Lyn St. James is a certified badass. At age 45, she became the oldest person and the first woman to win Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500. She has two class victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona and one at the 12 Hours of Sebring. She founded the Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation and has made attempts at setting speed records. And yesterday, March 13, was her birthday.
Now, I’ve had to edit this to amend some things, namely the fact that I’m a day late in posting this. It is entirely My Bad, because I was under the impression that the 13th was a Sunday, which is what I get for working from home every day of the week.
(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
Born Carol Gene Cornwall with her name soon after changed to Evelyn, St. James was born on March 13, 1947. She went through a few different names in her life, like Lyn Carusso while she was married. But after her divorce, she legally changed her name to Lyn St. James, the name that would carry her through her professional racing career.
In her childhood, St. James learned mechanics with her father in his metal shop, but it was her mother who taught her to really appreciate cars, since her mobility was limited after a childhood bout with polio. St. James took up all sorts of athletics, going so far as attending local drag races and the Indy 500 when she was young. Her mother, though, wasn’t happy to learn her daughter was moving to Florida to start racing professionally.
But St. James really shone because of her ability to negotiate big sponsorships. I know that sounds weird, but it was a massive struggle for women to get big names plastered on their cars during the late 1970s and through to the 1990s. She chased down sponsorships from Ford and J. C. Penney, the latter of which was decided by an executive board made entirely of women. She nabbed sponsorships from Lifetime Television for Women, Nike, and Revlon throughout her career as well.
I’ll be honest—that’s one of the things I love most about her. Yes, Lyn St. James kicked ass and was a force to be reckoned with behind the wheel. But she also brought sponsors to the sport that likely wouldn’t have considered motorsport as a viable option until she presented it to them. It’s still rare for a woman driver to be sponsored by a traditionally feminine brand; St. James really changed the name of the game in that regard. It’ll be one of the many things that defines a legacy dedicated to bringing more women into motorsport.