Lyn St. James On Driving Your Ass Off In A Sport Dominated By Men
Images courtesy of Lyn St. James
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.
TG: This is coming from your mother, not your father.
LSJ: Right. My dad was from a sheet metal family, had a sheet metal business. A car to him was just, like it is to a lot of people, just transportation. He had a truck. My mom, she had, first, the red Ford convertible and then we had a Bonneville convertible. My first car was a Pontiac Catalina 2+2, which I ordered because I went to the Detroit Auto Show in Cobo Hall with the dealer from Pontiac. My buddies had GTOs, and I wanted something better. At that time, Pontiac had come out with that limited edition 2+2.
I didn’t know about that until I went to the Cobo show. When I saw it and I said, “I’ve got to have that car.” I remember the dealers telling me then, “That’s not really a girl’s car. You really need to get the smaller …”
TG: You say, “I want the Catalina,” and the dealers are actively trying to talk you out of a car?
LSJ: Yeah. I drove from Cleveland to Detroit with some car-dealer friends. They were going in the morning and coming back in the evening, so my mom let me go. I was with them because I wanted to go see the new cars they were talking about. I saw that car – it was purple, plum really – but it was definitely a shade of purple, and it had a white interior. That was the one on the turnstile. I said, “That’s the one I want.” We special ordered it with a heavy duty battery, and a heavy duty transmission. It was the 429, I think; the big engine.
I went to the drags with my buddies. We did a lot of street-racing back then. This was in the 60s, mid-60s. I had driven their cars, I had raced their cars, I had played chicken with them in their cars at the corner.
TG: The dealers trying to talk you out of it, was that the first moment in the car world where you were told that you couldn’t have or do something because you’re a woman?
LSJ: Yeah. I went to a girls school from the 7th to 12th grade. I was raised to be a self-sufficient, independent young woman, meaning do whatever you want. I was raised by a mother who had polio, who had a lot of restrictions in her life because of her health. She really wanted me to be a strong, self-sufficient, independent young woman. She did probably overdo it a bit though. I was like that in spades. My girlfriends are like, “Lyn, you don’t have to carry everything. We’ll help you.”
That was one of the first times, yes, that I had been told that I couldn’t even buy what I wanted to buy because it wasn’t ladylike. It wasn’t what a girl or a young woman should do or have, apparently.
TG: But you do get the car. You start dragging around. You’re street-racing with your buddies. When do you actually decide that it’s time to get on a track?
LSJ: There was nowhere to go with it. First of all, my mom wasn’t necessarily happy about this, even though she was glad I learned how to drive and that I was good at it. She said, “This is not safe. This is not even legal in most cases. Stop it.” I lived at home then. The real world shows up sometimes. You have a job, you have responsibilities, and you have limited budgets. Then I met a guy and I fell in love, and he took me to the Indy 500 on our second date. Soon enough things were moving along fairly quickly because he said, “I’m moving to Florida.”
He said, “We’re going to have to have a long distance relationship. Are you okay with that?” I’m like, “Sure.” Florida sounded pretty good, actually. I grew up right in the snow belt in Ohio and I hate being cold. I worked for US Steel, first as a secretary and then I went to a smaller company. And this guy that I met worked for this smaller company. I moved to Florida because he eventually told me that if I didn’t, it was over. I moved to Florida. By the way, he actually took me to the Indy 500 on a motorcycle, so he was a car guy and an in general cool guy. He also took me to the 24 hours of Daytona and to the 12 hours of Sebring. This was in 1970. Then in ’71, ’72, we were trying to build a business.
TG: What was the business you were trying to build?
LSJ: We had a manufacturer’s rep in consumer electronics, and any kind of electronics really. We would go to the trade shows. That’s when I became a business person. I married a guy who was starting his own business. I was the wife, but we met at work, so I became the other half of the business, which is why I changed my name, by the way. I was Lyn Caruso when I was married, and then all I was to a lot of people was John’s wife. I got mad about that. He said, “Use your maiden name.” I said, “I don’t like my maiden name.” I couldn’t wait to get rid of it.
TG: What was your maiden name?
