Women With Drive: Lyn St James

Carol Gene Cornwall does not sound like a racing driver, but when you take the same person and give them the name Lyn St James things are different. And there was even a brief spell as Lyn Caruso along the way, but the history books tell us that Lyn St James made seven starts in the Indianapolis 500, won her class in the Sebring 12 Hours and twice raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours race. Lyn St James is the name that matters.

She was born in Ohio in 1947. Her given name (Carol) was almost immediately changed to Evelyn, after her aunt. Lyn, as she became known, was taught to drive by her mother when she was just 15 and was then allowed to practise on the deserted roads of the summer resort where she worked.

Street racer to school flyer

Soon, much to her mother’s disapproval, Lyn was street-racing with her friends. She began to date one of them, John Caruso, and on their second date he took her to the Indianapolis 500 on the back of his motorcycle. When John moved to Florida, Lyn followed, and they married and ran an electronics business together. But Lyn grew frustrated at being regarded simply as Mrs Caruso and changed her surname to St James after the actress Susan St James. Then she went racing again. This time she attended a racing school and, after an inauspicious start when she crashed into a lake in her first race, she began to make rapid progress.

She won the Florida Regional Championship in a Ford Pinto and in the late 1970s and ’80s became a regular in sports car events across North America. She specialised in endurance racing and was a regular competitor at Daytona and Sebring, but it was not until 1992, at the ripe old age of 45, that she came to much wider attention.

Entering the Indy 500 history books

She had raced in Trans-Am, which appeared on the IndyCar under-card, and had therefore begun to appear on the IndyCar teams’ radar screens. She duly tested for Dick Simon’s outfit and, despite her advanced years, was given the chance to compete in the Indianapolis 500. Having passed rookie orientation at the Speedway, she qualified 27th, only the second woman to qualify for the race (after Janet Guthrie), worked her way up to 11th at the chequered flag, and became the first female driver to be named Rookie of the Year.

Although appearances in the IndyCar series were only occasional, she became a regular in the 500. After retiring from the 1993 race, she qualified an excellent sixth the next year on a grid that contained four Formula 1 world champions. She finished 19th that year and in her four remaining Indy 500s she never improved on the 11th-place finish she had achieved on her debut. By her last appearance, in 2000, she was 53, the oldest driver to ever start the race. Her race ended in an accident on lap 70.

Creating a legacy

She remains actively involved in motorsport and works tirelessly to encourage female participation. A lot more than just her name has changed since she first got behind the wheel as a teenager.