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Car Has No Gender : Lyn St. James, Who Asks No Quarter and Gives None as the Only Woman in the Indy 500 Field, Wants to Be Judged by Results

May 21, 1994|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — The second row of this year's Indianapolis 500 field is one of the most intriguing in the race's 78 years.

It has a rookie from Canada, Jacques Villeneuve, whose father, Gilles, was his country's greatest driving hero when he was killed in a Formula One race. Villeneuve, who was only 11 when his father died, is the fastest rookie ever with a qualifying speed of 226.259 m.p.h.

It has Michael Andretti, the 1991 Indy car champion who missed last year's 500 while running Formula One, a series in which he did poorly. He is back in Indy cars and, as if to affirm his return, won the season opener in Australia.

And, it has Lyn St. James, a 47-year-old woman who has not driven in a race of any kind since last August.

What makes this threesome so unusual is the three drivers in the row behind them--a Hall of Fame lineup including 1992 Formula One champion Nigel Mansell and former 500 winners Arie Luyendyk and Mario Andretti.

"This is a strange place," former winner Bobby Rahal said of the circumstances. "As I've said to a number of people, and I don't mean to pick on Lyn by example--she did a wonderful job here last week--but to (have her) out-qualify Nigel Mansell in the factory Lola, I mean, that says something about the fact that anything can happen."

St. James would agree, at least in part.

She arrived here two weeks ago to drive an untested car for owner Dick Simon. She had a rookie crew chief with no crew and minimal sponsorship, despite having been in the last two Indy 500s.

"It's mystifying, isn't it?" she mused. "We were at a severe disadvantage from the start, yet everything went our way. The first lap I had in the car (a 1994 Lola-Ford Cosworth) was the day the track opened.

"After the operation on my elbow (to relieve a condition not related to racing), two days after the Michigan race (last Aug. 1), I was in a race car only twice until I got here. I did three laps at Putnam Park in Indianapolis in December to get a visual feel for the car, and I did 51 laps here at the Speedway on April 2 in the '92 car. That was it."

After driving in only six races last year before her sponsor pulled the plug, St. James was able to find support this year for only one race--this one.

"Money is so tight that even if I won the 500--you know, anyone in the first three rows can win a race like this--I don't think it would impact them to furnish me any more support," she said. "I ran well at Michigan last year and look what happened."

St. James set a women's closed-course record of 224.208 m.p.h. when she qualified at Michigan, but it was her last race.

For a crew chief this year, she picked an old family friend, Emery Donaldson, who had worked with her when she started out in Sports Car Club of America races in Florida in the '70s.

"Emery worked for my (first) husband and was like one of the family," she said. "He worked his way up the ranks in racing, and when I heard he was available, I gave him a call. He had always wanted to do Indy, and it helps when you have someone around you that you've known for 20 years."

Donaldson put together a crew less than two weeks ago, working with Simon, who has put five cars in the 500 two years in a row.

"Dick is like a piece of gold," St. James said of the man who coached her through her first 500 qualifying two years ago when she was rookie of the year. "On the racetrack, he lets Emery do the talking to me, but he still has that innate ability to be there when I need him. Two years ago, every time I came in, that bald head was in my cockpit. He still listens to all the dialogue (between St. James and Donaldson) on the earphones. I don't know how he does it, with all the drivers he has."

Others driving for Simon here include Raul Boesel, who is in the middle of the front row; Hiro Matsushita and rookies Dennis Vitolo and Hideshi Matsuda. Simon is also helping prepare Marco Greco and Tero Palmroth for qualifying attempts this weekend.

St. James credits Human Performance International, a mind- and body-testing organization based in her hometown of Daytona Beach, Fla., for keeping her fit mentally and physically for driving an 800 horsepower race car at 200 m.p.h. for 500 miles.

"For me, it made the difference," she said of her training. "I just wish I'd had something like that years ago. It would have made me a better driver, much sooner. It's something every race driver should go through. Nigel Mansell, (the late) Ayrton Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. are among those who have taken their course, and all of them said it was a help.

"One of the big things is getting you to visualize driving at speed. I mean all the bumps and curves and surprises, everything that happens during a lap. Almost as soon as I got back in the car, it all came back to me, because I had been visualizing it in my thoughts."

Her four laps during qualifying last Saturday were uncommonly consistent. She varied only 0.038 seconds in lap times.

"I did six laps visually for every lap I ran, and I didn't screw up a single corner," she said. "I can't wait to get my hands on a tape of my qualifying and replay those four laps over and over. I guarantee you it will be worth every horrible day I've ever had. It was as close to perfection as I can achieve."

Despite her performance, she knows there are some who criticize a woman driving in the Indy 500.

"Auto racing is genderless," she said. "The car doesn't know the difference, and no one can even see that it's a woman driving. No one judges me by my smile or personality, but by my results."

And what of the future, 1995 and beyond?

"I want a full season in Indy cars next year," she said. "I haven't peaked yet."

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