Lyn St. James has had the kind of career most racers would be jealous of.
In a decades-long path, she raced at every major endurance sports-car event in the world, qualified for the Indianapolis 500 seven times, and set some impressive speed records. She didn’t come from a racing family or start karting as a toddler. She just had the sheer force of will and determination to push herself into a sport largely devoid of women.
Still pushing her own career forward, St. James started a driving academy to help more young women follow her. The Women in the Winner’s Circle academy continues to support women in every form of American motorsports, from dirt oval to Indy. While she is the first to admit that she didn’t get into racing to help break down barriers, she’s since made it a priority.
Ahead of the Women with Drive summit co-hosted by St. James during the Nashville IndyCar weekend, Aug. 6-8, we sat down with St. James, 74, and found that the motorsports legend is not one to pull punches.
Taking the First Steps
The fight for women to be taken seriously in motorsports has been raging for decades, and the young women racing today have dozens of forebears to thank for the laying the foundation. In the 1970s, when St. James started racing, she didn’t have many women in the sport to look up to. She just wanted to go fast and win races.
“I moved to Florida, got married, and the guy I married was kind of a car and motorcycle guy. We went to the 24 Hours of Daytona, and I was like ‘Oh my God!’ That was the first time I ever saw road racing. I sat outside turn 1, and I had my blanket and my cooler, and we stayed all night. I was just mesmerized. And then we went to the 12 Hours of Sebring. I remember seeing Steve McQueen race there. So then the whole bug was to find out how people do this.
“I remember doing research, you know this was way before the internet and all that, so I remember looking in the Yellow Pages. Ultimately I found the Sports Car Club of America and went to West Palm Beach. I became a member of the SCCA and found out you had to go to driver school to get your competition license. My husband went first, and I had so much fun just being there, even though I was nothing but crew, but I loved the experience of the whole thing. He looked at me and said ‘Do you want to do this?’ and I said ‘Yes!’ So after he got his license, I got mine. I got a Ford Pinto to race so I could go get my license.
“Watching Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in 1973, I think that must have left a message in my brain that a woman can do something against guys and be okay. 24 Hours of Daytona, Sebring, sports-car racing, SCCA, watching Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs, all of that kind of said to Lyn, ‘If you want to do this, go do it.'”
‘It’s the Body of Work’
St. James has raced damn near every major event and series in North America and abroad, winning at Daytona and Sebring, competing at Le Mans and the Nürburgring. She’s credited as the first woman to break the 200-mph barrier in a race car. If you ask her about any individual race, however, she’s quick to say that none of that is her crowning achievement.
“It’s none of those individual races. It’s the body of work. It’s the fact that I survived that length of time. It’s not the danger aspect, I mean obviously there is a lot of risk involved, but that’s not what I’m trying to point out. It’s more the fact that it is so hard to have a career in racing, but the fact that I was not only able to have one, but sustain it professionally for basically two and a half decades. That’s what I’m probably the most proud of.
“Also the biggest statement about me is the persistence and determination. … Literally one year I went back to renegotiate (with Ford) and they told me, ‘Lyn, you’ve done everything you could possibly do.’ After I set the speed records with them at Talladega in 1988, they told me there was nothing more I could do for them, that they loved me, and they wanted me to be a spokesperson. I said, ‘No, I won’t do that unless you sponsor me, and I’m not done.’ I had to fight hard for those. Whether I was treated fairly or not, I don’t know, but at least I had quality stuff and I was always learning.”
How to Be Taken Seriously
St. James had already learned to deal with men not taking her seriously in a professional setting. As a businessperson, she’d chosen to change her name to the pseudonym Lyn St. James to give her a level of independence from her married name. When she started racing professionally, she carried the name into a new setting. The differences experienced between paddocks, both between pro and am settings, and between series are many.
“I didn’t experience any sexism at the amateur level. My husband and I went to the races. That’s what I loved about racing. Particularly as an amateur, they’re so busy getting their own car together you just don’t have time for that shit. When you get into the professional levels, now you’re dealing with important opportunities that you need, fairness that you need, and you need to be treated equally. That’s where women are denied, or they have to deal with other stuff that the guys don’t have to deal with. You need to be equipped to deal with that.
“I would find out if the men I was talking to had daughters. I knew if they had daughters, that there was at least a chance that I would get a fair discussion. I’ve heard wonderful stories from the decision-makers, 98 percent of whom are male, whether it was about their grandmother or their wife or whatever, they had women in their lives who were important to them and had frustrating experiences because they were women. That would change the listening ability of the people I was in dialogue with. And believe me, I had a lot of people I was in dialogue with over 25 years of professional racing.”
