Take a moment to read with Ted Gushue’s Q & A with Lyn for Petrolicious, excerpted here:
Despite her successful career as celebrated activist and orator, to pigeonhole Lyn St. James as a feminist would completely undersell so much of her tremendous life story, and why she chose to compete in motorsport from the beginning. It wasn’t to prove a point or to forward any sort of agenda; it was a pure and simple desire to drive as fast as possible as often as possible.
In my opinion, Lyn St. James isn’t just a hero for women, she’s a hero for all of us. She woke up one day and found a way to get her butt on a track to drive. Not just as a woman, but as an enthusiast, which lead her all the way to Le Mans. It was a real honor to sit down with her at the Arizona Concourse the other day, and I’m very pleased to be able to share that conversation with you.
Ted Gushue: So Lyn, what was the first car you ever drove?
Lyn St. James: The first car I ever drove was my family car. It was a Ford Fairlane convertible. It was my dad’s too, but it was my mom’s car, basically. That was the first car I ever drove.
TG: Were you legally allowed to drive?
LSJ: No. My mom taught me how to drive when I was 15. I used to work at a summer resort. When the summer was over, that resort was desolate. It was like a ghost town. She would let me drive around those streets because she knew there was no traffic.
TG: Was driving the car a momentous occasion for you? Was it a big deal?
LSJ: The car wasn’t a big deal, driving was the big deal. I remember the policeman, or whatever, when I took my test said, “You seem awfully confident.” Because literally, on my 16th birthday, I was more than ready. I said, “A little bit.” I was like, “Give me my license. I’m out of here.” It wasn’t about the car. It was just the driving.
TG: Had you always grown up in a car family? How did you know you had some sort of destiny to be in the automotive world?
LSJ: I never knew I was destined. Never, really, until it all came to fruition. My mom had polio as an infant, as a three-year-old. Even though she could walk, she couldn’t walk very well or very confidently or very far. For her, a car was everything. Without knowing that this was probably having an impact on me – and I was an only child – it was to the point of almost being boring. My mom and that car always had to be in the driveway. She knew a lot about cars, taught me about them; I had to learn how to check the oil, I had to learn how to check the air in the tires, things like that.
On Sunday, January 12, the Jet Center Sunday Drive will begin with a delicious breakfast and a morning show style interview with automotive icons including Barry Meguiar and race car driver Lyn St James. Neither of these icons need any introduction, and you will have the opportunity to mingle and enjoy breakfast with Barry, Lyn and others, then enjoy the interview by Rain City Supercars emcee Nicholas Bergeron and Jason Bourriage with plenty of opportunity for audience questions.
After breakfast is a delightful drive on Arizona back roads, returning to Scottsdale for a winery lunch and wine tasting.
Upon return to Scottsdale, enjoy wine tasting at the Desert Rock Winery as well as a catered lunch to complete your wonderful day mingling with new friends, sharing stories and enjoying some of the best Arizona wines, ciders and other beverages available.
Capacity of this truly special event is very limited and will sell out as it does every year. Do not miss this fun opportunity to meet Barry, Lyn and these automotive icons, and have a delightful drive on the Arizona back roads.
The Jet Center Sunday Drive happens on Sunday January 12, 2020:
8:00 am breakfast, mingle and tour the Toy Barn
8:30 – 9:30am morning show style interviews
9:45 driver meeting
10:00 depart for back road drive
approx 1:00 pm arrive at Desert Rock Winery for lunch and wine tasting
Indy racer Lyn St James recently joined Horsepower Chrome & Rust on a podcast where she shared information about her career as a racer, coach and spokesperson & more. For more information, please visit their Facebook page or take a listen here:
Savannah is known for its century old buildings, antique shops, boutiques, and fabulous River Street restaurants. What is not so well-known is that Savannah is the birth place of Grand Prix racing in the United States, hosting the American Grand Prize race first in 1908. In 1910 the city ran a Grand Prix and in 1911 invited the prestigious Vanderbilt Cup.
The Savannah Speed Classic offers a unique road race experience on the 10 turn, 1.965 mile Grand Prize of America Road Course. From Pre WW1 cars that ran in a Vanderbilt Cup race to classic Jaguars, MGs, and Porsches, the Savannah Speed Classic grids will showcase a rolling history of motorsports. SVRA “Gold Medallion” cars will figure prominently in the weekend.
The Savannah Speed Classic, October 25-27, starts off a kind of “Speedweek” that spans nine days and includes, the Car Club Jamboree, the Motoring Midway and the Concours d’Elegance on Hilton Head, November 1-3.
