Heavy Metal Affliction - Lyn St. James Pt. 1
Within Forza Motorsport 7 you will find many famous personalities from the world of racing and cars talking about the events and cars you race in. Lyn St. James, one of the most recognized and accomplished female drivers to ever get behind the wheel is one of those Voices of Motorsport.
Over 42 years, so far, and she’s not done yet, St. James has been competing in nearly all types of racing. Over her storied career, on track and off, she has shown determination and found success while helping broaden the diversity of drivers in the many disciplines of motorsport she has raced in.
Here in part one of the Heavy Metal Affliction interview with St. James we find out where it all started and how she developed her career.
Now, let’s see what St. James had to say.
Heavy Metal Affliction: Tell me how you got your start in racing. What was it that inspired you to get behind the wheel competitively?
Lyn St. James: I started as a spectator/fan of the sport (starting in the 1960’s in the muscle car era), attending the Indy 500, doing a little drag racing (street/track), then I discovered road racing for the first time when I went to the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. I found the Sports Car Club of America, became a member, then attended drivers school to get my amateur road racing license in my Ford Pinto, which was also my street car. I think the inspiration was just my desire to drive fast, and figured a race track was the legal, safe place to do that. That was in 1974 and I’m still doing it!
HMA: What did you do to prepare yourself to be a race car driver?
LSJ: It was always about preparation! I had to go to a SCCA approved driver’s school to earn my SCCA license and then finally was able to afford a professional driving school (Skip Barber Racing School) about four years later, and learned so much. To be honest, every time I get into a race car I’m learning, or relearning. It’s always about preparation. The faster the cars, the bigger the races, the more I learned about physical fitness training (strength, flexibility, cardio fitness, endurance), nutrition, and mental preparation. I learned so much in the 1980’s when I was racing for Ford Motor Company and was introduced to experts in the field of preparing athletes, including race car drivers. It was quite new then, but very much what all drivers do today.
HMA: What did you do to prepare your car? What was your racing budget?
LSJ: When I was racing the Pinto, we were not allowed to modify the car at all. All I did was find old tires from the local tire stores, so that meant changing lots of tires. One of the things I worried about was that I wasn’t a mechanic, but what I did was read everything I could find about the mechanics of a race car, aerodynamics, all the technical aspects of racing. As far as my racing budget, for about the first six years it was probably about $20k - $30k/year for travel, car prep, tires, fuel, maintenance, etc. Fortunately, after I started being able to race other people’s cars (starting about 1979) my budget was taking care of my traveling, race gear, etc.
HMA: Where was your first race? Tell me how it felt to be on track and racing?
LSJ: My first race was at Palm Beach International Raceway in W. Palm Beach, FL. It will probably be one of the pieces of my history that will outlive me. I lost control of my Pinto during the race, spun, and ended up in what I thought was a pond in the middle of the track. The Pinto sunk and had to be pulled out by divers at the end of the day. [It was] very embarrassing.
HMA: How easy or difficult was it to find sponsors? Who were your first sponsors? What did they provide?
LSJ: One of the hardest parts of racing is finding the funding. It’s a very expensive sport, even at the entry level. I basically funded my own racing for the first 5-6 years. I owned an auto parts business and used every drop of available dollars to fund my racing. I borrowed $3,000 to pay for my first ride in the 1979 IMSA Kelley American Challenge Series – in a Plymouth Volare – and there was bonus prize money for the top finishing woman driver of $2,500, which I won, but the money went to the owner of the car and not me. I eventually had to pay back the loan, but I won the top woman driver award in all the races that season, including the year end award of $25,000. My first real sponsor was Ford Motor Company, which I got in 1981, to race in that IMSA Kelly American Challenge Series. It was for $180,000, which seemed huge at the time, but turned out to not be enough to campaign the full season. I had to dig into my own bank account to offset the costs for mechanical failures. It was a really tough season.
HMA: As one of the very few women drivers, how did you approach racing?
LSJ: I made the decision early on to not pay much attention to what the other drivers thought of me. I was racing because I loved it, not because I was trying to prove anything, and I wanted to do it better than everyone else. I’ve made some friends and was fortunate to have earned the respect from some really great drivers over the years, which I’m very proud of. The early years were the toughest because I wasn’t that good of a driver in the beginning, but I was determined to learn and master my craft and hoped that my driving would eventually speak well for me. It took time, so my approach has always been to be humble and grateful that I’ve been able to race.
HMA: Looking back on that time, how much has the acceptance of women as race drivers changed?
LSJ: When I look back I realize that when I started racing in the 1970’s the world was completely different for women in society. At the time, I never felt part of the “women’s movement,” but now I realize I really was. The good news is that women are now in a much different place in the world, and women in racing are able to benefit from that. It helps tremendously that there are more women racing in just about every category, but we still need more if there’s going to be females winning at the top levels. The racing world has also changed; it’s become much more professional so all the drivers are more sophisticated, polished, and smart enough to recognize that when there’s more diversity on the grid the sport will grow, so everyone benefits. That’s helping women being accepted as long as they’ve earned their spot.
HMA: Tell me about your evolution as a driver? When did you realize you had the skills to progress from amateur racing to the professional level?
LSJ: That’s a really tough question. I’m not sure I every felt I had the skills, but I sure had the determination. When I think about pitching Ford Motor Company to sponsor me, I was full of confidence and determination. After six years of amateur racing, posting wins and local championships, I think it was when I had the opportunity to race in some professional races in IMSA (Daytona, Sebring, and the tracks for the Kelly American Challenge Series) that I developed the confidence and attitude that “I can do this!” It’s a delicate balance between experience, skills, confidence, desire, and ability to continue to learn.
HMA: Talk about the difference between driving an American V8 compared to something like the Porsche 935?
LSJ: Wow – the difference is huge! First, it’s where the weight is and horsepower comes from – and it’s a big difference when it’s the back or the front. They both have loads of horsepower – the power from a Porsche 935 is like being shot out of a cannon because of the turbo – and an American V8 is like riding a rocket from start to finish because it’s got gobs of power all the time. The weight balance is so different, so you have to pay huge attention to where and what tires are trying to handle the power.
I remember the first time I drove a Porsche 935 – it was at a test day at Daytona – and the crew chief said to me, “You better know where you want to go, because wherever you point it’s going to go there big time”.
HMA: What makes open-wheel racing different than full-bodied cars?
LSJ: Another big difference. I remember two things that happened the first time I drove an IndyCar (it was at a track in Memphis in 1988): 1) My first lap down the straightaway heading into the first turn, I applied the brakes like I was used to in sports cars, and the brakes worked so well it just stopped – so I had to put it in first gear and drive into the corner (embarrassing); 2) I became mesmerized watching my front tires because I always had to imagine what my front tires were doing since they had always been covered, now I could see them working. I had to yell at myself – “Stop that, Lyn, eyes up and ahead – you’re going fast and you need to look down the track where you want to go”. I love open-wheel race cars!
HMA: Are you a car enthusiast as well? What do you drive today?
LSJ: I love cars, but what I love is driving them – and fast if possible. I currently drive a 2013 Audi A3 and have a 1991 Mazda Miata (the first year and I’ve owned since then). I really haven’t owned many exciting cars – but was fortunate to have some pretty nice ones when I was racing for Ford Thunderbird SuperCoupe, and the [Merkur] XR4ti were my favorites. I don’t necessarily like to own them, just drive them!
Be sure to read part two of the Heavy Metal Affliction interview with Lyn St. James next week. We talk about her time racing in IndyCar, the people who influenced her career, and the hard choices she has had to make to evolve her career.