnie argued that she owned midget cars and she a registered mechanic.
In the end, USAC relented “we’ve never done this before, and we knew Wanda and she won’t get in the way” they told the Kneppers.
Except there were three conditions they told her.
“‘You can’t go over the wall (hot pits).’
Every night at 6 at night when we close the garage you have to come out.’
“They sent a yellow shirt (security guard) after me every night to walk me out to the other side of the fence and left me standing there”.
She couldn’t use the men’s room. “I said ‘thank God’. There are men who don’t want to use the men’s room” because it was so filthy”.
Sadly, Arnie who raced the 500, consecutively, from 1965 to 1969, didn’t qualify for the 1972 race due to two blown engines. And he passed away in 1992.
Other women may rightfully claim the bigger and current headlines, but Wanda Knepper was the first woman to break the gender barrier working at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.