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The Vote Is Still Out on Jenner as Driver

April 28, 1985|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE — At first glance, the newly formed driving team of Bruce Jenner and Lyn St. James is a glitzy, just-for-effect team put together by Ford to showcase its highly successful Camel GTO machines.

Let John Jones and Wally Dallenbach Jr. in an identical Mustang and Tom Gloy and Doc Bundy in the Ford Thunderbird do the serious racing today in the Times/Nissan Grand Prix of Endurance. Let the Olympic decathlon champion with the made-for-TV smile and the lady driver with the equally impressive looks do the public relations work.

But look again.

Jenner and St. James have their Mustang qualified in seventh place among GTO entries, averaging 109 m.p.h. around the Riverside course.

So they've only been together for two days . . . so the Mustang was not finished until noon last Thursday . . . so they're both new with the Motorcraft team . . . so what? Jenner and St. James are with a top team (it is undefeated in GTO competition) and they have to be taken seriously.

While Jenner prepared to take the car out for a practice session Saturday morning, St. James took a break, finding a seat on a little Ford tractor, safely out of the way of the frantic scurrying in the garage area that signals the approach of race day.

Shouting over the roar of engines and squinting against the dusty wind, she happily explained the new situation: "In endurance racing, you need consistency, maturity--maybe I should say experience--and good equipment.

"We are working with the best equipment, the best. Bruce has been around, and if we can be consistent, I think we really have a very good chance. We're not going to sit on the pole, but the opportunity is there to win some races."

St. James, who is the veteran of the team, has never won a race, but she has been very competitive. She's been racing since 1975. She won the women's point championship in the 1979 and 1981 IMSA Kelly American Challenge Series, and her fifth-place finish overall in the 1981 American Challenge standings was the highest finish for any woman in an American pro road racing series. She finished 10th overall in her rookie season on the SCCA Trans-Am circuit in 1983 and in 1984 was named Autoweek's rookie of the year in the Camel GT series.

She has proven herself. She's only driving in the GTO class until Ford has a new prototype (Mustang Probe) built for her. But she can remember how it felt to be on trial, and Jenner is still on trial. He's better known for his Wheaties commercial than for his runnerup finish last year at Michigan International Speedway or for moving up from 11th place to finish fifth in the Miami Grand Prix this year in a car that was not going to win for anyone.

The only races Jenner has won were celebrity races, starting in 1979 at the Long Beach Grand Prix. He's still making the transition from celebrity to serious driver.

"Bruce will always be a celebrity, he can't escape that," St. James said. "Once a celebrity, always a celebrity. Paul Newman will always be Paul Newman and Bruce Jenner will always be Bruce Jenner. But being a celebrity doesn't make you go faster. You have to earn your credentials in racing on the track.

"Your performance is not qualified by what has come before. It's black and white, what you do on the track. Your competition doesn't give a shoot what your name is. They'll pass you.

"The name doesn't mean much within the tight-knit little community here. I think that's why racing is attractive to some celebrities."

To some degee it's true that racing is a great equalizer. But, on the other hand, with his limited experience Jenner would not be with the team he's with, driving the quality car that he's driving, if it were not for his name.

He admits it, without blinking an eye. "Yes," he said, most emphatically. "It is because of my name and the amount of media coverage I can bring to Ford and 7-Eleven and Motorsports and the sport itself, that it is much easier for me to get good equipment.

"Yes. That's true. I missed a lot of steps along the way. I've been very fortunate. It's an example of 'to the victor goes the spoils.' I can't deny that it has been to my advantage."

The disadvantage is the added pressure--no sympathy from cohorts who didn't miss those steps, no excuses about bad equipment and no way to get lost in the crowd when the results are printed. "If I go to a race, people are going to be watching me because they recognize the name," Jenner said. "I don't like to go to any race if I'm not in good enough equipment to at least look good. That's why I'm so pleased to be with this team--I'm in the hunt."

Asked to assess Jenner's standing among other drivers, Doc Bundy said: "The vote is still out. He's beginning to show signs of being a driver, but it's going to take a commitment on his part. . . . He's going in the right direction, but he'll have to really keep working at it."

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