Inspirational and Goal-Driven Racing Pioneer Lyn St. James

Lyn St. James worked her way from competing in local Florida races to racing in renowned events such as the Indy 500, 12 Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Daytona, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and 24 Hours of Nürburgring. An inspiration for all racers, she now participates in vintage races and is an ambassador and motivational speaker.

Lyn St. James in her Ford Mustang race car in 1982
In her Ford Mustang race car in 1982. Photo courtesy of Lyn St. James.

TCA: Coming from a background as a secretary and piano teacher, how did you get into racing?

LSJ: Well, I grew up in kind of a car culture really in the Midwest, and I was a race fan. I went to the drag races, I went to the Indy 500 as a spectator. I mean, racing was certainly on the radar screen, but strictly as a spectator. It wasn’t until quite a few years later — I didn’t start racing until I was 27. When I moved to Florida and went to the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring as a spectator, I found out that people did this as a hobby besides at the professional level.

Even though I knew a lot of people who I did some drag racing with when I was a teenager, it wasn’t really for me — sitting in line, waiting to go down, and it’s over in a few seconds. But I saw road racing, and I saw this endurance racing, and I saw real people drove race cars. They were in Corvettes and Camaros and Porsches, besides the stars who were up in the front.

I found out about the Sports Car Club of America and went to a couple of those races in South Florida, and I found out that you can go to driver’s school and get a competition license. That’s what I wanted to do. I went out and got a Ford Pinto, which was my street car. I prepared it with a roll bar, a five-point seat belt, and a fire extinguisher, took it to driver’s school, and just never looked back.

It’s not an easy sport by any stretch of the imagination. Even to this day I still race, and it’s a very complex sport. It requires human resources, it requires technical resources, it requires financial resources, which are all very hard to pull together. It’s not just something where you go buy a tennis racket and you go out to play against the wall or you go out to a court somewhere and get an opponent. It has much more moving parts and elements to be able to figure it out.

Did you have any inspirations?

Not really. I was married at the time, and fortunately, my husband and I went together. He was as keen on this as I was, so that helped a lot. I wouldn’t call it an inspiration, but it’s certainly a lot of help.

As I look back, you know, a lot of times we see things we didn’t see at the time. Because I went to a girls school, I got sports, where if I had gone to public school, that wouldn’t have been offered. They didn’t have the sports for girls. So, I think I was blessed to be able to participate in sports.

Lyn St. James racing at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring
Leading a group at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. Photo courtesy of Lyn St. James.

I didn’t consider myself a great athlete. And then I remember watching Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in 1973. I think that somehow impacted me, with a woman tennis player beating a male. He was a lot older than her. It got national attention. I think somewhere, probably in the back of my mind, it kind of gave me permission to do something that maybe would have not been considered the right thing for a girl to do. Consciously I never say that to myself, but sometimes we have a lot of subconscious messages that our brains are processing that we’re not necessarily paying constant attention to.

And later, I became very much an advocate for women in sports. I got to meet Billie Jean, and my life changed dramatically. But at the time, if you were to talk about inspiration — I think that probably had some impact. My husband wanted to build a Corvette and all that. So it was more that I had allies for it than I had inspiration.

You raced during the same time and even co-drove with Janet Guthrie. Since the both of you were kind of rarities at the time, was there any rivalry between you two?

No. At the time I started racing, I didn’t know anything about Janet Guthrie. When she came to Indy in the late ’70s, she gained all kinds of attention. And I was racing, but I was racing in the amateur and very low levels, local levels. So, I didn’t relate to her in that sense, and quite frankly she was at a much higher level. I was amazed at how they appeared to not really want her there. I mean, with the media and the editors, there was a lot of controversy when she showed up at Indy. I didn’t sense that in my life. In my world, I felt like I was part of something.

But I did get a chance to meet her and race with her in the late ’70s at Sebring. But again, she was way up on the pedestal, and I was just this local Florida girl. By the time I got to what I’d call my professional time — in the ’80s and when I got Ford as a sponsor, and then of course in the ’90s when I got to Indy — she had already retired. So, we were never really contemporaries. It was just for that one time at Sebring.

Racing when you did, were there any challenges to competing in the male dominated sport of auto racing?

The challenges are every time you show up to the race track. No matter how well prepared you think you are, no matter how much you want to do well, it’s incredibly difficult to get to a race track, to have a car prepared, to have all the pieces in place.

