St. James driving to higher goals First woman at Indy since Guthrie in '79

May 22, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- She's tough yet feminine. Articulate, but contained. LPGA golfer Carol Mann once told her to never reveal much about herself to the media. She's taken the advice to heart.

Lyn St. James is a race car driver. Nothing more, nothing less. Sunday she will become only the second woman in history to drive in the Indianapolis 500, although St. James says she has no idea if that means she is under more pressure.

"I'm a woman," she said. "I don't know what it would be like to not be a woman. I don't have anything to compare it to. I'm proud to be a woman. I'm proud to be a driver."

She is 45, the oldest rookie to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. But that's one record no one works into the conversation when talking to St. James, who will be driving the J.C. Penney Spirit of the American Woman Lola/Chevy.

St. James, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., qualified her car at 220.150 mph last Saturday to become the first woman to make the field since Janet Guthrie in 1979. She'll start on the outside of Row 9.

Guthrie broke the formerly all-male bastion of the Indy 500 in 1977. A lot of things have changed here in the 15 years since. A lot of things haven't.

Guthrie tried not to stand out. She tried to be just like every other driver. She did not want to seem less prepared than anyone else and didnot feel she could risk doing anything out of the ordinary.

If Guthrie had spent three hours a day sitting in a silent, stationary race car in a spare bedroom in her apartment, trying to simulate what she would be up against in the Indianapolis 500, she would never have told anyone.

But St. James, who was 1984 rookie of the year in IMSA Camel GT series, has no qualms about letting everyone know she does just that and even supplies the details.

For three hours every day, dressed in her fire-retardant driver's suit, surrounded by heating pads to re-create the heat of a race car, St. James sits in a spare March chassis in her Indianapolis apartment.

For three hours every day, the time it will take to drive the Indianapolis 500, she sits there concentrating on a computer screen, simulating the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the tiny cursor that represents her race car, as it moves around the course.

"No, I don't make any racing sounds," she said. "And I really don't care what anyone thinks about the fact that I'm doing this. I'll do whatever might help me have an edge."

Certainly, St. James is more accepted by her racing peers. Four time and defending 500 champion Rick Mears said last night that he is excited for her.

"She likes to race," Mears said. "I think she did one hell of job in qualifying and I think she'll do a nice job in the race. A guy, a woman, it doesn't matter to me. She's a competitor -- one I want to try to beat."

But St. James' presence still is viewed as something of an aberration. She had her best finishes in 1987 and 1990 as part of the winning team in the GTO division of the 24 Hours of Daytona. She receives upward of 40 interview requests a day.

More than the question of age, the one question she doesn't want to deal with is this: Is she just another novelty act at the Indianapolis 500?

"I can't do anything about how other people perceive me," she said. "I don't look at it that way. This is for me. This is a goal that I've had in meeting a career objective. It's a personally driven thing."

But the fact remains that at the moment St. James is not a full-time member of the Indy car circuit. Her deal is for one race, this Sunday. No future plans have been announced.

Lyn St. James is trying to rely on the attitude she has developed this month. She referred to a line from the movie "Steel Magnolias," "If it hasn't killed me, it'll make me strong" as the cornerstone of her attitude.

"It's all just another strength-building, character-building experience," she said.

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