LSJ: Cornwall. So I picked a new name. Lyn St. James. We were watching McMillan and Wife on a Sunday night, and Susan St. James was in that, and I just liked how it sounded. So on that next Monday morning, I became Lyn St. James and, you know what, all of a sudden people would talk to me.
TG: And then it was off to the races.
LSJ: We went to the races like I was saying, and I saw that real people did this too, they weren’t all just the superstars at the front. There were these Corvettes and Camaros in the back that were more like normal people. We became a member of the Sportscar Club of America, the SCCA, and my husband wanted to pursue it, but we had to wait until we got the business up and going.
He started to pursue it first, and I went to driver’s school with him.
TG: Which driver’s school?
LSJ: We went to Daytona, and Gainesville, Florida. Those were the ones you had to go through at that time. This was in the early ’70s. He saw how much fun I was having and he said, “Do you want to do this?” I said, “Yes.” We went out and bought a Ford Pinto which was part of a road legal, new class called “Showroom Stock.” We ordered that from the dealer because I wanted it without air conditioning even though we lived in South Florida. Save the weight. No horsepower drain.
I went to driver’s school in that and I started racing with it. By then I was 27 years old. I grew up with this education that I’m a woman and can do anything, but a lot of larger society didn’t really embrace that. I had sort of given into society, had become the business owner slash wife. In the ’70s, I didn’t feel like I was a feminist or part of the feminist movement, but that really was happening all around me and probably, subliminally, was making a bigger impression than I realized.
I do remember watching Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs. I think that probably made me say to myself, “I can do this, or at least try to do this.” Because I really wanted to. The first instructor I got wouldn’t talk to me at driver’s school. I was complaining to my husband and he said, “Get another instructor.” So I did.
This new guy was fabulous. He was an Italian. He drove the car and let me ride with him. He rode with me when I drove too. He was totally engaged, and I learned a lot. My very first race was in Palm Beach, Florida, at the Palm Beach International Raceway.
It was out where Pratt & Whitney had their big area. It used to be in the middle of nowhere and now, of course, it’s all built up. It has a lot of water around it, as a lot of places in south Florida do. I lost control of the Pinto and spun out between turns two and three, and the car ended up in a lake and was totally submerged.
LSJ: To be honest, they do have alligators down there. Fortunately, none of them surfaced. The car totally submerged. I was totally embarrassed. It was the “woman driver.” It was devastating. The entertainment of the evening was to go out and watch the divers pull the car out. By then, I was in my shorts and t-shirt drinking a beer like everybody and went down to watch this happen. I remember the guy standing next to me goes, “Who was driving that car?” I said, “I don’t know.” It didn’t have my name on the side of it.
TG: Where do you go from the Pinto?
LSJ: Cosworth Vega. It used to just be showroom stock when they started it, in SCCA, and then they went to showroom stock A, B, C. The Pinto was a C. I wanted to be in A, so the Cosworth Vega came into my life. I won the Florida regional championship in the Pinto. Then, when I got the Cosworth Vega – that took two years – they then made it a national thing. Now I was getting to travel.
I did the 12 Hours of Sebring. I got to race the Corvette a few times, but we really were having a difficult time building the business and funding two racing programs so I decided I needed to go professional in racing because I thought if I can raise money through sponsorship then our money can fund my husband’s racing as well. For my own racing, I needed to have another way to find the funding, which I ultimately got in 1981 when I got Ford as a sponsor. Unfortunately, by then I was divorced.
The way I look at, my life was such that the ‘70s era was out of my own pocket, all road racing, all through SCCA, and a little bit of IMSA. I drove some one-off deals at Sebring. I actually drove a little in a Ferrari in ’79. It was a Ferrari Daytona 12 cylinder. Had the most beautiful sound imaginable. It had the most beautiful box.
TG: This wasn’t an LM spec, right?
LSJ: No, no. It was pretty bone stock, yeah. It belonged to Preston Henn. It was sweet. It was very much like the Corvette. You know? Really hard to drive. I had one-off deals like this. The other was that IMSA started, in 1979, a new series called the Kelly American Challenge series. It was a support race. 100 mile races. They were all short races, no pit stops. I was already racing in IMSA with my husband’s Corvette, and then Kelly Services sponsored this new series because they wanted to provide an opportunity for women to race.