“There was a certain feeling there of ‘Oh, you’re not welcome.'”
“I went there (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) as a spectator in 1966, and I couldn’t get in Gasoline Alley. You know, it was not a welcoming place as a female. I mean, at the time, I wanted to get somebody’s autograph was all I wanted. There was a certain feeling there of ‘Oh, you’re not welcome.’
“That’s why, fast-forward a few years later when I went to the 24 Hours of Daytona, everybody was everywhere. Come to think of it, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the second time I went, I still wasn’t racing yet, but they had an all-female team. Lella Lombardi and Christine Beckers were in a prototype car, and that certainly was a big deal to me. That left a big impression. … IMSA definitely had a family atmosphere because of Peg Bishop and John Bishop. I got to know them, you know, and it was friendlier, it was like a family atmosphere, even though it was professional racing.”
A Little Fairness Goes a Long Way
Given the tenacity and voraciousness with which she approached motorsports, how much more of an advantage would she have had if she were a man?
“I would have won a lot more races. I’m ambitious, but I don’t think I’m over-the-top crazy about that. My goal was to win a championship. I mean, that was my goal from the beginning, even when I was running in SCCA. I mean, you go to the runoffs and win a championship, to me that was the ultimate that you could do. I think, had I just been given a little more support or a little fairness, I would have won the Trans-Am championship or I would have won the IMSA GTO championship. How that would have changed my career, I don’t know. It would have changed me, because I would have finally done something that was a goal. It was a real specific goal.
“It’s hard to say, but I think it would have just accelerated the things that happened, and I think it would have elevated the things that happened to a higher level.”
With all the progress women have made in racing in the past 50 years, how does St. James believe she would compete if she were a young woman just getting her start today?
“Really, in today’s culture, with what has already been accomplished for women in sports, for women in business, and women in racing — having the same Monopoly board to work from the way it is right now and be 18 years old and have the same DNA that I have? Ha! They ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
By her own account, there has been progress since St. James got her start. And we know that sports pundits have been predicting a massive boom of women racers for at least 20 years. Why haven’t we seen more women in top-tier racing teams over the past decade? Where is the break in the chain, and why aren’t more young women getting into racing? As usual, money talks.
“There is one reason that is universal — for not just women, but it certainly applies to women — why our sport isn’t growing the way we would like it to grow, and that’s money. Come on, guys, if you really want diversity in our sport and you want to grow our sport, then you have to change the business model. If it’s always going to cost this much money to do it, more people are going to try it and leave it because they can’t afford to stay in it.
“You don’t have to be wired differently to step into the racing world, to be a go-kart racer or a quarter-midget racer or a drag racer. A lot of people get a kick out of doing something like that. But to then go and spend your own time and money and learn the sport and be in it, you have to be wired a little differently. So now you come to a crossroads. Maybe you’ve got the passion, but how in the hell can you afford it? We know there are more people who have tried to be race-car drivers or engineers or mechanics or whatever and failed because it’s not sustainable financially. They choose to have a life.
“I’m more of an observer now. I was blessed because I was already a businessperson and I decided to take it on as a business from the get-go. Most families and young racers, if they’re struggling to put food on the table or get a good education or put clothes on their back, how can you even think about having this sport in your life as a career? Usually it’s a hobby first, you know. You aren’t going to pop out of a regional go-kart race somewhere and suddenly become a professional driver. It takes years and years and years of seat time and quality equipment to hone your craft. More than anything, it takes money.”
Danica Changed the Scene
Money is often the dark side of motorsports, and particularly when men with power and money come into a position to influence young women, the power dynamic is strongly weighted to one side. Last year it was brought to light that as part of an Indy Lights contract, current W Series racer Emma Kimiläinen received a demand to pose topless. She walked away from that contract and, as a result, racing for years. St. James made it quite clear early on that she wouldn’t stand for anything of that sort, but how has she seen this power dynamic evolve?
“When I got JCPenney as a sponsor, I think we were in year two of that contract when I expanded it to six races instead of just the 500. The company that came onboard with them was a swimsuit company. I said ‘You guys, don’t even think about it!’ You would not want to see me in a swimsuit anyway, but don’t even think about it.
