St. James, Lyn
Lyn St. James
American race car driver
At age 45, when many athletes are retired or over the hill, Lyn St. James was blazing a trail. St. James, one of the few women in professional automobile racing, was a rookie of the year at that age, finishing 11th at the 1992 Indianapolis 500 among 33 competitors. She became the second woman to race at Indy and competed in that event a total of seven times.
St. James became the first woman to win a solo North American professional road race at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1985. In 1996 she acquired her own team, Lyn St. James racing. When she switched from road racers to Indy cars in 1988, she became the first woman to compete full-time on the Indy circuit.
St. James, whose career thrived despite occasional problems finding a sponsor and frequent crashes in races, retired in 2001 to write a book, Ride of Your Life. Auto racing, she says, can cross gender lines. She has worked as a columnist, motivational speaker and television commentator.
"Be a Nice Lady"
Maxine Cornwall had not intended to raise her daughter, Evelyn, in Willoughby, Ohio, for the gritty, male-oriented world of car racing. But, ironically, she instilled a love of cars in her daughter. Cornwall, a polio victim, found an automobile empowering. Mother and daughter would take long weekend drives.
Evelyn Cornwall, who later changed her name to Lyn St. James to make it more marketable, credited sports for helping make her more outgoing as an adolescent. She played basketball, volleyball, tennis, and field hockey, and attended the Andrews School for Girls, near Cleveland. She took an interest in drag racing through male friends. One night in 1964, while attending races with friends in Louisville, Kentucky, she made an offhand remark to someone who had lost a heat and was told, "If you think you can do better, go ahead." She took up the offer and won the race. Attending the Indianapolis 500 in 1969 and getting star A. J. Foyt's autograph furthered her zeal.
Begins Racing Career
St. James began competing in local Sports Car Club of America events in 1973. She experienced a bad beginning in racing, having spun into a pond at Palm Beach International Raceway with a Ford Pinto that was her street car, and escaped from her car about eight seconds before it sank. She rebounded to win Florida regional championships in 1976 and 1977. In her first pro season, 1979, she finished eighth, and came in second in the Kellygirl Challenge series.
Having read about Ford Motor Company's attempts to market its products to women, St. James lobbied hard for the motor company to sponsor her career. Ford signed her in 1981 and, although she sometimes raced poorly, she traveled extensively to speak on the company's behalf. "For a good while she was far more successful at that than she was at driving," Sports Illustrated wrote in 1993. "Five years passed before she won her first race, at Elkhart Lake, Wis. (in 1985)" Then came the breakthrough victory at Watkins Glen that same year.
Wakeup Call, Then Indy
St. James's career received a jolt in 1991 when Ford sharply curtailed its road racing involvement and dropped her as a driver. "St. James had to shop around for rides," Sports Illustrated said. After attending self-awareness seminars, she declared she would drive in the Indianapolis 500. Janet Guthrie , the only other woman to race at Indy to this point, first entered in 1977. Engine trouble forced her out that year, but Guthrie returned in 1978 to finish ninth. She pitched sponsors hard, and got such corporations as J. C. Penney, Agency Rent-a-Car, Goodyear, and Danskin, to sponsor her on the Indy car tour.
St. James finished ninth in her first Indy, her best finish among her seven there. She had her share of misfortunes at the Brickyard, including a drive-train problem and some crashes. One mishap, in 2000, involved 19-year-old Sarah Fisher in the first-ever two-woman field at the Brickyard. Apparent frostiness between the two women fueled headlines about the crash. "Despite teaming up to make Indy history, it was clear the two women were not close," the Associated Press wrote. "They had not talked since Fisher attended St. James' driving school four years ago. Fisher said she didn't learn much at the school and boasted that she would bring a new attitude to female drivers at the Brickyard, hinting that St. James and Janet Guthrie were merely satisfied to qualify and didn't race to win."