I was just kind of, it is what it is. I’m proud of the fact that I’m a woman and I am a race car driver, so it’s not like I’m a woman race car driver. I never felt that I was different. I think it’s important to, for any of us, that we have our feet on the ground about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about women. I was trying to earn respect and do well. I mean, I felt pretty good when I did well, and I felt really shitty when I didn’t. So, it was really more about how I felt about me as opposed to worrying about what other people thought about me. And I kind of always had stayed true to that, and I think that’s helped me survive and helped me stay grounded and not get too carried away.

I certainly have realized that through the Women’s Sports Foundation and working with Billie Jean that I actually have a responsibility and an opportunity to impact the way people think about what women are capable of. I certainly realized there was a power behind what I was doing in the later years. That was a tool — that was a benefit of what I was doing. I just never got it in the way of me doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I just loved to drive race cars, and that’s why I do what I do. I realized there was this benefit, I guess you could say, and opportunity to do that and the powerful tool to benefit others, which feels good. You like to feel that what you’re doing in this world actually — in some way, shape, or form — can benefit other people or change the way, positively, how people think. That’s a really cool bonus.

What made you decide to move from endurance racing to CART and IndyCar?

I never really decided that. I liked endurance racing because it’s a chief sport, and you get a lot of seat time. I just wanted to drive an Indy car because they’re the ultimate. Maybe some people say Formula 1, but that wasn’t in my stratosphere. I really just wanted to drive an Indy car. It’s called perfection. And as I got better as a race car driver, I wanted to see how I would stack up and what would it feel like.

Lyn St. James at 1993 Indianapolis 500
Lyn St. James at the 1993 Indianapolis 500. Photo courtesy of Lyn St. James.

I finally got that opportunity in 1988 when Dick Simon gave me that opportunity to drive an Indy car. I definitely took to it better than I anticipated, and I liked it. He watched me and said, “We can do this.” He didn’t say, “You can do this,” he just said, “We can do this,” which was very powerful because then I realized I had somebody who saw my ability and also had the resources. He had cars and teams, and he was in the business. That inspired me. I think I looked at him like, “Are you serious?” He was like, “Yes.” And so it set me on that path. It took us four years before I was able to find sponsorship.

So, it’s just having a little bit of a dream, and the dream comes true. The dream was just to drive the car, and then the dream became a reality, which then turned into a challenge and a goal. I mean, it literally turned from just a dream, reality, and then, “Oh my god, I have a new goal.” Kind of like what the heck am I really thinking? But I couldn’t stop — I could not not do it. But I’m glad I did.

You were the first woman to win Rookie of the Year at Indy. What was that like?

I’m a very goal-oriented person, so when I get a goal, I get really, really focused. First of all, I never even knew there was such a thing until I got to Indy. I didn’t know they had a Rookie of the Year. You go to these meetings with all the rookies, and then the talk starts about it. There were like 11 rookies that year, so it was a big field. I didn’t even learn about it until I actually got to Indy and throughout the month of May. And then I was like: “There’s no way. There’s no way in hell.” I found out that it’s evaluated on a lot of different things — your qualifying position, your finishing position, but also other things done by this group of media people. And, of course, they were all males. So, I was like, “There’s no way.”

That wasn’t even on my radar screen, and when that was announced at the victory banquet, I was totally, totally taken aback. But what was more a bigger part of the story was that Dick Simon, my owner who had taken more rookies to Indy than any other team owner and was very successful and very well known for that, had never won Rookie of the Year with any of those drivers. What was so cool was to not only be taken aback and my sense of pride, but I really felt that that was sort of a trophy for him, winning for all the other rookies that he’d taken. It was very cool. I asked them if they would make a trophy so that he could have a trophy.

Lyn St. James at the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans
At the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans. Photo courtesy of Lyn St. James.

What is it like having competed in perhaps some of the most prestigious races, like the Indy 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the 24 Hours of Daytona?

It’s extraordinary. These are iconic races that I’d read about and watched, that I knew that the people who race in those are the best of the best. And then when you get there, and you actually do it, particularly at Daytona and Indy to have the success we had. At Le Mans, we didn’t have that kind of success. But at the same time, it’s almost, what I might call it, an out of body experience. You’re just living it and wondering all of those years that you wondered what it would be like in your mind. And particularly like at Daytona as a spectator at that event and then racing in it a number of times, and we actually had the win.

You almost have to hit yourself upside the head and say: “Hey, you’re not a spectator, you’re actually doing it. Pay attention.” You’ve got to really slap yourself sometimes and kind of be in the moment and actually be doing what you’re doing and try not to observe what you’re doing. It’s a wonderful feeling to accomplish things that are not only goals, but are goals that are pretty lofty.

