Lyn St James is, in her own words, a passionate person. That passion has lead her to become a seven time contender at Indy 500 with six consecutive starts, the first woman to win the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award, and a two time contender at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. She’s raced her way to class wins at Daytona, Sebring, and the Nürburgring, held 31 international and national closed circuit speed records over a 20-year period, and is the only woman to win an IMSA GT race driving solo.
Her undying love for speed has lead her down the wild world of motorsport to live the dream of enthusiasts the world over. We recently sat down with Lyn to talk about how she found her way behind the wheel of the world’s fastest cars, why she thinks history should be preserved, and what has become important to her in life outside the fast lane.
Nick Williams: What was your earliest automotive memory?
Lyn St James: My earliest [automotive] memory came from my mom because she was really a car person. She had polio, so a car was her transportation and her mobility, which was everything for her. She wasn’t a car girl, but she was car centric. She taught me how to drive and how to take care of a car, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be allowed to drive the family car. So that’s probably my earliest memory.
NW: And when did you get your first taste of speed?
LSJ: I used to go to the drag races with my buddies when I was a teenager in the 60s and that was the first time I ever really drove a car FAST which totally got me hooked. It was a muscle car era and our culture was very car centric, so I got the bug. I did some drag racing on the street and on the track and it just stuck.
NW: What car did you race that first time on the drag strip?
LSJ: A Pontiac GTO. It was a good car. It didn’t hurt that I ended up winning that first time. I ended up winning my class that day, came home with a trophy, told my mom, and she was not happy about that.
NW: I wouldn’t have expected that reaction with how car centric you say your mother was.
LSJ: Well, it was the 60s and I was raised to be a young lady. I went to a girl’s school and my mom gave me 13 years of piano lessons. When I came home with that trophy, it was NOT well received. My mother would say “No way! This is not the way I raised you!” so my parents were not supportive AT ALL. I used to tell my mom “You were the one that taught me how to drive! You told me ‘Don’t use the brakes!’” I’m serious! I would be driving, put my foot on the brake, and she would tell me “Don’t use the brakes! Don’t use the brakes!” so this was kind of her deal.
NW: Where did you go from there?
LSJ: There was nowhere to go at that time. I did it, I had fun, but life shows up and you have to get a job. My first car was a 1967 Pontiac Catalina 2+2, so I was into muscle cars, but I didn’t do any racing for a while until I moved to Florida. That’s where I found out about sports car racing when I attended the 24 Hours of Daytona.
NW: Why the move to Florida?
LSJ: I moved to south Florida with a guy to start a business, ended up falling in love with him, and getting married. He had taken me to the Indy 500 on our second date, so he was also a car guy.
NW: Was that how you started to get back into racing?
LSJ: Well, when we started to get our head above water with the business, we went to the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring as spectators and we both decided that we loved the sport. We found out about the SCCA and realized that real people drive race cars. It isn’t just super humans like Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, or the fabulous drivers that we saw.
I found out people did this as a hobby, and it was road racing. I only went through drag racing for a very short time because you wait in line and then it’s over in 10 seconds. I liked going fast, but the rest of it didn’t connect with me and that’s why I didn’t pursue it. [In road racing] you could go around corners, you do laps, it went on forever, and it was much more intriguing to me.
In the beginning we went to the races, [my husband] bought an old flapped out Corvette and turned it into a B production race car. I ordered a Ford Pinto from my local dealer for a new (at the time) class called “Showroom Stock” which has become very popular today. You would buy a brand-new car, put a roll bar, a 5-point seatbelt, and a fire extinguisher in it and go race. You couldn’t modify the engine or the suspension, so it was my street car during the week and my race car on weekends.
NW: That had to be a great feeling to get on the track and race again after putting it aside for your professional life.
LSJ: Yeah that’s what we did with our little bit of extra time and money that we could wrestle together. They only had maybe 5 or 6 races a year, so you would spend all of your time getting ready for the next race. Or at least my husband did with his Corvette because I didn’t have to do any work on the Pinto.
