In 1978 Lyn St. James read about the Ford Mustang in Car and Driver. The story featured a sidebar on Ford’s interest in marketing the Mustang to women by providing competition and racing opportunities.
St. James had raced for fun for years and earned his competitive driver’s license at age 27. She was ready to get more serious and was looking for a sponsor. “I’ve written letters to everyone at Ford named in this article, asking them to sponsor me,” she says. She received a letter from Ford, congratulating her on her racing success and telling her to keep them posted on her career. So she did. She raced whenever she could and sent her results to Team Ford. After a fierce chase, in 1981 she became one of the first female race car drivers to receive full-season sponsorship.
Her subsequent story is legendary: St. James was the Indianapolis 500’s first female rookie of the year in 1992 — and she had six more Indy 500 starts after that. His 20-year racing career included 21 international and national closed-course speed records. She was named one of the top 100 female athletes of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. And she is one of six people inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame on July 21.
The recent attention has been gratifying, St. James says. “The world paid attention to me in the 80s and 90s. Then the world didn’t pay attention,” she says. of me.”
Maybe it’s because his story is so compelling. She grew up in Ohio, the only child of a sheet metal worker father and a mother with poliomyelitis. Because her mother couldn’t walk far, St. James says, “To her, a car was everything. She taught me how to drive – and taught me that a car talks to you, how to recognize important smells and sounds.
As a teenager, St. James worked part-time at a gas station. One year his co-workers headed to the Indy 500, and St. James and his mother followed. “After that, I was going to pick up with the guys. One evening I brought home a trophy and my mother was not happy,” she says. “It was the first time I took part in a race. It was exciting and it really pushed me forward.
But, says St. James, “Until I was in my twenties, I did whatever society said a woman should do. I went to school, got a job, bought a car, met a guy, followed him to Florida and got married. I helped him start a business. But then we started going to the races together. We both decided to start running – me in my Pinto.
After securing his Ford sponsorship in 1981, this “traditional” life changed as his racing career took off. For years, she says, “I was usually the only woman in the gang. And like most women, I downplayed it. I did everything so that people wouldn’t notice that I was a girl. But I painted my nails anyway; I didn’t want to compromise myself.
St. James says that as she ran and traveled the country as a Ford representative and consumer advisor, she interacted with corporate executives and women at dealerships. “I was able to interact with the few women who were in the industry then, and I could see the similarities — the isolation they felt,” she says. She bonded and stayed in touch with women such as Bobbie Gaunt, a Ford executive who eventually became president of Ford Canada. When she began receiving accolades from the sports industry, St. James met and found she shared similar experiences with athletes such as tennis legend Billie Jean King and Olympian Donna. of Varona, who have become friends and a sounding board.
After 2000, when her racing career ended, she began a second career as a motivational speaker and campaigner for women in motorsport. In 2021, St. James was named the North American representative of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission. And in April, she and motorsports executive Beth Paretta founded Women in Motorsports North America, a group designed to encourage, support and mentor women who want to pursue careers in motorsports.
“Today there are so many more women in motorsport. And it’s not always about the drivers, but about women across the whole industry – in engineering, in the management of the company, team owners, leads, marketing departments. A lot of these women have been doing it for decades,” says St. James. “We want to celebrate success because if you don’t see success, why chase it? “One of our goals is to attract new faces, to bring new people into the sport.
“Our sport is rich with opportunities, partly because it is not as structured as the corporate world. It’s more entrepreneurial. There is room for new things, new faces, new ideas. And women need to be part of that conversation.
Looking back on a career filled with milestones and breakthroughs, St. James says what she’s most proud of is her long career, both on and off the circuit. “So often in any career, but especially for competitive pursuits like sports, you’re lucky if you get 10. You reach a peak and that’s the end. It could have been the end for me in 2000, after three decades of racing,” she says. “But my career didn’t stop there. And I understood that I had had an impact. It’s incredibly rewarding.