The 1992 Indianapolis 500 holds as one of my earliest memories of listening to the race on the radio while my father filled out the grid on the back page of the Indianapolis Star. That year there was but one woman in the race, and as a staunch girl-power third-grader I was cheering for Lyn St. James. Like a lot of race fans, the first few drivers you cheer for hold a special place in your heart. For me, Lyn St. James is just someone I’ll always think of fondly.
Truthfully, objectively, while she’s known mostly for her career in INDYCAR now, it wasn’t a really stellar career. St. James never competed in a full season in either CART or INDYCAR. In her debut year, 1992, she became one of nine women to drive in the Indianapolis 500. Her eleventh place finish earned her Rookie of the Year honors and the record of the first female Rookie of the Year. St. James drove in INDYCAR from 1992 through 2000. Her first year in the 500 was her best finish.
It is St. James’ career in Sports Car that truly shows her inspiration as a female driver. She started as a Showroom Stock driver back in Florida. She was the regional champion in both 1976 and 1977. As an SCCA driver, she entered fifty-three Trans-Am races and sixty-two GT races. She is the first woman to win an IMSA GT race in the 1988 race at Watkins Glen. St. James struggled early on to get funding, but after coming in second in a race where the highest placing female won a bonus, things turned around. By 1981 Ford had signed St. James as a professional driver for them.
St. James also found success in the world of endurance racing. She, Robby Gordon, and Calvin Fish won their class in the 1990 12 Hours of Sebring. St. James entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, including her 1991 attempt with Desire Wilson and Cathy Muller in an all-female entry. She also won the GTO class in the 24 Hours of Daytona.
A lesser known, but super important, moment in St. James’ racing resume is the 1979 24 Hours of Nurburgring. It was the first time an American team entered the race. The cars had been prepared within three weeks of the race. The cars, AMC Spirit, were larger and more overbearing than the other cars in the race. St. James had only started racing six years earlier and was the only woman on the two-car team which included James Brolin as another driver. The team ultimately finished 1 and 2 in their class.
More recently, St. James serves on the National Motorsports Appeals Panel for NASCAR which allows an impartial opportunity for drivers to appeal a penalty notice. She also runs the Women in Winner’s Circle Foundation and served as a judge for the W-Series qualifications. But to me, she’s the first female racer I ever heard of.