Before she was racing in the Indianapolis 500, or winning the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring, or even driving at Roebling Road Raceway, motorsports legend Lyn St. James had to start her career somewhere.
It was behind the wheel of a Ford Pinto at a racing school in South Florida.
“It was my street car,” St. James recalled of the Pinto, which by adding a roll bar, a five-point seat belt and a fire extinguisher, was deemed race ready for the Showroom Stock class.
“I could afford to do it,” she said of using the subcompact for both racing and daily commutes. “I couldn’t afford two cars.”
For those too young to remember or who have chosen to block out the memory of the 1970s-era Pinto, it might not have been the ugliest car St. James ever raced. The AMC Gremlin arguably has that title.
“To be honest, I was trying to build my experience,” said St. James, 72, who will serve at the grand marshal this weekend at the Savannah Speed Classic. “I was not picky.”
She was 27 in 1974, an Ohio native who grew up a racing fan and dabbled in drag and street racing as a teen. She was a spectator first at the Indy 500, and later at Daytona and Sebring after she moved to Florida.
As she gained racing experience that first decade in the Southeast, she went on occasion to Roebling Road in Bloomingdale.
“It’s got its challenges,” she said. “It’s a good little track. It’s great that it’s there and it’s still there.”
She has never raced at the Grand Prize of America road course on Hutchinson Island, and is excited to come to Savannah this week and see the layout which she described as stunning, with the track and the neighboring Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa.
“I’m going to get around the track. I’m not going to do that at speed or in an aggressive manner,” St. James said.
Before making assumptions about St. James’ retirement from racing, she has good reason for being on cruise control. She is recovering from a back injury from an automobile accident in early August.
“Fortunately, I will heal. Unfortunately, it takes a long time,” said St. James, who was interviewed by phone after a physical therapy session in Phoenix, Arizona, her residence for 16 years.
Now, because this is Lyn St. James, it should be explained that the accident was during a vintage car race on a road course inside Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She was traveling 90-100 mph in a 1963 Corvette when “a tire went down” leading to a single-car crash.
“It’s just a case of the luck of the draw and timing when things happen,” she said. “It’s never fun. My last crash in a race was 2000 at the Indy 500.”
That’s right, for 19 years she’s continued to compete in “a fair number of races,” including those in the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association — which will be operating in Savannah this weekend — and for which she feels blessed and gratitude.
“The last 10 years of my life has pretty much been a reintroduction to this type of racing which has sustained my ability to be part of the sport,” St. James said.
While the crash was “a bit of a shock” to her system, her fondness for Indianapolis has not waned.
“I love that track. It’s not the fault of the track when bad things happen. I don’t hold it against it.”
That’s completely understandable, considering the Indy 500′s place in motorsports and St. James’ history there.
The road to Indy
After years of working her way up the sport, of waiting years to get a sponsorship from Ford Motor Company (yes, the manufacturer of the Pinto) and eventually impressing IndyCar team owner Dick Simon to give this rookie the keys, St. James made her Indy 500 debut in 1992.
She would have her best finish (11th) in seven starts and become the oldest driver and first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. St. James made six consecutive starts from 1992-97, and was the oldest driver in the field at 53 at her last Indy 500 in 2000.
St. James has raced all kinds of cars at tracks around the globe, set speed records, twice competed in the 24 Hours of LeMans, twice won the 24 Hours of Daytona (1987, 1990); raced at Sebring nine times and won in 1990; and is a member of both the Sports Car Club of America and Florida Sports halls of fame.
Yet, she contends that she “would have been forgotten quickly” if not for her connection to the Indy 500, which “transcends any other race.”
“It’s probably the only race that regardless of where you’re from in the world, that people know it,” St. James said. “If somebody asks what do you do and you say a race car driver, they often ask, ‘Did you ever race in the Indy 500?’ It’s cemented in the minds of people.
“For a driver, it’s the top of the heap, it’s the thing you dream about. I have to say I never thought it would happen.”
She differentiates dreams from goals, which she set and made plans for achieving them. She wanted to win as many races as she could. She wanted to win championships.
Driven to succeed
Her chosen sport was, and is, dominated by men, but it’s gender neutral, at least from the car’s perspective. She didn’t want to be singled out as a female driver, or different, but simply as a race car driver.
“For a long time I wanted to be under the radar, not (known) because of gender but for winning races,” St. James said.
Reflecting on her creation of the Women’s in the Winner’s Circle Foundation and current involvement with the Women’s Sports Foundation (serving as president in 1990-93), St. James credits WSF founder, tennis legend and sports and social activist Billie Jean King for setting an example for her and others to follow.
Instead just letting society label you, do something about it.