There was also the social aspect of it that appealed to me. When you’re busy working really hard building a business, you don’t have a lot of time for socialization. You go to the races, see the same people most of the time, and they become friends. It was a lifestyle that we fell into, absolutely loved it, and I’m still doing it!
NW: We definitely applaud you for that! So, you fell into racing as a hobby/lifestyle and eventually decided you wanted to race professionally. How did you go about climbing the ladder, gaining sponsors, and establishing yourself as a professional racing driver in an arena so dominated by men?
LSJ: When you look back on your life, there are points where if you turned right something happened, and if you turned left, something else happened. For me, that first tipping point was in 1978 when I got invited to the SCCA national championships. I had been running a Cosworth Vega (I had moved up from the Pinto) and had been working hard all season to earn enough points to get an invite as only the top four drivers from each class got invited to race at the national championships.
I got there and, unfortunately, I blew my engine in qualifying. I had spent all year working towards this week and now I had a dead engine on the 1st day of qualifying, so needless to say, I was devastated. My husband had also earned an invitation to be there with his Corvette, so I spent the rest of the weekend walking around the paddock and my eyes start to open as I realize how foolish I was that I thought I had worked so hard to prepare myself to win a National Championship when I had driven my car to the racetrack. I didn’t have an engine builder, anybody to help me work on my car, or even a trailer. I was so ill-prepared it was ridiculous. I realized to be successful it was all about preparation, but I also realized I did not have the financial capability to do it at that level.
So that same month, I happened to have a Car & Driver magazine and there was a side bar article about Ford Motor Co. not only wanting to sell cars to women, but they also wanted to provide equal employment opportunities to women in non-traditional areas at Ford Motor Co. A bell went off in my head and I thought “I need more resources to be able to do this better and win, so I need Ford Motor Co. as a sponsor,” so I wrote them a letter explaining who I was, all the races I had won, and that I had raced a Ford Pinto. I got a “Thanks but no thanks” letter back from them, but there were three people mentioned in the original article, so I wrote to each of them and got a reply from one, carbon copying the others. From that, I started to get a sense of how a big company works. I figured if Ford wanted that, then maybe other car companies would too. I ended up writing to all the car companies after that and did a letter writing campaign for 3 years.
My husband and I realized we could not afford for the two of us to race, so he continued to race out of our own finances, and I tried to figure things out. In 1980 I got an invitation to drive in a new series for IMSA called the Kelly American Challenge Series where Kelly Services was offering bonus prize money to the top female drive in each race and the top female driver at the end of the year (I think $25,000). Because they put a structured financial bonus in a racing series, I got call from a team owner in Oklahoma to drive his Plymouth Volare in the first race at Road Atlanta. Of course I said “Yes”, finished 2nd, and won the money (which the team owner kept), so I was able to run that whole season for the owner and won the prize for top female driver. I was finally racing and winning money, but I wasn’t getting any of it!
I wasn’t really a professional in that sense, as I was having to pay off my own expenses. But I did have a stellar year in 1979, all the while I was writing letters to car companies trying to get sponsors, and in 1981 Ford Motor Company signed me to be professional racecar driver where I was actually getting money to go racing. I did have a professional exchange starting in 1979, but I really didn’t say to myself “I’m now a professional racecar driver” until 1981 when Ford signed me.
I always tell our young drivers that once you get anything in exchange for racing (parts, money, etc.) instead of just trophies, it becomes a business and a professional exchange. I was now a contracted Ford driver, so that was a big deal. It was a lot of letter writing and there were a lot of stories between 1979 – 1981 that I won’t go into, but I worked every possible way I could to get in a racecar or in a place where I knew Ford Motor Co. would know who I was.