Kelly Services used to be called Kelly Girl. They were trying to be loyal to their female audience and their female business but, at the same time, they were trying to expand it into the male business. They needed some women to justify the fact that they were still trying to promote women and they even had some bonus prize money. Fortunately, John Bishop, who owned IMSA at the time, recommended me to a team owner and I got a call and I got to run a Plymouth Volare in 1979 for that full season. That was 10 races. We made some money.
TG: Did he recommend you as a woman or as a competent racing driver?
LSJ: As a competent racing driver who happened to be a woman. I finished second, 79 hundredths of a second behind Gene Felton in that first race, which basically put me on the map. I was pissed because I didn’t win, and everybody was blown away because I did so well because I qualified, I think, 13th. I validated their marketing plan. Because I was in Florida, IMSA was like my home sanctioning body. You develop friends and you develop a reputation and I got the reputation for being really good, not just as a woman, but just really good. I didn’t crash cars.
I was shifting from just being that woman driver who was racing on my own dollars. I don’t know what anybody thought. I didn’t care. When you’re racing on your own money you race where you want to race and you race when you can afford to race. To be honest, I learned from my husband in the early stages of my racing that I don’t need to be impacted by what people think. If I do, I’m very distracted. It’ll drive me crazy. You’ll end up in conversations and spending energy doing other things that you can’t do anything about. There was a transition though, still.
TG: What race was that race that you knew that you were making a name for yourself.
LSJ: I didn’t know it then. As I said, I see that in retrospect. At the time, shit, all I was trying to do was get to the next race.
TG: Were you the first woman to race at Le Mans?
LSJ: No. In fact, I found out in my research that women have been racing at Le Mans since the ‘30s.
TG: It’s strange, actually. I’ve been looking at it recently since we’ve been running a series of Legendary Women of Motorsport. It was quite common for women to race in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. There was no stigma attached to it. These were just powerful women who decided to race. Some of them did quite well. Then you had this huge drop when there just wasn’t anybody until right around when you started.
LSJ: You want my theory?
LSJ: They were either married to, widows of, or mistresses of drivers, they were often widowed to a race car driver, having access to those funds, or they were mistresses of race car drivers, or other people that were able to fund their racing, not just race car drivers. It’s an expensive sport, even back in the early days.
One of the things that people often ask me, “How come there aren’t more women in racing?”
I think you have to have an enabler. You think all my girlfriends were going to hang out and say, “Let’s go racing. Okay Lyn, you drive because you’re the hot driver.” It just doesn’t happen that way. A bunch of guys? They are going to sit around and say, “Let’s go to the race … Let’s do it.” That’s, sometimes, just how it happens. I had an enabler. That was my first husband. We just did it without asking for permission.
I then think there was an era of change. First of all, a lot of people were getting killed in those earlier years. During the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s there were as well, but I think it became more popularly known that people were getting killed and that women shouldn’t be doing it. Women were all working during World War II – and then afterwards it was like women were supposed to go back to the kitchen. It wasn’t until the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, when the feminist movement picked up steam. It impacted people. It impacted men that were in the decision-making position of saying, “Do we let these women race?”
Funny anecdote, I found out that AAA, which sanctioned a lot of races, banned women from racing from 1899 through the first quarter of the 20th century.
TG: Back to your racing history. You delve into endurance racing. When do you start to emerge from that, and when does Indy start coming in around the ‘90s?
LSJ: In endurance racing, I got to tag along as a co-driver of some good races. Then I recognized I’ve got to find a sponsor and I’ve got to figure this out. I spent three years bugging manufacturers because I figured that it’s manufacturers who fund racing. Sponsors fund it, but they come and go. manufacturers are in it for the long haul. They’re stakeholders in the sport. I started on my mission, and I got to Ford in 1981. The whole decade of the 80s, I raced sports cars for Ford Motor Company. I raced when and where they wanted me to race. Trans Am, GT, and Le Mans I did on my own because, as I got older, there were some things I really wanted to do and Le Mans was one of them because the 24 hours of Daytona was where I first fell in love with sports car racing and Le Mans is the only international event that is in the same league.
TG: Talk to me about the team you had at Le Mans.
