Lyn St. James still senses the feel of a race car that responds like no other and the respect for everything it takes to make it go fast.
Twenty-five years have passed since she raced an Indy car for the first time, but her memories of that experience have never faded, especially the 11th-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 that earned her the 1992 Rookie of the Year award.
“I have a flood of memories, and it's a little bit surreal in reflection,” said St. James, who lives in Phoenix and devotes much of her time mentoring women toward opportunities in motorsports.
St. James drove in 17 Indy car races from 1992-2000 and made seven starts in the Indianapolis 500 amid a stellar career in sports car and endurance racing that began in the late 1970s. As she achieved more success in road racing, particularly as a factory driver for Ford, the desire to drive an Indy car was firmly in her mind, particularly at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Whether that would ever happen, she wasn’t sure.
“I was a real race car driver, and there was a sense of pride and legitimacy about what I was doing,” she said. “I would think, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool just to drive an Indy car someplace, someday?’ But the thought of actually racing it at the speedway was so over the top in my mind.”
That “someday, someplace” happened in 1988 at Memphis, where St. James got her first drive in an Indy car testing for veteran driver/owner Dick Simon. She became hooked on it from the first turn of the wheel.
“The car is so extraordinary,” she said. “You become totally one with the car. It’s not like you sit in it; you literally wear the car like you’re putting on your clothes. You just slide down into that baby, and you become one with it. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The lure of the Indianapolis 500 was intense after that first test. St. James worked hard to gain the funding to make it happen. It was a journey filled mostly with rejection.
She struck gold with the 151st company she spoke with, retail giant JCPenney, and that secured the ride with Simon. It was a perfect pairing because Simon had been a master at nurturing rookie drivers, including Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1977.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, St. James became the second.
“Dick is a very unique person. He’s a giving person,” St. James said. “If he sees your intensity and your compassion, he’ll figure a way to at least give you that chance. But you’d better show up with the skills and ability. He’s not a fool, either.
“I don’t know anybody who has taken more rookies to Indy than he has, and he was successful at putting them all in the field. One of my proudest moments was the fact he had never won Rookie of the Year with any of his other drivers.”
Despite all St. James had accomplished in her career and with Simon as her guide, her first experience at Indy was typical of what many rookies face – humbling on and off the track.
She passed her rookie test in a Lola-Cosworth, but it became apparent early in practice that the engine didn’t have the power to comfortably get her into the 33-car field. Simon owned a Chevrolet-powered backup Lola that had plenty of speed, but two things kept St. James from jumping into that car: Philippe Gache, Simon’s primary driver, would get the backup car if he didn’t put his primary Lola into the field. And even if the backup was available, St. James needed approval from Ford because she was under contract with the blue oval.
“That second week of practice was pins and needles,” she said. “Am I going out (to practice)? Is Ford going to say OK? Is Gache going to be successful with his primary car so that I have the backup car?”
She tried without luck to get the new Cosworth XB engine from Ford, but eventually secured the next best thing – approval from Ford to drive the Chevy-powered car.
“They faxed me a letter at the press office at the track wishing me well, saying, ‘If you have to do it in a Chevy, just do it,’” she said. “It was a very short note, but it was very nice.”
That led to the next challenge: Ford’s approval came so late that St. James missed valuable track time during the second week of practice. She got only 13 practice laps before putting the car in qualifying line, but she made the best of it with a four-lap average of 220.150 mph for the 27th starting position.
The weather on race day in 1992 was raw – cloudy, windy and temperatures in the upper 40s –and certainly not the environment that made rookies feel comfortable. St. James, however, was remarkably at ease, not only with the conditions but also the intensity of race day.
“I went there in 1991 and literally sat on pit lane on race day morning to soak all of it in, so if I was able to make it happen in 1992, it wouldn’t feel so weird,” she said.
She also felt prepared for the low temperatures and potential issues with cold tires, having dealt with those factors in her endurance racing career. Still, she said it was jarring to see pole sitter Roberto Guerrero crash himself out of the race on the parade lap when he spun on cold tires and hit the back straight wall.
More than a third of the field crashed that day – 85 laps were run under caution – with many of the accidents attributed to tires that weren’t up to operating temperature. St. James didn’t push her car until she knew it could be pushed, and she drove a clean race.
The race took more than 3 hours, 43 minutes to run because of all the cautions, the longest race by time since Jimmy Bryan won in just over 3:44 in 1958. St. James said she had no sense the race was dragging until it was “go time” in the final laps. As in, she really had to go -- to the bathroom.
“At one point under yellow I felt: ‘God, I’ve got to go so bad. When is this thing going to be over?’” she said.
She didn't feel much relief when the race ended, either, for a much different reason. Despite finishing 11th, she was more angry than elated because A.J. Foyt had passed her late in the race. Her crew had told her the pass wasn’t for position and that she should let Foyt get by, which she did.
St. James later learned that it was for position, and she became so steamed that she literally needed the cool-down lap after the checkered flag to calm herself.
“I was angry,” she said. “But by the time I got to pit lane, everybody – the crew and the JCPenney people -- was pretty elated. I went from being a competitive race car driver who was ticked because I got passed, to being part of the gang and celebrating.”
When she unbuckled and stood up for the first time in nearly four hours, she got another rookie experience.
“I was dizzy,” St. James said. “It was my first time running an oval, and it was like my body was still going around and around.”
That was another unexpected moment to end a month that brought many to St. James in her first Indy 500. It’s a race like no other with challenges a driver doesn't experience anywhere else, and it delivers such a rush that it brought her back to the Speedway six more times as a driver.
“It’s about the desire to put that car through that turn as fast as that car is capable of going, and hopefully passing somebody else in the process,” she said. “That’s what racing is all about.”