Not that we’d ever need an excuse to catch up with Lyn St. James, but the confluence of last Friday’s “International Women’s Day,” the fact that March is “Women’s History Month,” this Saturday is the 67th running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, and the currently under way IMSA 50th Anniversary Celebration made this a perfect time to do so.
Of course, there’s also the fact that St. James was selected among the “50 Great IMSA Drivers” in the recently published “IMSA: Celebrating 50 Years” commemorative book – the only woman on the list. And also the fact that she co-drove to the GTO class victory in the 1990 Twelve Hours of Sebring alongside current NBC Sports IMSA commentator Calvin Fish and racer’s racer Robby Gordon in a Roush Racing-prepared Mercury Cougar XR-7.
“Because of the personalities of Robby and Calvin, it was certainly an entertaining race,” St. James recalled. “’Cause with Robby (especially), it’s always entertaining. It was part of that team effort. I can’t remember who all was on the other Roush team, but the fact we beat them, it’s always a good feeling when you not only win against your competition, but that competition includes your teammates from the team – not your co-drivers, but the team. You always like to be the ones that came out on top, which we did this time.”
St. James, Fish and Gordon led a 1-2 GTO class sweep in the No. 15 Mercury. Dorsey Schroeder and Max Jones finished second in the No. 11 Roush entry.
St. James admits that specific recollections of on-track happenings from a race that happened 29 years ago largely escape her. But her memories of racing at Sebring are vivid as ever.
“It’s the hardest track I’ve ever raced on,” she said. “Mentally and physically, it beats the (stuff) out of you. I know it’s better now, because I’ve been on it. I’ve gotten to go back and race in the vintage race there, and heck, they’ve smoothed it out, they put markers, it’s like, ‘This is a piece of cake compared to what it was back then.’
“It used to just beat the hell out of you. The bumps and the dirt, I mean, it’s not a good, happy description of driving a lap at Sebring and driving in the Twelve Hours. I mean, it’s brutal.”
Her earliest recollections of racing at Sebring go back to 1978, when she shared her then-husband, John Carusso’s Corvette with co-drivers Luis Sereix and Phil Currin.
“I just remember them telling me just before the hairpin – I forget the name of the turn back there – but to make sure that I hold my breath,” St. James said. “’Because if you don’t, you’re going to inhale things that you don’t want to inhale.’
“I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They said, ‘Not really. Just make sure that you do not break down at the hairpin. And if you do, don’t leave the car. Don’t let anybody near the car, because they’ll tear the car apart.’”
That was a different era, obviously. St. James got into IMSA at the beginning of what many consider to be a golden era for the sanctioning body under the leadership of co-founder John Bishop that stretched through the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s.
“I know there were some fabulous drivers and teams and cars from the earlier years of IMSA, but I do think that prototype – and quite frankly, the dominance of Roush and Ford in the GTO category, but we had competition – era was the best,” she said. “There were some strong GTO programs as well from Chevrolet and others. I think that the cars were just exquisite. The drivers were the best of the best, and it wasn’t just one team.
“In the era we’re talking about, it was wide open. It was the best race car drivers and they were there for the season. If you ran for Gurney’s All American Racers, or if you ran for Nissan or you ran for Ford, I mean, you were in. You were there for the season and you were there in the best equipment with the best preparation and it was a war.
“It was a battle and it was a war out there and it brought on great, great racing with great technology and great cars. They were sexy and they were fast, and they were a bit wide open. There wasn’t all this Balance of Performance, but I know John did a lot of dicing to try to keep everybody competitive. Not happy, but competitive.”
St. James readily acknowledges that the level of competition in today’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which will be on display for another 12-hour battle this Saturday, continues to be strong. Many consider this another “golden era” for IMSA.
“The quality of racing today is certainly as good as it’s ever been in IMSA and sports car racing,” she says.
And as one of the pioneers of Women in Racing – with six career IMSA victories, including becoming the first woman to win a race driving solo, which she did at Watkins Glen in 1985 – there’s one team in this weekend’s field she’ll be pulling for enthusiastically. It’s the all-female No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Acura NSX GT3 co-driven by Katherine Legge, Christina Nielsen and Ana Beatriz.
St. James has much in common with all three drivers. She was the 1992 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, a race that both Legge and Beatriz both have raced in as well. Nielsen also is a Sebring winner, having scored the 2016 GT Daytona (GTD) class win, the same class in which the No. 57 competes this year.
St. James will be following the action via NBC Sports coverage, which starts on CNBC at 10:30 a.m. ET and continues on the NBC Sports App and NBCSN.
“Obviously, I am cheering them on as aggressively as I can without being there, but it’s a great team,” she said. “It’s a great team as far as the actual race team of support with Michael Shank and his support and then it’s a great lineup.
“I’ve never met (team principal) Jackie (Heinricher), but I have to congratulate her for putting the deal together and putting the sponsorship (from Caterpillar) together. I’m a huge fan of Katherine and Christina and Ana. They’re three of the best.
“They just have to do the job and then hope Mother Luck is on their shoulders, ‘cause it’s such a crazy race. They always say that, basically, in an endurance race, somebody else decides who’s going to win. You’ve just got to do everything proper, everything right and hope the gods are on your shoulders.”
Just like they were for St. James back in 1990.