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.