Lyn St James in her first Ford product photo
NW: A 3-year letter writing campaign shows a lot of commitment. It sounds like you took the entrepreneurial spirit you had from starting your company and put it towards your new racing career.
LSJ: Well I found out during my first job at US Steel back in the 60s that I was not a person who is comfortable in a corporate structure and that I was an entrepreneur. I didn’t know what that meant, but I figured it out. Of course, being in business with my former husband I was wholly an entrepreneur and so in 1979 I started my own company called “Creative Images”.
This is kind of crazy, but I would write these letters about “Lyn St. James”, right? But I would make people’s names up to sign them because you can’t be promoting yourself. So, I had to make names up and would use people’s names in the office (to promote myself). I was totally an entrepreneur and that company still exists, I’ve changed the name to Lyn St James Enterprises because, by the way, I actually have a name of recognition now and can write letters promoting myself under my own name, but back then wasn’t cool.
NW: So just like many do in racing, you skirted the rules a little to gain an advantage and get more publicity
LSJ: Yeah, it’s the unfair advantage that’s the theory of racing. You always have to find an unfair advantage. It wasn’t even skirting the rules, but rather doing what works. It was okay and ultimately it worked.
NW: I would definitely say it worked as list of accolades speaks for itself and you’ve left an incredible mark on motorsport history. With that in mind, how would you like your legacy to be remembered?
LSJ: You know, that’s not really for me. Legacy is a weird thought in a way because I’m all about doing and going for it and figuring it out, so it’s hard and I can’t answer that. My legacy will speak for itself.
I’m a passionate person and whatever I’m passionate about, don’t get in my way because I’m going to figure out how to get through, above, around, or over you. I’ve spent decades focused on what’s important to me and now I’ve spent decades on what’s important for others where I feel I can make a difference.
I still love to drive racecars and take care of Lyn, but I really try to figure out “How can Lyn help others.” I got so much fan mail when I had success at Indy in the 90s that I thought maybe my advice could be beneficial to other women trying to achieve something. That’s how I became a motivational speaker to help other people find their passion and achieve their own goals and dreams. I also started my own foundation to benefit women in racing that’s now morphed into Project Podium which is a scholarship grant program now in partnership with the Women’s Sport Foundation (founded by Billie Jean King).
Through my motivational speaking, I’ve also become an ambassador for the RPM Foundation which stands for “Restoration, Preservation, and Mentorship” which is all about providing services and support for people to get an education and have a career in automotive, marine, and other types of vehicle restoration and preservation. Through RPM, I’ve learned about some really old cars and pieces of equipment that need to stay alive because they represent the history of our country and the world.
But I think it’s really about wanting to continue to be relevant, to learn, and to figure out how I can make a difference while I’m still walking around on this planet.
Lyn joined in on the last leg of our “Road Trip Century” Model T tour from Detroit→San Francisco
NW: It sounds like you’ve stayed busy since you retired from professional racing. You mentioned your work with RPM and the importance of preservation of historic vehicles. Our mission at the HVA is to preserve American automotive heritage, so we always love to see people support the preservation of history.
LSJ: Well the automotive world is a part of how society has evolved so it’s very important to preserve the history of our automotive and transportation technology. People learn differently and have different reasons why they pay attention to things, but most human beings are interested in other human beings and every vehicle has a human being story attached to them. So, you’ve got the whole human aspect of it and the cultural aspect of it, such as what was happening in society at the time and I’m starting to really believe that decades make a difference.
Not just the decades for the object that we’re talking about or the decade that something occurs in, but also the decade of the human being studying that piece of information. I look at what happened in the 70s so differently today than when I was living in the 70s. You don’t need to only hear a story once; you need to hear a story almost every 10 years because you’re going to see and hear the story differently in your 20s vs your 30s, 40s, etc. So, we can never let anything die because it’s going to be relevant in a different way at a different time of everyone’s life.
