Note: INDYCAR.com is celebrating Women’s History Month with a series of content throughout March.
It’s been almost 22 years since Lyn St. James last competed in an INDYCAR SERIES race – the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 – but she is just as busy and relevant in motorsports today than when she was racing in her prime.
St. James has been one of the strongest advocates and mentors for women in motorsports for over 40 years. It all started with a conversation with Billie Jean King through the Women’s Sports Foundation in the 1980s when James was still racing sports cars and winning the 12 Hours of Sebring.
King’s message for empowering women stuck with St. James, who was frustrated by the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated sport. She took King’s message with her back to racing, and all the way to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It just resonated with me, especially at a time where I was very frustrated and feeling very selfish,” St. James said. “I am not a selfish person, but I had to learn a new phrase, it’s called self-help. You have to help yourself, but it doesn’t mean you’re selfish. I took that on and realized I had a responsibility. I went to Indy, and the platform got a lot bigger. It became my DNA. It was a part of me.”
St. James arrived at Indianapolis in 1992 for the Indianapolis 500 on the heels of a successful sports car career that saw her race the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice. That year, she became just the second woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and she became the first to win Indy 500 Rookie of the Year after she finished 11th.
With this star-studded performance, St. James became the de facto leader of advocating for more women to join the motorsports industry. But just like driving a race car at speeds over 230 mph, St. James found her role outside the cockpit to be just as challenging.
“During the last few decades, Lyn St. James, I felt, was the Lone Ranger,” she said. “I spoke from the heart, from the reality that if you want to change something, you’ve got to do something. If you want a different result, you have to do something different. The sport wasn’t wanting to do anything different.”
In 1994, St. James founded the Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation that helped bring women into motorsports. She was a key mentor for Sarah Fisher when Fisher was rising the ranks toward the Indianapolis 500 until 2000 when Fisher became one of St. James’ competitors in the Indianapolis 500.
St. James also played a pivotal role in fostering the career of Danica Patrick, who she snuck into Gasoline Alley one time. Patrick went to St. James’ driver development program and became the first woman to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500 and the first woman to win an INDYCAR SERIES race.
Still, St. James said while she was an early trailblazer for women in the INDYCAR SERIES, she doesn’t like to take credit for what the women after her have accomplished. Those women: Fisher, Patrick, Milka Duno, Simona De Silvestro, Ana Beatriz, Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge each earned their accomplishments and results at the Racing Capital of the World and in the INDYCAR SERIES.
“So many people say there wouldn’t have been a Danica or a Sarah without me, and I don’t believe that in a heartbeat,” she said. “I don’t take responsibility or credit. To be honest, some of the drivers didn’t even know who I was because we’re talking about age differences here. I don’t take any credit at all for that kind of individual impact.
“Every time I see a woman accomplish something, not even in racing, it validates the importance of it and the reality that it’s going to happen. It energizes and excites me. I don’t take a sense of pride out of it.”
With an influx of women in motorsports both on and off the track, like through Paretta Autosport, St. James has noticed she’s not “the Lone Ranger” fighting to help women find their footing in racing, she said. But because she was the first to be such a strong voice on their behalf, she has become more involved than ever.
Last year, St. James was named as a United States representative to the FIA Women in Motorsports Commission, which promotes the place of women in motorsports through media, international events, partners, stakeholders and more.
St. James also is partnering with NTT INDYCAR SERIES team owner Beth Paretta to launch a new initiative called Women in Motorsports North America. St. James and Paretta will co-chair this organization that consists of a community of professionals devoted to supporting opportunities for women across all disciplines in motorsports.
The organization will create mentorship, advocacy and education programs that will help ensure the continued growth and success of women in motorsports.
“It was about what can we do here so that we’re positioned much better globally about what we’re doing?” St. James said. “I’m tired of hearing the negativity and how hard it is. We all know how hard it is. I want to celebrate the successes, and then have the people who are successful engaged more so they will mentor the others coming in and mentor each other. That’s what this organization will do.
“It’s going to celebrate all those out there that are doing what they’re doing, and it will create mentorship programs and mentorship opportunities for new people to come in or help the existing. We want to serve the sport and serve the industry.”