What is your favorite experience of your racing career?

That’s an impossible one to answer because there have been so many. I just raced a 1927 Bugatti Type 35C at Laguna Seca, and I was wanting to see what it was like driving one of those Bugattis that the women of the ’20s and ’30s raced. That certainly doesn’t necessarily take the top of the list, but it’s the most recent one. Racing at Indy is obviously the epitome of accomplishments, and my driving style is so well suited to that type of racing. So, that was perfection for me. And then racing at Le Mans.

There’s just too many. Going to Talladega and setting a speed record, and racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats last year and setting a record there. I’m just so blessed to have all of these extraordinary experiences. I could never, ever just pick one.

Lyn St. James in her 1993 Indy car
Behind the wheel of her Indy car in 1993. Photo courtesy of Lyn St. James.

What is the first car you ever drove ten-tenths?

The first car I drove ten-tenths was the Ford Pinto. I had to learn how to do that, it was ten-tenths for sure. I had to use the handbrake and every bit of rubber I could get down on the pavement. It wasn’t a lot of horsepower, but putting it down and thinking about momentum and clip angles — that was the best experience to start for me. It was affordable, it had protection around it, and it wasn’t so much power that I could get into so much trouble. I had to learn how to get everything I could out of it.

What made you retire from auto racing full time, and what do you do now?

My last Indy 500 was in 2000, and I was 53 years old, so I was behind the curve and I knew it. I didn’t like it, I didn’t want it to be that way, but as much as we’d like to deny it or hate to accept it and totally deny it, certain things slow down. Reaction times, your concentration, all of that. There’s just certain things that you need to have if you’re going to be at that level of the sport.

That closed that chapter of my career. And quite frankly, I had a dormant period for a while because I don’t own race cars, I really don’t have the financial ability to do that, and my life changed in many ways. So, I kind of had a dormant period and thought maybe my racing days were over, which was really depressing.

And then sometime in the mid-2000s, I got an invitation to be a grand marshal at a vintage race, and they didn’t have a budget to pay me. I said: “Oh, I’d love to do it. But can you get me a drive in something and then you don’t have to worry about paying me?” I got into this Formula Atlantic car and just had a blast. It just brought me back to life.

That’s how the whole vintage racing thing happened. It’s still pretty sporadic, but it just feeds my soul. You don’t have to be 100 percent at the top of your game. You’re not going at the speeds of an Indy car and all that kind of stuff. So, I didn’t decide, my body decided pretty much. I’m just blessed that I can still race.

Lyn St. James driving a Chevron B39 Formula Atlantic at an IMS vintage race
At the vintage races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a Chevron B39 Formula Atlantic. Photo courtesy of Lyn St. James.

It also gives me the opportunity to not only be a little bit more available to make appearances. I do book signings. I’m also an ambassador for the RPM Foundation, which stands for Restoration, Preservation & Mentorship. I get so sick and tired of everybody saying young people don’t care about cars. Our society’s changed, and maybe all of us don’t need cars like we did 10, 20, 30 years ago. But it’s not that they don’t care about them — it’s that they don’t have the same way of caring about them as we did.

There are opportunities for people to understand mechanics, who really have mechanical aptitude. There’s a whole career opportunity for them to be able to restore and preserve the cars because it’s also part of history. You don’t even have to necessarily want to be a racer or a mechanic, but you have to care about the history of our country, the history of the world, and many times it’s tied around the automobile and around other mechanical objects. I really enjoy the opportunity to get that message out and to interact with young people at their schools, bring students to the races, to different concours and events around the world. There’s a real need for it. There’s an opportunity for people and the parents to understand the career potential for their kids. It’s not just a grease monkey job.

I’m kind of exploring new venues with that, and of course I still have scholarship programs for women in racing. I’m still trying to help those gals who are out there and really are serious about their racing, to see if there’s a way I can help them get up the ladder.

For any girls or women wanting to get into the sport of auto racing, do you have any advice for them?

First of all, go-karting is a great way to just give it a whirl, give it a try. And if you get yourself in a go-kart and it’s fun, and you seem to kind of like the idea of sliding around and bumping and grinding a little bit wheel to wheel, and you can do that in a go-kart, don’t be discouraged.

The next thing is to find people to do it with, whether it’s family or friends. You’ve got to find people to do it with. And at that point, do it as well as you can, learn as much as you can, and then decide whether if it’s something you just want to do for fun, which is absolutely OK, or whether you are so serious that you want to try to do it professionally. And at that point, call me.

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