St. James also won a reputation as a spokesperson for women in sports and other male-dominated professions. She wrote auto-related columns for the Detroit Free Press, was president of the Women's Sports Foundation in the early 1990s and a guest at the White House five times. She wrote her first book, Lyn St. James's Car Owner's Manual, in 1984. She credits retailer J.C. Penney for having saved her program in 1993. J.C. Penney chief executive officer W.R. Howell found out about the driver through Carrie Rozelle, the wife of former National Football League Commissioner Alvin "Pete" Rozelle. When St. James, at Howell's invitation, made a marketing presentation at company headquarters in Dallas, St. James discovered three female Penney executives. In 1998 the women's television network Lifetime became one of her sponsors.
|1947||Born as Evelyn Cornwall March 13 in Willoughby, Ohio|
|1969||Attends first Indianapolis 500, as spectator|
|1970||Marries John Carusso|
|1973||Makes racing debut at Amateur Sports Car Club of America|
|1981||Signs with Ford Motor Company|
|1988||Changes to Indy cars|
|1990||Tests for Dick Simon Racing at Indianapolis|
|1990-93||President, Women's Sports Foundation|
|1991||Ford drops her as driver|
|1993||Marries Roger Lessman|
|1996||Acquires her own team, Lyn St. James Racing|
|2000||Collides at Indy 500 with Sarah Fisher, the only other female in the race|
St. James found appreciation as an auto racing pioneer when she toured in 2002 to promote her latest book. "My entire career, it has always been, 'Who's going to work with the girl driver?'" St. James said an in interview with Sports Illustrated in 1993. "Many male drivers have told me, 'I couldn't do what you do.'"
St. James retired from the Indy circuit in 2001 at age 54, before the start of practice for the Indy 500. She took two ceremonial laps, then pulled into the pits. St. James has lectured and worked as a commentator for ESPN, ABC and Showtime, and has appeared as a guest on The David Letterman Show and Good Morning America. She also serves on the boards of many organizations.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY ST. JAMES:
Lyn St. James's Car Owner's Manual for Women. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1976-77||Wins Florida Regional championships|
|1979||Top woman driver, International Motor Sports Association Kelly American Challenge Series|
|1984||Rookie of the Year, IMSA Camel GT series|
|1985||First woman to average more than 200 miles per hour on an oval track, at Talladega, Alabama|
|1985||First woman to win a North American professional road race driving solo at Watkins Glen, New York|
|1987||Part of winning team in GTO Class at Daytona 24 Hours marathon|
|1988||Only driver to score championship points in every SCCA Trans Am event|
|1992||Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year|
|1995||Sets closed-course speed record for women for fifth time in Indy 500 qualifying|
Where Is She Now?
St. James, who lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, wrote her second book, Ride of your Life, in 2001, upon retiring from Indy car racing. She is a frequent public speaker.
St. James offers a course for up-and-coming drivers that addresses business strategies and handling the media as much as it does driving skills. She says keeping its status non-profit makes it affordable for the most needy. She told the Elmira Star-Gazette that while she has retired from Indy, she has not retired from racing. "When drivers get old, they drive old cars," she said jokingly. She said she intends to drive in some endurance races in 2003. "We'll see what develops," she said.
Ride of Your Life: A Race Car Driver's Journey. New York: Hyperion, 2002.
Olney, Ross R. Lyn St. James: Driven to be First. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1997.
Stewart, Mark. Lyn St. James. New York: Children's Press, 1996.
Sports Illustrated (May 3, 1993).
"93. Lyn St. James, Auto Racing." Sports Illustrated for Women, 100 Greatest Female Athletes. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/siforwomen/top_100/93/, (November 29, 1999).
"About Lyn." Lyn St. James Web site, http://www.lynstjames.com/about_lyn2.htm, (January 22, 2003).
Biography Resource Center. http://galenet.galegroup.com, (January 22, 2003).
"Book Review: Ride of Your Life by Lyn St. James." RacingPress, http://www.racingpress.com/publish/printer_55.shtml, (July 7, 2002).
"Fisher, St. James Make Quick Exit at Indy." CNN Sports Illustrated, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/motorsports/2000/indy500/news/2000/05/28/fisher_update/ (May 29, 2000).
"Love of the Sport Drives St. James." (Elmira) Star-Gazette. http://www.stargazettesports.com, (August 10, 2002).
"Lyn St. James: Business Principles Pay Off in Sponsorships." Indianapolis 500 Web site, http://www.indy500.com/press/1998stjames-051098.html, (May 10, 1998).
"Turning the Key: St. James Announces Retirement from Indy." CNN-Sports Illustrated. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/motorsports/news/2001/05/06/stjames_retire_ap, (May 6, 2001).
Sketch by Paul Burton