NW: You’re right that decades do make a difference and how society changes as it moves through different times. One of the things I learned about women’s involvement in racing is that it has been very sporadic during different decades. In the early 20th century there were many women involved in racing, but it didn’t bounce back as much as one would hope after WWII. There have been many incredible female racecar drivers during the early years, yet their stories are often untold or overlooked. Why do you think that the stories of these women in racing are less often told then those of their peers?
LSJ: BINGO! You did your homework and you’re right. There were eras that women were not allowed [to race]. After the Le Mans disaster in ’55, the officiating people at the time made the decision that racing was not safe and women should not be in racecars. I’m surprised they even let women buy tickets and show up, but they were financially greedy enough that they weren’t going to turn anyone away at the ticket counter.
There were certain times that the male mentality was that women should not be driving racecars because of safety, but those were just spots along the way. There was even a time that women were not allowed in “Gasoline Alley” (the garage area at Indy Motor Speedway) until, I believe it was Denise McCluggage broke though that barrier because the newspaper editor/publisher she worked for said they wouldn’t cover the race unless the officials gave her access.
There are so many stories of women competing during the very early years that people don’t know about. Sports car racing is a very difficult sport to maneuver through and probably more women have tried it and failed, or decided they didn’t want to do it, than those who have made it through and actually done it. It was very, very prolific in the earlier decades and those stories are FASCINATING. They are truly fascinating and I hope that more of those stories will become more accessible to people.
I’ve been on a mission ever since I read the book “The Bugatti Queen”, which is a biography of Hellé Nice with many other female racers mentioned in it, and my eyes were wide opened thinking “Oh my god, why don’t people know about this?” So, I was working with The Henry Ford Museum at the time, I’m actually working on a new exhibit that will debut in 2020, and they said, “Why don’t you create a travelling exhibit on the history of women in racing?” and so I did. I ended up spending about a year working with a design company to create the exhibit which started with Camille du Gast, back from the very early 1900s all the way up until present day, which was around 2010, with Danica Patrick at the end of the timeline. We featured 60 women, some of which were well known, such as Shirley Muldowney, Janet Guthrie, and Danica Patrick, and then many of which were not as well known.
Lyn St James and Danica Patrick
NW: Was there anything that those early female pioneers of racing had in common?
LSJ: The thing that did disturb me a little bit about the very early female racers was that most of the women I was able to study were either married to, widowed by, or mistresses of men of wealth/the people who had the cars. That’s the one constant that is a detractor of equality for the sport: money. It will always take money to own a car, put it on a track, and race it. It’s the consumables, putting the car at risk, the fuel, the engine wear, the team needed to run the car, it’s everything! So that flow of money becomes a prohibitive factor as to why some people don’t race. As for the females, they had to have access to that financial capability somehow to be able to be in a racecar.
The financial capability is still an enabler/disabler depending on how you look at it and I don’t ever see that changing because it’s a consumable process. Plus, the technology in racecars today is so high level that it’s also attached to a high cost.
NW: Is that financial barrier entry one of the things you try to alleviate with your Project Podium grant?
LSJ: Well, no, not really. For the Project Podium grant, you have to have a minimum of three years of racing experience. We’re trying to find the drivers out there who have demonstrated competitive skill and success and are right at the cusp of being able to get to the podium. If you’re not on the podium, you’re almost invisible and probably frustrated, but once you’re on those top 3 steps, people start to pay attention. The podium photos are the ones that get shared and if you can start to get a bit of recognition and success, then your chances of getting up to the next level improve dramatically. So, we’re trying to help get these drivers to the podium, which is why we call it “Project Podium.” If you can win or be on that podium people are going to want to support you because it’s human nature to support winners. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
I can’t fix the grassroots part. It’s too diverse in all different parts of the country. Also, at that point you’re really dealing with parents because they’re the ones who decide what [their children] are going to be able to do, so I kind of stay out of that.
NW: You mentioned earlier how your parents weren’t very supportive of you racing. How did your grassroots beginning impact your life and eventual career?