“If you can use your platform for the betterment of other people, then why not?” she said. “It took me a long time. I’m a slow learner in this process.”
St. James is an an ambassador for the RPM Foundation, which supports restoration, preservation and mentorship programs that train young people to become auto, motorcycle and marine craftsmen. In other words, the next generation to maintain the kinds of vehicles that will be speeding around Savannah this weekend, and on display next weekend at the Hilton Head Island (S.C.) Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival.
She’s also a book author, motivational speaker and creator of museum exhibits showing the history and importance of racing and cars in our culture. Her place in that history she will leave to others, but she hasn’t slowed down much at all since first taking that Ford Pinto for a spin.
When Lyn St. James decided to turn her auto racing dreams into reality, “taking the plunge” wasn’t just a figure of speech, it was a reality. In her first novice race after completing driver’s school, St. James and her Ford Pinto ended up in a Florida lake, a mishap for which she was awarded “Alligator of the Year.”
St. James wasn’t underwater for long. The Ohio native overcame her less-than-auspicious start and went on to race in the Indianapolis 500 seven times and set 21 national and international speed records in her career.
St. James recently visited Hagerty headquarters in Traverse City, Michigan, where she joined us for our weekly Cars & Caffeine get-together and talked cars, motorsports, perseverance, and the power of persuasion.
In 1992, St. James became only the second woman to qualify at Indy, 15 years after Janet Guthrie became the first. Starting in 27th, she finished 11th in the crash-heavy race and earned Rookie of the Year honors. [She likely would have finished 10th, but late in the race, St. James’ crew told her to let A.J. Foyt pass because they mistakenly thought he was a lap down.]
St. James’ best Indy qualifying came two years later, when she averaged 224.254 mph and started on the outside of the second row, directly behind Emerson Fittipaldi and directly in front of Mario Andretti—one qualifying spot ahead of defending CART IndyCar Series champion Nigel Mansell.
“I remember seeing my number 90… at the top [of the scoreboard] for about 10 minutes,” says St. James, who was an early qualifier. “Then it dropped… and it held after it got to the sixth spot.”
Al Unser won the 1994 race from the pole position. St. James ultimately placed 19th.
The road to Indianapolis was long, St. James says. Her mother didn’t support her desire for a career in auto racing, but she jokes that her mom had only herself to blame, since she actually fueled St. James’ interest in cars. After leaving home and beginning her career in SCCA events, St. James says she would call home and tell her mother how she was doing.
“She’d say, ‘Oh, that’s really good! Are you all done with that now? Will you get this out of your system?’” St. James recalls with a laugh. “She taught me how to drive; she taught me that a car talks to you, the car gives you warnings and signals. I had to learn the smells… My mom was the car person in the family, so she’s the one who instilled that in me. [But] as a mother she was concerned about my safety.”
St. James worked her way up the ladder, but she never rested on her laurels.
“When you decide you’re going to be a professional race car driver, it’s a business, so I put my business hat on and I said, ‘I’ve got to figure this out,’” she says. “I’ve spent my entire life convincing people to do things.”
That included Ford Motor Company, which finally sponsored her “after three years of bugging.” It led to a 15-year relationship with Ford. “It worked out pretty well,” she says. “…Without that relationship I’m convinced I never would have had a career in this sport.”
She also bugged IndyCar team owner Dick Simon for three years before he gave her a shot in 1988, and her tryout went well. “I thought, ‘Oh my god… this is real. I’m a real race car driver,’” St. James recalls. “Simon said, ‘We can do this.’ He didn’t say, ‘You can do this,’ he said, ‘We can do this.’ So I had that piece of it… I had somebody else who believed in me. Four years later, after 150 companies had said ‘no,’ JCPenney said ‘yes.’ And the rest is history.”
The JCPenney sponsorship secured an Indy ride with Simon, who was a master at nurturing rookie drivers, including Guthrie, who became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1977.
Learn more about St. James’ speed records at Talladega, her continuing career in vintage racing, life as a motivational speaker and supporter of women in racing, and the difference between dreams and goals by watching the video.W
Lyn was recently featured in video on the Hagerty website:
SVRA’s Charity Pro-Am Series A Battle Of Titans In The Mold Of Original IROC
Southlake, TX (February 14, 2018) – Al Unser, Jr., Willy T. Ribbs, Davey Hamilton, Lyn St. James and Max Papis have filed entries for Sportscar Vintage Racing Association’s (SVRA) first-ever Vintage Race of Champions (VROC) at Road Atlanta on March 29 and 30. VROC builds on the success of the SVRA Charity Pro-Am races that began at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2014. Other VROC Series races are planned for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August, and Virginia International Raceway in September. Plans call for two points championship trophies to be awarded – one for both an amateur and a professional racer.
