Lyn St.James is more than a retired racecar driver. While other previous Indy500 participants fade into obscurity, Ms. St.James tours the country giving talks, encouraging the next generation to join the circus of motorsports and tells tales about her career.
Ms. St.James has quite a few stories to her impressive resume. She started racing in 1974 with a Ford Pinto (that she immediately drove into a lake). By 1979 she competed nationally as a professional driver. Ford had faith in her talent and she worked her way up into bigger and faster road racing divisions. Her top accomplishments include winning the 24 hours of Daytona twice (1987, 1990) and the 12 hours of Sebring (1990). This road led her to competing famed racecourses like LeMans and Nurburgring. In 1992, eleven years after visiting the most iconic race in the world, St. James competed in her first Indy500. She would win the Rookie of the Year title, finishing 11th- the first woman to hold that honor. She has competed against legends Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Rick Mears, all while facing the adversity of being a woman in a male dominated sport.
This last summer Ms.St.James came out to speak at the World of Speed motorsports museum in Wilsonville, Oregon to promote their impressive Heroes and History Indy500 display. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview my idol further about the centennial Indy500, her training habits, and even politics. What continues to impress me about Ms. St. James is her quick and candid frankness when answering my inquiries. This is a sampling of some of my favorite answers.
The last time we talked was out at Indy, I saw you just before you got behind the wheel of a vintage Indycar. Tell me about that experience. How did that all come about?
That actually came as a result of the IMS museum. They organized that exhibition. Some were museum cars owned by the museum and some were independent owners. I was asked if I wanted to drive one and I said ‘certainly’. The car that I was driving was the 1935 Pirrung that Wilbur Shaw finished second in the 1935 Indy500 and it is actually owned by a woman…It was really lovely, I didn’t know what to expect, those cars are not that easy to drive!…Two things she said to me, one was to be careful as we got out onto the track because that was a fairly tight turn, almost a U turn. She said that if you turn the steering wheel too tightly it will override the steering box and you will lose your steering. The other thing was that there was this handpump that she had to use to pump oil into the engine. She wasn’t just a passenger!
It has been 24 years since you won the Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In those years how have you seen the sport change?
It has gone through a number of changes. The most significant are the improvements in safety, both the tracks as well as the cars. The demands of the increased downforce and physical capability that is needed to drive these cars has demanded that these drivers be amazingly fit athletes. The technology has taken leaps. The equipment itself has changed. I look at those cars, and I talk to some of the drivers, and I read about what is like to drive them and I scratch my head. I know that it is well beyond what my skills are able to do. I admire and I am in awe of what those competitors are doing right now.
If you could have anyone as your teammate, who would you want and why?
Rick Mears. Just because his driving style and mine are probably what I can tell are the most similar, and he is very open and willing to share. He is one of my idols and that would be my choice of teammate.
In your opinion, who is the most underrated female racer (and yes you include in that pool)?
(long pause) That is a tough question. One of the things that I learned a long time ago was to never expect, anticipate or judge other people’s opinion of my skills because if you do, you are down a downward spiral. We have enough challenge to control our own self doubt, our own internal thoughts. When you allow other people’s thoughts to penetrate your brain and process those, you are in dangerous territory. There are some people that overrated my driving and those that have underrated it. I don’t value that… the key people that I really regarded was the respect that I would get from my teammates and from my owners, my crew.
If you had one piece of advice, one takeaway from listening to your speech and your stories, what would it be?
You have to have the confidence and believe in yourself. If you rely on lap times and external opinions, whatever. If you rely on external information to feel good about who you are, then you are in quicksand. You have to figure out how to have that confidence in yourself, and it ain’t easy. It comes from lap times sometimes, but if you rely on that you are really set up for failure.