May 26, 1995 in Sports

It’s Full Speed Ahead For Indy Pioneer

Sandra Mckee Baltimore Sun
 

The driver is dressed in form-fitting black jeans and a tan shirt. A beautiful, hand-worked gold Indy car with a thin silver streak representing a racetrack completes a circle around the driver’s neck.

The driver is sitting in a garage amid car parts, tires and busy mechanics.

“I’m in my element,” said Lyn St. James. “I’m comfortable here. This is my deal. If I was uncomfortable I couldn’t be a pioneer - or whatever it is that I am. If I had to come in here and endure being here, I wouldn’t be here.”

She is an Indianapolis 500 veteran, the 1992 Indy 500 rookie of the year. And now, just three years later at age 48, she is the oldest driver in the race.

“Where is Emerson (Fittipaldi) when I need him?” she said with a laugh, referring to the Penske driver who did not make the field for Sunday’s race. He is four months older. “He promised me he’d be here as long as I am so I wouldn’t have to be the oldest.”

St. James, who is also the fastest woman qualifier in the history of the 500, doesn’t like being the oldest person in the race, even though it is a driver’s note and not just a woman driver’s note.

“I don’t mind age,” she said. “Age is what it is but, from an image standpoint, I don’t think it is going to enhance my opportunities.” She can’t quite find any advantage to it while living in a society in which it is the men who age gracefully and the women who simply get old.

But in her future there is an opportunity to set a driving record that is not a woman’s driving record, and she wouldn’t mind having her name attached to it.

Today, St. James is expected to announce details surrounding her attempt to set a new wheel-driven, land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, Sept. 14-18.

The current record is 409.277 mph, set in 1965. The Lessman Racing Streamliner, owned by St. James’ husband, Roger Lessman, sponsored by 11 different companies and driven by St. James, must exceed 413.370 mph for the record.

“But I don’t just want to go 413, which is what it takes, we want to really slam dunk it,” she said, noting that she would like to double her Indy 500 qualifying speed of 225.346 on the Utah desert. “It’s not a woman’s record. It’s a record. I’m aware of that. It matters.”

It matters, but St. James doesn’t dwell on the role gender has played in her career.

“I’ve been here when (former 500 winners) Arie Luyendyk and Danny Sullivan didn’t have rides,” St. James said. “To say my being a woman has made it more difficult is all hypothesis, unless someone comes right out and says it. If I knew what was missing or wrong in my program or presentation, I’d change it. But if the problem has been that I’m a woman, I can’t change that so I don’t think about that.”

Here at Indy she has become part of the club. This year at Indy she was invited to be one of the observers for the rookie tests, another step toward total acceptance.

Evidence of acceptance came Wednesday morning, when her car owner, Dick Simon, stormed into the garage fresh from a taping of “Good Morning America.”

“I told them you’re now officially just one of the guys,” said Simon. St. James shook her head and smiled.”Just call me a racer,” she said.”No question,” said Simon.

St. James didn’t have a sponsor until 14 days ago, when Chicago businessman Dave Carmell read about her situation in the newspaper one night and decided two minutes later that he had to do something about it.

“I had never heard of him,” St. James said. “But he had heard of me through my non-racing activities. I’m pretty proud of that.”


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