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.

From the Savannah Morning News website:

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.