These first entries set up a classic inter-disciplinary battle of titans reminiscent of the venerated original IROC series. SVRA officials report that champions from other fields, such as the various levels of NASCAR and sports car racing, will inevitably enter as well.
The new Road Atlanta Charity Pro-Am will support Hope For The Warriors, a national nonprofit organization that provides assistance to combat-wounded service members, their families, and families of those killed in action. The organization focuses on those involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom and their families. The SVRA race weekend will run during their Month of the Military Child.
“These drivers are not only racing legends, but over the years have become dear friends,” said SVRA CEO Tony Parella. “They are best known for their achievements at the Indianapolis 500, but also they have collectively won untold races and championships across virtually every discipline of the sport.”
Collectively the five champion drivers represent two Indianapolis 500 victories, 37 Indy car race wins, two Indy car championships, an IROC championship, a Can-Am championship, three overall 24 Hours of Daytona wins, 19 Trans Am victories, an Indy 500 rookie-of-the-year trophy, and 13 IMSA sports car victories as well as numerous other successes across a variety of disciplines and major events. The combined experience of this elite group includes, in addition to Indy cars, all the major categories of auto racing such as Formula One, 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, the three major NASCAR series, World of Outlaws, and short track racing in general.
Al Unser Jr. is a two-time Indy car champion (1990 and 1994) and the winner of 34 Indy car races including the 1992 and ’94 Indianapolis 500s. He was Indy car series champion in 1990 and again in 1994. His 1992 Indianapolis 500 victory is the closest finish in history with a margin of just 43 ten-thousandths of a second over runner-up Scott Goodyear. A versatile driver, he was a winner in World of Outlaws sprint car racing, 1982 Can-Am champion, and IROC champion in 1986 and again in 1988. He’s also a two-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1986 and ’87. Like his father Al Unser Sr. and Uncle Bobby Unser he enjoyed tremendous success as a star driver for Roger Penske’s team, which provided his winning entry for the 1994 “500.”
Willy T. Ribbs is the first black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He did so twice, in 1991 and again in 1993. He also tested for a Formula One seat, in 1986 with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team. He was Trans Am’s most prolific winner from 1983 through 1985 when he scored 18 of his 19 career-total victories. He was series rookie-of-the-year in 1983, winning five times and more than any other driver. After Trans Am, he moved to Dan Gurney’s IMSA Toyota team for two years and picked off 10 overall victories.
Davey Hamilton, who is renowned for his mastery of super-modified racing, competed in 11 Indianapolis 500s with three top-10 finishes including a fourth place. He finished in the runner-up spot twice in the Indy car season championship and in 2014 raced in Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Truck Series. Hamilton is a leader both on and off the track. He was founder of the “King of the Wing” sprint car series and has been active as an Indy car owner. Last year he served as driver coach and consultant at the Carlin IndyCar race team.
Lyn St. James is a seven-time starter in the Indianapolis 500 and the event’s rookie of the year in 1992. While many fans know Lyn best for her Indianapolis 500 achievements, she is an accomplished road racer and has earned numerous laurels at the wheel of a variety of race cars. She is a two-time competitor in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1989 and ’91). She was even more successful in 62 IMSA GT events, amassing a record of six wins, 17 top-five and 37 top-ten finishes. Her 1985 GT victory at Watkins Glen remains the only time a woman has scored a win in that series driving solo. Lyn raced in the 12 Hours of Sebring nine times, winning the GTO class in 1990, and was a two-time winner in the GTO Class at the 24 Hours of Daytona. She has held 31 international and national closed circuit speed records and is a member of the Florida Sports Hall of Fame and the SCCA Hall of Fame.
Max Papis has driven in virtually every major series this side of drag racing. This includes Formula One, NASCAR, Indy car racing, Le Mans as well as V8 Supercars and IROC. The versatile driver competed in two Indianapolis 500s for 1998 race winner Eddie Cheever and won three Indy car races for Bobby Rahal’s team. In NASCAR he raced Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series, and the Camping World Truck Series. He competed in seven 24 Hours of Le Mans contests, scoring a class podium in five of those events along with top-10 overall finishes on four occasions. Papis also won two 24 Hours of Daytona races – including an overall win in 2002. He has also started in more NASCAR races than any European driver in history.
SVRA officials have set a goal of expanding the VROC series to five races with a television package and entitlement sponsor by 2020. As with previous pro-am races, the cars are 1963 to 1972 vintage Corvettes, Camaros, and Mustangs of SVRA “Group 6” A and B Production.
