By Matt Wolfe
Thank-you for enjoying our month-long series on the Automotive Hall of Fame’s “Leading Ladies”. For our final installment, we’re featuring Lyn St. James; a Distinguished Service Citation recipient and one America’s most successful female racers.
Lyn St. James’s racing resume reads like a bucket list for every aspiring racer. A winner at the 24 hours of Daytona and 12 hours of Sebring, St. James also competed at the 24 hours of Nurburgring, the 24 hours of Le Mans and qualified for Indy 500 seven times, winning Indy 500 rookie of the year in 1992.
Lyn was the first woman to win the award, doing so at the age of 45, the oldest driver ever to do so. She finished 11th that year, her second best finish before coming 6th in 1994. Though her talent behind the wheel was apparent, St. James did not begin racing competitively until her mid 20’s. The former secretary and piano teacher’s racing career started with a splash, but not the kind that would land her in the winner’s circle.
After attending a Sports Car Club of America competition driver’s school with her husband, St. James entered her first race at Palm Beach International Raceway in a “Showroom Stock” class Pinto. During the race, she lost control of her car and crashed into a lake. “I got out before the water got too high” St. James said during a 2010 interview with Car and Driver. “It was embarrassing… My husband said, ‘Look, if you want it bad enough, we can figure it out. If not, now’s a real good time to give up.’ I didn’t give up.”
St. James would later become a regional champion in Showroom Stock. Soon after, St. James set her sights on joining the pro racing ranks. In 1979, she entered the IMSA Kelly American Challenge and notched a second place finish in her first race. Major sponsorship arrived in 1981 when she signed with Ford Motor Company as a factory driver. St. James would compete in 63 IMSA GT races, earning 6 wins and 17 top-5 finishes. She also competed in numerous SCCA Trans-Am races.
It wasn’t until 1992 that St. James got her start in open wheel racing, qualifying for her last Indy 500 in 2000 at the age of 53. Lyn said of her final Indy 500 “…being able to go back when everyone had written me off… That felt good.” Off the track, Lyn founded the Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation; a female driver development academy that has graduated over 250 students including Danica Patrick. Recognized as one of Sports Illustrated’s “Top-100 Women Athletes of the Century”, St. James is as an excellent role model for anyone who wants to take the wheel.