LSJ: The first year was fabulous. It was a Spice chassis, with a Ford Cosworth engine. Ford was okay with me driving it because it was a Ford engine. They didn’t fund it, but they were okay with it. I got to ride with Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm. Gordon Spice owned the company and designed the car and, unbeknownst to me, it was his last Le Mans. He was in his twilight years. Ray’s still around and races in vintage classes actually. Those guys were not out to prove anything. They’d been there, done that. Then they had this rookie show up. I had a sponsor that helped fund it. They were fabulous. They taught me everything. They gave me no pressure.
I remember one time during the race I’m like, “What’s the schedule? When am I going up next?” They said, “Oh, Lyn, why don’t you go out next? We don’t really feel like doing it right now.” I got a lot of seat time. It was absolutely extraordinary. It was the dream come true. At that point, I figured it could’ve been the pivotal moment, my best ever. We ran for 16 hours and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was fabulous.
TG: I can only imagine.
LSJ: So then I’m racing what Ford wants me to race. I’m racing sports cars. I’ve had some wins. Not all bad. That’s what it’s all about. There’s this lure. I only wanted to drive an Indy car. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to race an Indy car because all my racing had been in sedans. After I did Le Mans it was like I had this taste in my mouth.
TG: Why Indy car?
LSJ: Because it’s the ultimate race car.
TG: Why not Formula One?
LSJ: I’m somewhat of a realist, besides an optimist. There wasn’t even any Formula One racing in the US back then.
TG: That’s not totally true though. You had the Los Angeles Grand Prix for one.
LSJ: I was there for the Detroit Grand Prix. It was a support race. One of the reasons, and this is the truth, I was in the Trans Am at the Detroit Grand Prix and somehow they either had a driver’s meeting or they had a bunch of drivers lined up and I looked at them. I was standing behind them. I went, “Every goddamned one of those guys had a small butt.” I’ve got a big butt.
TG: They are not massive people, generally speaking about F1 drivers.
LSJ: They’re like bean poles! They always were, except for Nigel. Nigel Mansell joked around because he was big. It sounds silly, but in reality I knew that was outside the realm of possibility. Back to Indy car, because we were the support race many times for the Indy cars, I got to watch those cars a lot. I got to know the owners a bit. Strategically, I got signed up to do TV commentating for the Indy cars when I was doing the Trans Am support race. So I could learn.
TG: You could do some reconnaissance.
LSJ: Exactly. I would interview crew chiefs. I would interview engineers and ask them all kinds of questions that never got on TV. I thought: I’ll learn. I’ll learn everything I possibly can. It was a dream, but I just want to drive an Indy car. To me, it was the ultimate race car that I thought would be possible to be able to just drive it. Dick Simon was there, and after bugging him for about three or four years, he called me, “Hey kid.” He said, “You want to drive an Indy car? You be at Memphis tomorrow.”
I’m like, “What!?” “See you tomorrow!” He hangs up. I didn’t even know there was a racetrack at Memphis. I got on an airplane and I got to Memphis. I got to drive that car all day. He was doing a rookie test for another driver. There was no media. There was no pressure. I got to drive it all day. I started out pretty piss-poor because I’d never driven open-wheel. I’m watching my front tires going, “That’s so cool. I turn the wheel and I can see my front tires moving.” I’m like, “Lyn, you’ve got to be looking way down the road, not at your front tires.”
It was great because I could be really, really bad at the beginning but at the end of the day I was good. He said, at the end of the day, after watching me, he said, “We can do this.”
TG: What was the culture like at Indy at that time?
LSJ: First of all, it was right when CART was starting up; this was in ‘88. It was right when CART was really growing. I didn’t really follow Indy cars in the ‘60s and the ‘70s when everybody talks about it, but they were really, I think, climbing into being the pinnacle of Motorsports in this country. NASCAR wasn’t such a big deal back then. We forget that NASCAR hasn’t always been the king of the mountain.
