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In her 15 years of battling to Carve out a career as a professional auto racer, Lyn St. James has repeatedly been told what she can't do, what she shouldn't attempt and what she won't ever accomplish. At times her own crew members have made it clear that she would be more welcome in the garage if she fetched coffee rather than asked questions about chassis setup. At Watkins Glen in 1985, where she became the first woman to win a professional road race driving solo, nobody on her team celebrated with her in the victory circle.
"My entire career, it has always been, Who's going to work with the girl driver? Who's going to work with the bitch?" says St. James. "Many male drivers have told me, 'I couldn't do what you do.' "
Even St. James's mother—73-year-old Maxine Cornwall, a strong woman who drove a cab in Painesville, Ohio, during World War II—has fought her every step of the way. "My plan for Lyn was for her to get a good education and to be a nice lady," Cornwall says. "I didn't want her to be hard and fierce. She has wrinkles around her eyes. She has let herself go. Racing is her life. I say prayers for her, sometimes twice a day."
The turning point in St. James's journey came in 1991 when Ford, her sponsor for 10 years, drastically reduced its involvement in road racing and dropped her as a driver. St. James was forced to shop around for rides. She got only three races, so at the urging of friends, she enrolled in a self-awareness seminar to help her come to grips with her sudden inactivity. After spending two days listening to 200 strangers make declarations about how they were going to change their lives, St. James announced, "I'm going to drive in the Indianapolis 500."
"Whenever I get to a low point," says St. James, "I go back to the basics. I ask myself, Why am I doing this? It comes down to passion. I love racing. I truly know that the gratification I get from driving is absolutely necessary in my life."
St. James's perseverance has finally paid off. After making pitches to more than 150 corporations to raise the $3 million to $5 million needed to finance a Indy Car program, St. James, 46, this year became the first woman to attain a full-time ride in the major leagues of American auto racing. She plans to enter all but one of the 16 races in the '93 PPG Indy Car World Series. Last year St. James became the first woman Rookie of the Year at the Indy 500, where she finished 11th.
"Modern racing should be called the motor-sports business," says Leo Mehl, director of worldwide racing for Goodyear. "Speed costs money. To get to this level, Lyn had to improve not only her driving skills but also her business skills. I've watched her yelling and pounding to get what she wants. Some of the men supplying the equipment didn't take her seriously. She could have easily given up."
St. James's persistence has earned her some of the sport's best equipment, including 1992 and '93 Lola chassis and the Ford-Cosworth XB engine package. Why, after years of resistance, is St. James being welcomed into the macho world of Indy Car racing? Because in today's economy, with corporations slashing advertising and promotion budgets, even established male drivers have had to go dialing for dollars. For corporations targeting female consumers—there are estimates that more than a third of auto racing fans are women—St. James has opened a new world of sponsorship possibilities.
And she is a unique spokesperson. Until recently the president of the Women's Sports Foundation, St. James has been a guest at the White House five times. She is an accomplished pianist and a published author—she wrote Lyn St. James's Car Owner's Manual for Women in 1984. She is a part of the management group at Human Performance International, a testing and training center based in Daytona Beach. She owned an auto-parts company for 10 years, and she worked with engineers to develop the 1993 Ford Probe and Lincoln Mark VIII.
Despite these credentials, St. James's 1993 Indy Car program never would have left the garage had it not been for JCPenney, 80% of whose customers are women. Four months before last year's Indy 500, Carrie Rozelle (the wife of former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle) heard through a mutual acquaintance that St. James was having trouble raising money to make the switch from Trans Am to Indy Cars. Rozelle wrote to W.R. Howell, the chairman and CEO of JCPenney, who had been on the board of the United Way, the NFL's main charity, with her. Howell invited St. James to make a marketing presentation at the company's headquarters in Dallas. Upon arriving, St. James was introduced to three executives who happened to be women. "