St. James, Lyn (1947—)

views updated

St. James, Lyn (1947—)

American race-car driver. Name variations: Evelyn Cornwall. Born Evelyn Cornwall on March 13, 1947, in Willoughby, Ohio; daughter of Alfred Cornwall and Maxine (Rawson) Cornwall; educated near Cleveland at the Andrews School for Girls; earned a piano-teaching certificate from the St. Louis Institute of Music, 1967; married John Carusso, in 1970 (divorced 1979); married Roger Lessman, in February 1993; children: (stepchild) Lindsay.

First woman to average more than 200 miles per hour on an oval track, at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway, and first woman to win a solo North American professional road race, at Watkins Glen, New York (both 1985); won the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Florida Regional championship (1976 and 1977); won, along with male teammates, the GTO class of the Daytona 24 Hours marathon (1987 and 1990); finished in 11th place in the Indianapolis 500, becoming the second woman to participate in that race, and won Rookie of the Year honors (1992).

Lyn St. James changed her name from Evelyn Cornwall when she decided to race professionally, inspired by the television actress Susan St. James . She was born in Willoughby, Ohio, in 1947, the only child of a sheet-metal worker, and attended an all-girls school near Cleveland, where she was committed to learning to play the piano. Her mother felt the piano would give her something to fall back on throughout her life, and would exert a refining influence. St. James' love of cars was derived in part from her mother, who was dependent on them because of an impairment. She viewed cars as a means to attaining mobility and power. While in high school in the 1960s, St. James attended a drag race one night with friends. A male friend challenged her to try racing; she did, and she won. The thrill of the experience stayed with her for years. After earning a piano-teaching certificate from the St. Louis Institute of Music, she took a job as a secretary and taught piano lessons on the side. In 1970, she married fellow race-car enthusiast John Carusso, and the two began competing in local Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) races.

In 1976 and 1977, St. James won the SCCA Florida Regional championship, and in 1978 she advanced to the SCCA runoffs in Atlanta, Georgia, amateur racing's national championship. Her engine blew up, but the experience steeled her resolve to get sponsors, spare cars, and top-notch equipment; she was intent on becoming a professional race-car driver. Shortly thereafter, she changed her name and, in her first season as a professional, won the Top Woman Driver award in the International Motor Sports Association Kelly American Challenge Series. The Ford Motor Company agreed to sponsor St. James in 1981, and she became part of the company's motorsports program, selling Ford products on tours across America and racing under the Ford name.

St. James' fame as a driver increased markedly when she won a professional road race at Watkins Glen in New York in 1985. The victory marked the first time a woman had won a solo professional road race in North America. That same year brought another first as she became the first woman to average more than 200 miles per hour on an oval track, a milestone marked at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway. She set a second speed record at that track in 1988, and won—along with male teammates—the GTO class of the Daytona 24 Hours marathon in 1987 and 1990.

In 1988, St. James started driving Indy cars, following in the footsteps of driver Janet Guthrie , who in 1976 was the first woman to qualify for the prestigious Indianapolis 500 race. But unlike Guthrie, St. James was the first woman to compete full-time on the Indy professional circuit. Though she lost Ford as a corporate sponsor in 1991, she found other companies willing to back her, such as J.C. Penney, Agency Rent-A-Car, Goodyear, and Danskin, in 1992. That year, she became the second woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, finishing her Indy debut in 11th place. The impressive finish was enough to garner Rookie of the Year honors for the 45-year-old. She qualified again in 1993, but finished 25th in a field of 33 because of engine trouble. She continued to qualify for races throughout the 1990s.

St. James published Lyn St. James' Car Owner's Manual in 1984 and also wrote a weekly column for the Detroit Free Press-Detroit News, in which she addressed readers' questions about their vehicles. In addition, she served as director of consumer relations for the Car Care Council, a trade group that addressed safety and maintenance concerns on behalf of car and truck owners. She was also active in the Woman's Sports Foundation for many years and served as its president from 1990 to 1993. The year her presidency ended, she started the Lyn St. James Foundation, to help others develop into professional race-car drivers, particularly young women who hoped to break into the male-dominated sport. She also advanced the development of young women in the area of self-esteem through her creation of the Indianapolis Make a Difference campaign in 1994; St. James, who claimed to be drawn to the sport of racing in part because the helmet made her anonymous, hoped to deflect such self-esteem problems in other girls through the campaign's sports and leadership programs.


Contemporary Newsmakers. Issue 2. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1993.

Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1998.

Oglesby, Carole A., ed. Encyclopedia of Women and Sport in America. Oryx, 1998.

B. Kimberly Taylor , freelance writer, New York, New York

About this article

St. James, Lyn (1947—)

Updated About content Print Article