Despite her outstanding record in sports car racing, it took Lyn St. James five years to convince a team owner to give her a shot at qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Dick Simon finally did, and she rewarded him by becoming the first woman to win rookie-of-the-year honors in the long history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
St. James raced at Indy seven times in nine years, finally retiring at age 53 after the 2000 race. She also drove twice at Le Mans and twice won the GTO class in the 24 Hours of Daytona, started 53 Trans-Am events and set the women’s closed-course world speed records in both stock cars and Indy cars.
But through it all, she said, she had a real “connection” with only one car, the 1991 Lola she drove for Simon in her rookie year at Indy.
And just as it took her five years to convince Simon to give her a test drive, it took her five years to hunt down and find that very same car, which Simon had sold and which the subsequent owner also sold, and which eventually was involved in a crash that left the car in three pieces.
But St. James found all of those pieces, and she found someone to put the broken tub back together again. Friday night, in conjunction with Arizona classic car auction week and the Arizona Concours d’Elegance, she unveiled the car as a large piece of wall art in the living room of her home in Phoenix, with Simon and his wife Dianne as special guests.
Simon told the story of St. James’ first test drive in one of his cars, well away from Indianapolis on an empty track in Memphis, Tennessee. But as she went to accelerate out of the pits, the Indy racer’s quick clutch and powerful turbocharger immediately turned the car sideways and had it heading toward the concrete pit wall.
“But she stopped it six inches from the wall!” Simon said, adding that her ability to think and to react so quickly convinced him to give her a shot at Indy.
St. James passed her rookie test in one of Simon’s Ford-powered Cosworths, but he tempered her celebration by informing her that while she’d passed that test, the car she’d been driving simply wouldn’t be fast enough to actually qualify for the race.
For that, he said, she’d have to drive one of his Chevrolet-powered Lolas. But that could prove to be a huge obstacle since St. James was under exclusive contract with Ford.
A Ford executive actually took her urgent telephone call during one of the company’s board of director’s meetings. She explained the situation and admitted she was anxious about his response. But only a few minutes passed before she received a fax.
“Go for it!” was the message. And she did.