Forging a new path for women in the world of motorsports
Lyn St. James’ illustrious career has distinguished her as one of the most successful female racecar drivers in history. Beginning her career in the mid 1970s, she would become one of only nine women ever to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
St. James got her start in road racing at a time when women were largely excluded from the sport, making her debut in the 1973 Amateur Sports Car Club of America Race. Gaining success as a factory driver for Ford, she hungered for the experience of driving in the IndyCar series, though at first it seemed like a far-off dream. “I would think, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool just to drive an Indy car someplace, someday?’” St. James has said, reflecting on that period. “But the thought of actually racing it at the speedway was so over the top in my mind.”
Against all odds, St. James got the opportunity to test drive for well-known driver and owner Dick Simon in 1988 in Memphis – and she was instantly hooked on the feeling. “You become totally one with the car,” she remarked. “You literally wear the car like you’re putting on your clothes. You just slide down into that baby, and you become one with it. It’s a beautiful thing.” When it came to securing sponsorship to drive, St. James faced continual rejection. She reportedly asked more than 150 companies for funding before JCPenney agreed, giving her the chance to finally ride with Simon. Simon had helped make Janet Guthrie’s first Indy opportunity possible one decade earlier, and St. James was the first woman to qualify since then.
St. James became the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award in 1992, and would participate in 17 IndyCar races over the next eight years. She made seven starts in the Indy 500, eleven CART and five Indy Racing League starts, two class victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona, and a GTO class win at the 1990 12 Hours of Sebring. St. James has also participated in endurance racing in Europe: most notably, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. At Nürburgring in 1979, her AMC Spirit team achieved first and second in class.
In the years following her driving career, St. James has continued to wield influence in the world of racing. She has made a mark as a motivational speaker, author, commentator and motor sports ambassador. In 1994, she founded the Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation, which promotes women leaders in the automotive and motorsports industries, and she personally mentors young women in motorsports. Additionally, she created the Women’s Sports Foundation Project Podium Scholarship Grant, has written two memoirs, and continues to give motivational speeches.
Her long and varied career makes one thing clear: few people have played a bigger role in advancing a marginalized group within the racing world!