Vintage Racing’s New Friend by D. Randy Riggs from VM issue 2011.6 – Nov/Dec 2011
Remember the bad old days when women were not allowed in the pits at many motor racing events? What was that about, anyway? I never understood the reasoning behind such a rule—long, long overdue for a rethink. It was just one of the era’s many obstacles that women faced. Were the organizers concerned that the fairer sex might be injured or killed and afraid of the resultant negative publicity?
Were there stories going around about bad karma if females were present, like the color green and eating peanuts in the pits or car numbers that could be read upside down? Yeah, ol’ Joe had the acetylene torch going when this beautiful blonde babe sauntered past, Joe turned to have a gander and the next thing we knew, he’d set the car on fire… .
Sports car racing was the most open- minded about women in the pits and even let them race (not at Le Mans, however), but forget it at the ovals, especially Indianapolis, where even women reporters were banned from entering Gasoline Alley.
In my younger days I raced motorcycles at Ascot Park, but my girlfriend had to sit in the stands instead of handing me wrenches (she knew the difference between a 5/8 and a 9/16) or a Coke in the pits. That was about as dumb as the requirement for crewmembers to wear white pants, a perfect color for sitting in the dirt working around grease and oil. My girlfriend’s help and words of encouragement would have been welcomed like Ina Balchowsky’s welding skills were back in the 1950s at any Cal Club race.
I always thought that if a woman wanted to try something, she should be able to—minus the gender bias. So when women like Denise McCluggage raced sports cars in the ’50s and ’60s I followed her progress, and that of Shirley Shahan (Drag-On-Lady) and Shirley Muldowney in drag racing, then raised my eyebrows when Arlene Hiss became the first woman to qualify and run in an Indy-car race at Phoenix in 1976. Had hell frozen over? Hiss’ run was five years after women were finally allowed into the pits and garages at Indy. Janet Guthrie followed that up by making the Indy 500 starting lineup in 1977, signaling that something big had happened since the days when women were shut out.
Lyn St. James was another lady in the Indianapolis racing headlines, having begun her career in a lowly Ford Pinto, but making a name and proving her mettle in both IMSA GTO and SCCA Trans-Am—a class winner at the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Her first go at The Brickyard in 1992 resulted in an impressive 11th-place finish and the “Rookie of the Year” award, 26 years after she attended the Indy 500 with friends where the race had made an indelible mark on her psyche.
I had an opportunity to meet the veteran of seven Indy 500s recently at the Classic Sports Racing Group’s (CSRG) Charity Challenge at Infineon Raceway, where Lyn was the event’s Grand Marshal. Best of all, she’d be racing, thanks to a chance meeting with Jon Norman at the Riverside Raceway Reunion earlier this year. Norman arranged for Lyn to drive Chris Locke’s ’77 Chevron B29 Formula Atlantic car in the event’s Group 8 race, something she was very excited about.
It was not Lyn’s first time to a vintage race, having participated at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and at a few other events. But it had been awhile since she’d sat in a race car, and she familiarized herself with the Chevron at John Anderson’s shop before turning laps. Re-learning Infineon’s tricky and technical circuit was a challenge, but you could see Lyn’s focus and concentration and the fact that she took the opportunity seriously. No one who knows this racer would be surprised by that, because this was Lyn’s approach throughout her entire racing career.
Upbeat and personable, Lyn became one of the gang over the weekend, always ready to talk to a fan, sign an autograph or hear another racer’s words about how to drive the racetrack. She ran consistent lap times, smooth and precise, and never put a wheel wrong in a full field of open-wheel race cars.
Thanks to Chris Locke for loaning his car out and to Lyn for joining us. You’re welcome back anytime!