The Indy 500 That Bettie Cadou Knew – Indianapolis Monthly
May 28, 1971 was a balmy Indiana morning, with a clear spring sky above the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The men paraded down the runway in jackets and pants, the women in dresses and heels. One of them would go down in history that day: Bettie Fruits, later Cadou, who became the first female journalist to have access to Gasoline Alley and the race stands 50 years ago today. .
A photograph from the Speedway archives captured the moment she received the credentials: the Borg-Warner Trophy is taller than her and track owner Tony Hulman, Jr. who had just lost a lawsuit brought by Mari McCloskey, a twenty-five-year-old writer for Women’s world magazine. McCloskey won a restraining order that made it illegal for Speedway officials not to allow women the same access as men. For decades before, women were not seen as different from the color green in these parts of the Speedway: just bad luck.
In the photo, you can see the little metal faces frozen in the trophy win that watched this story unfold, as well as a few of the real life looking at metal chairs including Johnny Rutherford, Steve Krisiloff and Mel Kenyon. And there’s Bettie Fruits, alone in sunglasses in the middle of it all, winning her fight for the right to do her job for the Indianapolis News.
His reporting on the track at that time was limited to stories about the pilot’s wives, children and fashion, and was confined to his “women’s section.” She was a fan of the show, sure, but what she really wanted was the opportunity and responsibility any other journalist would have – to cover the state’s most important news events, like the 500.
Fruits’s first column after receiving normal media references, “Gasoline Alley Goes Feminine,” is a first-person account of her walk in the pits that day. The reaction to his presence was mixed. She wrote that some men were happy for her, others combative and ugly. Few of the drivers wanted to talk to him. She closed the column on a melancholy note, writing “The tradition is broken and in a way it makes me a little sad.”
The history of the Speedway is defined by lore, and half a century later many more have been shattered. On the second day of qualifying for this year’s race, I sat with Tad Fruits, one of Bettie’s three children, in the shade of the high penthouse seats as a red and white car driven by Simona De Silvestro torn from the pit lane. . De Silvestro is one of the few female drivers to have raced in the more than 100 year history of racing, and the only one this year. She races for Paretta Autosport, the very first 500 competitor owned and driven by women.
It was Bump Day, with five drivers competing for just three places in the race. De Silvestro took off and the power of the engine pushed her back into the seat; the g-force on the turn jostled her to the right, gravity indifferent to gender. His car immediately whistled forward like a land jet. Then she was on her own, at 230 miles an hour, as the car rolled over the brick yard to the finish line and into the pits where she would await the results with the rest of the Paretta team.
When the speakers announced that Paretta and De Silvestro had done it, the crowd erupted. Tad texted one of his sisters, and they agreed: Bettie would have loved the moment. (Later, De Silvestro was interviewed by Katie Kiel, one of two full-time journalists working for the IndyCar Broadcast Team, a scene that surely would have surprised Cadou’s contemporaries much more than her walk through the pits.)
Somewhere in those pits, AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti, who both competed in that 1971 race that Fruits covered, were working hard for their teams. Both men supported Janet Guthrie, who during this decade would go down in history as the first woman to run in the 500. Traditions change, but sometimes too slowly. In the four-plus decades since Guthrie took to the track, even fewer than a dozen women have raced at the top level of IndyCar.
We come together in this roofless church to worship innovation and ambition. And we always celebrate the tradition, both public and private – Tad, for example, followed his mother’s interest in documenting Hoosier’s life with a camera.
History can shed light on who we are or want to be. When we are too stubborn, it can prevent us from speeding up the way we should. The past year has pushed us violently into the future, even though we sometimes felt like we were hanging around. After all of that, and with Betty’s legacy in mind: here is the welcome of a new generation to the track, ready to set their own pace, like the riders before them.