LSJ: When I used to go drag racing or street racing, I didn’t talk about it when I came home. It was an era where “young ladies don’t do that”, but then it was the 70s, I was 20 something years old, and it was different. I remember watching Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs on television and I have a feeling that inspired me. I don’t remember saying to myself “If she can do that, I can go drive racecars,” but interestingly enough I started racing in 1974, so I must’ve thought subliminally that if she can beat a guy and have, at least part of the world, celebrate it, then that left an impact on me.
I’m excited because we have parents today from the Title IX generation, so we have girls competing in sports of all eras. We need to continue to have that happen because young girls need to experience fear, pain, and excitement, and you get all of that through sports. I remember to this day the most petrified moment of my life, and we’re talking after driving at Le Mans down the Mulsanne Straight, was the first day standing on a field hockey field and not knowing what the heck to do.
NW: Do you think greater involvement of women in sports at a young age would help diversify the motorsport industry?
I’m a huge proponent of women’s activity in sports, and racing is a sport, but it’s not for everybody. I call racing a gender-neutral sport because the car doesn’t know the difference and it’s one of the few sports where men and women compete equally (not so much in terms of equipment, finances, etc.) but the reality is that once you put yourself in that racecar, you’re competing against the cars next to and in front of you on an equal level. The car doesn’t say “Oh I’ve got a chick driving so I’m not going to give all of my horsepower” so it’s truly a gender-neutral sport.
However, you can be very ladylike and still drive racecars.
Now the driver is only one part of the picture. You have to have a crew of people that support, maintain, and prepare the car so consequently it’s not going to be all girls or all men. It’s a fully-integrated sport. It’s still male dominated, but I think that’s because more men show up. I think if we could get more women to show up, we’d have a much better chance of equality in the numbers. We don’t have to worry about it being 50-50, but we have to get more women to be aware that if they have the aptitude, the interest, and they show up to work hard, they can find success.
We now have women engineers on race teams, Alba Colon represented GM in NASCAR land, and Cara Adams is heading up the Firestone/Bridgestone team for Indy car racing. Women can be very successful in those roles and these stories need to be told because if you don’t see it, you can’t think about being it. It’s unfortunate that you almost have to have a role model or an image of someone like you who has achieved something in order to believe you can achieve your goals. We have to tell those stories and let people know, because when you’re at the track, you’ve got your suit and your helmet on, so people maybe not know that’s a woman carrying that role. I can speak for not only myself, but probably almost every other woman driver I know, and we don’t want to be known as just the woman driver and put pink on our cars. We want to be ourselves, but sometimes we have to be careful because then we limit the opportunity for others to appreciate what we’re doing.
Diane Parker (VP of HVA): They say we stand on the shoulders of giants, but do you give yourself credit for being one of those? There are now these young ladies coming up in the industry that are standing on your shoulders because you have made the way as those have done before you, but you hardly even give yourself credit. Have you reflected on that or thought about what you’re creating for the next generation?
LSJ: Aww, you’re making that a difficult thing to answer…
DP: Seems like you got a little emotional there…
DP: Because you know it’s true. I’m not in the racecar industry, but you’re a strong woman who has set an example of, not just within the industry, but as a woman. There’s no reason why I cannot be the Vice President of the HVA and here I am and that is because I look to people like you that have broken down barriers. It is what you do across all parts of women being in business that is so inspiring, and I think it’s important that you know that and say thank you.
LSJ: Wow. Thank you, Diane. I spent a lot of time looking for my heroes and models, and I spend a lot of time reaching down and pulling up, but what you just said…
DP: It’s good stuff sister. Thank you so much for the time you’ve spent with us. I really appreciate you as a woman in the industry and as a mentor, and it’s been my pleasure getting to know you. Thank you, Lyn.
LSJ: Thank you! I look forward to knowing each other better so thank you so much and I’m glad you did your homework Nick!