The culture was … I don’t know. I guess because I hung around it so much, because of doing the TV and being in the support race, I felt comfortable. I really felt like I was in my element around those people. I mean, I was in awe of AJ Foyt. I was in awe of Roger Penske. I remember having a meeting with Roger Penske. I had to organize it. It took five or six races before it was organized. I wanted to get some advice from him. I’m trying to say that I was comfortable, but I also knew my place in the sense that I wasn’t one of them, but I was around them. It just became a realistic goal. When Dick said, “We can do this,” he didn’t say, “You can do this,” he said, “We can do this.”
Once I knew I had a partner, I guess you’d say, I knew that Dick had taken more rookies to Indy than any other team owner and he had never failed to put a rookie in the field. I started on a mission. I had to do it.
TG: Looking back at your time at Indy, and your entire racing career, what do you feel your legacy is?
LSJ: I don’t know. I guess I would hope that people think of it all as, “She did it for the right reason. She did it because she loved the sport. She wasn’t trying to prove a point or change the world, or whatever. But in fact, she cared enough to try to make the world better for women in racing.” That wasn’t why I did it and that isn’t even why I still do it. I race and I’m just a happy camper. I have that respect, I guess, from the industry, from my peers, and I think that’s really it. I keep saying it’s who I am, and I have a coach on my shoulder who keeps telling me, “No, it’s what you do.”
It’s in my DNA, in me. When I go to the races even as a fan and spectator, I’m just so happy. I feel my blood moving better. It’s where I want to be.
TG: What are you driving these days?
LSJ: Now, I have to wait for somebody to invite me to drive their car because … Fortunately, I do get those invitations, compared to in the old days when I was the one dialing for dollars and dialing for a deal. Now, I do get a call every once in awhile. Tony Parella is the new owner of SVRA. He’s created this Brickyard Invitational where he invites veterans of the Indy 500 to come back and race at the vintage race at Indy. That has, quite frankly, helped open doors again to us. Willy T. Ribbs, I just saw, has announced that he’s going back to Trans Am racing, in the current Trans Am.
Part of that is I think he’s been coming back to the Brickyard Invitational. Whether Tony knows it or not, I think he’s helped us, for those of us that really want to keep doing it, he’s helped open that door. I’ve been racing a Ford GT lately. I have a cool card I can give you that the owner made. I fell in love with that car. It’s a 2008 Ford GT that Kevin Doran built. It’s got power steering. It’s more current than anything I’m used to … My last Indy 500 was in 2000. It’s vintage, because it’s no longer eligible in any of the current configurations, but in reality it’s a kick ass, easy to drive car … It’s like, I love this car.
TG: Did you ever get a chance to buy any of your race cars that you worked on?
LSJ: No, because nobody, including myself, really cared. We didn’t want those. We were always thinking about the next car. The only two cars that I wanted and that I have, is the Thunderbird that I set the records with at Talladega in 1988 that Bill Elliot and his team built, I have that car, physically. Ford gave it to me as a parting gift when we mutually decided to terminate our deal. I’m actually trying to sell that car. I’m trying to find a home for it. I’ve had it since ‘95 and, to be honest, I’m running out of friends because I have no place to store it.
It needs to be somewhere in somebody’s collection where the story can be told and all of that. Then the other one is the one I sent you the picture of which is the ‘91 Lola that I went through complete rookie orientation at Indy. That was just the car that I had a personal desire to want, to have, not knowing what the hell I’d ever do with it, and knowing that I couldn’t afford to race it. If I could just put it in my garage… I kept track of it as it changed owners and found out it had been badly crashed. They used the jaws of life to get the driver out at Elkhart Lake in a vintage race. They were getting ready to throw it to the crusher, so the good news is I got it for nothing! The bad news is I still didn’t know what I was going to do with it.
It sat around in a shop at Indy, a composite shop of some guys that owned it that used to work for Dick Simon. They said, “It’s not very big. It’s only a couple of pieces.” Ultimately, a gentlemen, who I didn’t know at the time was a master restorer, restored it. I said, “I don’t have an engine. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it other than maybe hang it in my living room and I’ve got 20 foot ceilings.” That’s what happened.
TG: The whole car’s hanging there?
LSJ: The whole car is hanging in my living room. It’s the whole car. The whole tub with the front wing. There are no side pods and the whole rear is nothing but the engine anyway. It’s the whole tub, with the front. It’s like I have a friend.