“I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but I think that Danica (Patrick) changed the scene. That set the stage for that type of, I think, conversation to happen. Danica came to my driver-development program, and I helped as much as I possibly could to help her in her career from the time she was 14 until she was 18. When she posed for that magazine, I think it was FHM, that wasn’t the Danica I knew, it wasn’t the Danica I saw with her parents growing up. I remember just saying ‘Oh, Danica, why? Why did you do this?’
“Obviously it opened doors for her, but it changed the world. It had a much much broader impact, I think, for all the females. You know, Shirley was Cha Cha, and she played it to the hilt, right? She had the hot pants and the fingernails and she worked it, and it was in the ’60s. But it didn’t last, it didn’t carry over. Somehow, culturally, it didn’t carry over. Danica doing it in the early 2000s, and doing it as long as she did, and playing that part with the GoDaddy thing, it just opened up Pandora’s box. I don’t want to say it’s okay, but these idiots thought it was okay to do stuff like that, to make those kinds of requests and those kinds of deals.
Advice from the Pioneer
Given the still-not-that-great state of things in modern motorsports for young women today, St. James has advice to share from her decades of experience not only in racing but in helping develop young women’s racing careers.
“Make good choices. Seek out advice. I remember asking to have a meeting with Roger Penske … I think it was about ’83. Don’t be shy about things, and don’t expect it to come to you. I think there is something that has happened, because so many of these young gals are racing from a young age, they’re not having to figure it out, their parents are having to figure it out. So it’s coming to them. Parents are finding deals and sponsorship, and it’s coming to the racers. They don’t understand that they have to go get it, they have to work and get it. You have to work in the car and develop your skill, but you’ve got to go after it.
“I remember Dan Gurney told me he doesn’t return a phone call from someone he doesn’t know until he’s got the 10th message. Go after it, and be relentless!”
What about advice for the men in racing? What can the ‘old boys club’ do to be more welcoming and encouraging of young women getting into racing?
“Get over yourself! You know, I think this new crop of young male drivers out there are really cool. I see this camaraderie among the young studs in IndyCar or whatever, and I didn’t see that when I was in the paddock. … I get a sense that they are a little more open-minded about the whole gender issue. I’m sure some of them will prove me wrong, and there could be some that can be just as mean and nasty as others, but … Anyway, I don’t think it’s as much of a problem today, really. It’s encouraging.”
All of this culminates in the upcoming Women with Drive summit happening in August as part of the lead-up to the Nashville IndyCar racing weekend. So what is it, and why is St. James so excited about being a part of it?
“Even though it’s at the IndyCar race and it’s about women in racing, it’s really about women in the bigger picture of the whole automotive spectrum and also a bit about diversity. It’s important that this is a response to a request to do something for women that has come from the promoters of the Nashville Grand Prix, as opposed to being pitched on it. I find that very enlightening. This came about because they requested an event or a function that would be special and different for women.
“That makes me go ‘wow,’ because I’ve been on the other side of that, saying ‘Hey, why don’t you do something for women?’ and nothing happening.
“I’ve always said that women need to be invited, but men will just show up. That’s a cultural thing with women who are ‘raised well.’ And that’s why I’m talking about changing that profile for women racers.
“We’ve put together a strong program that encompasses the whole next generation of female drivers, by having Sarah Fisher there and Sabré Cook (W Series) there. Jessica Fickenscher will be there, who is really the head of the whole INEX Series, which is a Legends series where there are a lot of females competing successfully. It is about the next generation of young racers and how to make that world look not bleak but great for their future.
“So I think it will be an interesting day of discussion about what’s coming up with the youth, what’s coming up next in the case of diversity, whether it’s people of color or female drivers, and a discussion that the decision-makers are changing and that they care about the future of the sport for women and minorities.”
So there you have it. There are plenty of reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic about the future of women driving fast cars. Every new women-driven racing effort is an opportunity to get excited, and the development of these programs into more than one-off efforts offers hope that the rare will soon become the norm. With multiple women rising to the household-name level in racing these days, the future hints at the equality St. James wishes were prevalent in her own motorsports efforts.
It takes a lot more than luck to succeed in racing, and St. James is the ultimate embodiment of that. Even if her only goal was to go fast and win races, she was pushing back against the entrenched prejudices of an international industry.
And she’s still doing so on behalf of young women.
Editor’s note: These are some of the topics covered in the 90-minute interview. For the full transcript of the interview, CLICK HERE.
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