By Team Ford Performance Correspondent
(This is the latest in an occasional series on iconic Ford Performance drivers through the years.)
Lyn St. James’ racing career began in deep water and is ending at the top of the hill.
A pioneer in auto racing with an accomplished career across a wide spectrum, St. James will be inducted into the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame in a ceremony Jan. 21 in Las Vegas.
Such an occasion would have been the very last thing on St. James’ mind in 1974 when she made her rather ignominious -- and quite soggy -- auto racing debut.
The race was an SCCA Showroom Stock event at Palm Beach International Raceway in West Palm Beach, Fla. An SCCA driving school graduate, St. James had purchased a new Ford Pinto – cost $2,500 – from the showroom floor. She drove it to the track for her first try at competition.
She was slow. Quite slow. The race leaders roared up behind St. James on the way to lapping her. Surprised, she lost control of the Pinto, and it spun off the track and into a lake between Turns 2 and 3.The car went underwater. St. James, though somewhat embarrassed, escaped without injury, and the car was pulled from the muck to race again.
“I lost control of the car because I wasn’t watching my mirrors,” St. James said. “It went into the body of water. We thought it was a pond, but turned out it was bigger than that.
“I was terribly embarrassed. Even though I was excited to finally race, I thought maybe I’m not supposed to do this. But my husband said, ‘How badly do you want to do this? You have to learn. How hard are you willing to work?’ ”
The Pinto, cleaned up and dried out, returned to race again and again, and St. James won the Florida SCCA regional championship the next year.
She had no idea then, of course, but the adventure with the Pinto would be only the first chapter in her eventful relationship with Ford Motor Company and Ford Performance. Ultimately, the Ohio native would race on some of the world’s top courses -- Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Daytona International Speedway, Le Mans and the Nurburgring -- and build a reputation as one of the best female drivers in racing history.
Her official relationship with Ford began in 1981, although, as St. James will admit, her “contacts” with Ford officials began much earlier.
She had established herself as an excellent amateur road racer in SCCA events, but her goal was to compete professionally. That wasn’t possible without a path that would lead to sponsorship and support.The door began to open -- ever so slightly -- in 1978 when St. James read a magazine article about Ford’s push to provide equal employment opportunities for women. The article quoted Ford officials, and St. James started a letter-writing campaign to introduce herself.
“I went to car shows and talked to everybody who would listen,” she said. “I basically bugged the Ford people for three years. I think they might have hired me more out of not having to deal with me bugging them any more.”
Ford signed St. James and immediately boosted her career.
“I will say to anybody and everybody who will listen that without that happening I don’t believe I would have had a career,” she said. “I would have continued racing, but it would have been really sketchy. God only knows how long I would have been able to sustain that.
“The Ford deal turned me from being an amateur racer trying to be professional to being a professional race car driver. I had my first photo session. I did my first real interviews. I was representing Ford Motor Company and having a great time.”
St. James would move from the IMSA Kelly American Challenge Series into IMSA GT, where she scored six wins. She also ran SCCA Trans-Am. She scored two class wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona, teaming up with greats like Bill Elliott, Tom Gloy and Scott Pruett to win in 1987 and then she teamed with Robby Gordon and Calvin Fish in a Roush Racing Mercury Cougar to win the GTO class in the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring (1990).
Her greatest IMSA win may have been in 1985, when she became the first and only woman to win an IMSA race driving solo, taking the checkered flag in the September race at Watkins Glen.
She also raced Ford-powered cars in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1989 and 1991.
In 1988, St. James participated in speed runs at the giant Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, driving a Ford Thunderbird to a then women’s closed-course speed record of 212.577 miles per hour on the 2.66-mile track.
Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway wasn’t a goal – or even a random thought -- for St. James for much of her life, but doors opened and she walked through.
“I can get big dreams, but that wasn’t even a dream at all,” she said. “That was far out there past my abilities and resources. But the more I ran – the Trans-Am Series was often a support race for Indy cars. So I was around them a lot. They’re not so ominous when you’re actually at the track. They were fast and they were cool, but, in a way, they’re just another race car.
“I got this idea in my head that I wanted to drive an Indycar. I didn’t think I’d ever race one, but I didn’t want my driving career to end without at least sitting in one.
“In 1988, (car owner) Dick Simon called me and gave me the opportunity to go to Memphis to test an Indycar. I started out way over my head, but, at the end of the day I was turning some good laps. Dick said, ‘We can do this; we just have to raise the money.’ ”
St. James finally put together a sponsorship deal with department store chain JCPenney to run the 1992 Indy 500. “It was the 151st company I had gone to looking for sponsorship,” she said.
At 45 years old, St. James surprised many in the Indycar crowd by finishing 11th in her first Indy 500 and winning the Rookie of the Race award.
“I had a blast,” she said. “I was standing on the podium at the victory banquet, and everybody’s happy, and I realized this was a new beginning. It wasn’t the end. It wasn’t like I was capping my career. In my heart, I said I want to do more of this.”
St. James raced partial IndyCar schedules through the rest of the 1990s.Along the way, she became very active in women’s sports groups, serving as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and starting a foundation and scholarship program of her own.
And what about that original Pinto, the Ford that started it all?
“A guy in south Florida has it,” St. James said. “It’s changed hands several times. Now he wants to restore it. It was the beginning for me, yes, and it has memories, but nothing that particularly warms my heart."
All that followed did.
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