About SVRA – The Sportscar Vintage Racing Association is the premier vintage racing organization in the United States. Founded in 1978, SVRA has grown steadily to 2,500 active members with a database of over 11,000 race cars. The 2019 schedule consists of 14 race weekends at some of the finest racing venues in the United States, including: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Lime Rock Park, Sebring, Road America, Watkins Glen, Road Atlanta, Auto Club Speedway, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Portland International Raceway and Virginia International Raceway (VIR). SVRA hosted the first U.S. Vintage Racing National Championships at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas in 2013. Further information on SVRA, a complete annual schedule, and entry lists can be found on the SVRA website. Also, be sure to check our Facebook page and YouTube channel which currently boasts a library of over 300 action-packed videos of events.
Please take a moment to listen to the distinguished panel of highly accomplished industry members as they share experiences, perspectives and invaluable advice on how to pursue a future in motorsports. With a focus on the mentorship mindset and encouraging/inspiring advancement for ambitious or would-be female racing professionals, this program is led by motorsports legend Lyn St. James, whose own impressive career has set the bar for women in the male-dominated sport of auto racing.
Moderated by St. James, other participants include Cara Adams, Katie Hargitt, Shea Holbrook and Karen Salvaggio.
Ex-Formula 1 driver Alex Wurz reveals W Series driver selection details in an online Q&A. Please visit the W Series website for complete details; or view the excerpt here:
Describe the W Series driver selection process that will be taking place at the Wachauring, Melk, Austria, in a few days’ time.
“All the W Series qualifiers – in other words the 50-60 drivers whose applications were accepted to enter the selection process for the first ever W Series season – will assemble at the Wachauring, Melk, for three days of intensive appraisal. The programme will be run on behalf of W Series by Test and Training International, the company that my father Franz and I founded and still run, and it’s basically the same programme that we inaugurated for the FIA Institute some years ago, when it was running its Young Driver Excellence Academy [2011-2015]. A lot of top-class drivers went through that programme – guys like Stoffel Vandoorne and Alexander Rossi for example. My dad used to be a successful rally and rallycross driver, which adds a valuable counterpoint to my own extensive experience in circuit racing, principally in Formula 1 and the World Endurance Championship.”
But what will the W Series driver selection process actually entail?
“It’s a comprehensive programme, and I won’t go into all the details now, but it’s a very tough series of tests involving all aspects of a racing driver’s skill-set – not only the driving itself but also physical fitness, mental aptitude, psychological and psychometric testing, communications/media/PR skills and so on. And it works. I’ll be one of the judges, but so will David Coulthard, who’s one of the Directors of W Series, and also Lyn St James, who’s a successful retired female racing driver from the States who started seven Indy 500s in the ’90s. It’ll be a private event – not open to fans or journalists I’m sorry to say – because it’ll be a crucial and challenging test for all the W Series qualifiers, whatever they’ve raced in the past, and they must be able to focus on the tasks they’ll be given without distraction of any kind.”
Why did you decide to get involved with W Series?
“It’s the declared ambition of W Series to help the promotion of women in motorsport, and I totally support that effort. I firmly believe that, given the same opportunities, women can race on an equal basis against men, but sadly women haven’t had those same opportunities so far. W Series is aiming to address that imbalance.
“If, as a result of the launch of W Series, more girls and young women are able to go motor racing, then more girls and young women will progress to the higher levels of motor racing. It’s as simple as that. The fact that we’ve never had that many female racing drivers is merely a reflection of the fact that so few parents encourage their daughters to go karting whereas so many of them encourage their sons to do so. And if W Series’ drivers begin to generate a following, particularly among young girls, and those young girls then develop an interest in motor racing, then that current gender imbalance may gradually shift towards greater equality. I’d be very happy if Test and Training International could play its part in helping bring about that important change.
“And, last but not least, I want to help make sure that the best, most promising and most deserving drivers are chosen to race in W Series this year, so that W Series has the very best chance it can possibly have of developing its winners and champions into successful professional high-level racing drivers who’ll go on to compete and win against male rivals, utilising the lessons they learned while racing for W Series.”
On October 20-21, Lyn will be the featured guest speaker at the MAAP Fall Fling event!
The can’t-miss event, offers a banquet at Hotel Madison with special guest speaker, Lyn St. James, tours of MAAP, a low competition car show, time to explore Harrisonburg and the farmers market, and experience the unique cuisine the town has to offer and much more!
Tours will be from surrounding areas in Virginia and end in Harrisonburg at the downtown pavilion right next to the Farmers Market. Take a stroll along the sidewalk and venture right into the heart of downtown. With so much to do and see, you’ll want to come back every year! We hope to see you soon!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.