Lyn St. James: “There’s something wrong with the way the whole pipeline, doesn’t work.”
Lyn St. James once broke 21 records at Talladega Superspeedway in a 1989 Thunderbird Super Coupe that was prepared by Bill Elliott.
She went on to run several open wheel Indycar and CART event. In 1992, she finished 11th in her debut Indianapolis 500.
St. James is more than just a racing driver. Her passion extends to helping other female drivers reach professional levels of motorsports.
“I started my driver development program in 1994,” Lyn St. James explained. “In the later 90’s and into the 2000’s, almost every driver that came to our driver development program, they all wanted to be stock car drivers.”
“It was really the trend of what they were looking at. So, I’m surprised more haven’t made it through the ranks.”
“I personally think that there’s a couple of disconnects that are happening. I’ve been a part of NASCAR’s diversity council for decades. They don’t always like to hear what I have to say, but I’ve been very vocal about things.”
“They really want to make it work. But, certain things get in the way. It isn’t just funding, which is what everyone wants to blame. I think they’re looking too young, across the board.”
“If somebody doesn’t have their eyeballs on you by the time you’re 22, maybe 23. Then the window’s closed. I think that’s wrong. I think we gotta quit looking that young.”
“This isn’t just NASCAR. Though, it plays out more in NASCAR. The top teams aren’t connected enough to the ladder system.”
St. James is explaining that if top NASCAR teams had a connections to Bill McNally, then a driver could be fed through the ladder system. They could be signed with a NASCAR team but they could send that driver through the ladder system.
In the course of that, the best drivers could be funneled to the top and the not so good would be weeded out. Instead, of forcing baby drivers into the top step of the ladder so quickly, it would be a slower progression to the same position.
Recently, Hailie Deegan claimed her first NASCAR K&N Pro Series win.
“The Hailie [Deegan] thing is fabulous. But, if that doesn’t lead to something then she’s going to struggle just like almost anybody else that wins a K&N race. They fall off the radar because they just didn’t make that next step.”
“There’s something wrong with the way the whole pipeline, doesn’t work.”
Indycar has their Road to Indy program. A bulk of top Indycar Series teams have investment in the Indy Lights or even the Pro Mazda division.
But, NHRA is the one that’s killing it. It shows as Brittany Force claimed the Top Fuel Dragster championship in 2017. But, it’s far more than just the champion or the Force family. Females are highly active on the NHRA side of the racing ladder.
“The reason there are so many more women successful in NHRA is because like 40-50% of their JR Dragsters are girls. It feeds up. We don’t have a feed up system.”
What was your goal for the driver development program in 1994?
“I pride myself for not being too terribly naive but I was pretty naive on this one. My goal was to bring 24 drivers in that had 3 or less years of experience.”
“We were looking for the cream. Then, we’d give them all this information and all these contacts. They would just filter right out into the sport and we would see them progress.”
“That didn’t happen.”
“After 10 plus years, I started to really get worried about it. Something’s not working here.”
It wasn’t a complete failure. Many drivers came through the program and went on to have success and a career in motorsports. Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher and Melanie Troxel all came through Lyn’s driver development program.
But, that’s three. St James explained that she brought in 24 females drivers per year. 14 years of operation, with 24 drivers per year. That’s 300 plus drivers that didn’t make it. It’s a success rate well under 1%.
“There were a lot of USAC and sprint car type drivers that came in. It just didn’t seem to make a difference.”
“It just drove me crazy. Then, I realized I wasn’t always getting the cream. I was actually getting a lot of milk. And I don’t mean to throw anybody under the bus.”
“To be successful in this sport. Besides having resources and knowledge, you really have to be better than good. There’s a lot of good race car drivers out there.”
“The final reason that I got totally discouraged was because I ended up spending a lot of my time just fighting with parents. That’s not at all what the program was suppose to be.”
“The parental involvement — Because we want [drivers] so young. You have to eat what your parents feed you. If your parents aren’t willing to change then your hands are tied.”
10 years ago, Lyn St James bailed on her driver development program entirely. Instead, she now offers a Project Podium Scholarship program. They’ve given funding to twelve drivers in the last 10 years.
“It’s a lot more paperwork and calling references.”
Of those twelve, Shea Holbrook who drives in the IMSA Lamborghini Super Trofeo Series. In addition, Julia Landauer who currently drives in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. Landauer set a record in 2016 as the highest finishing female in the history of the K&N Championship.
Remember, it was a success rate of 1% with the driver development program. It’s near 50% with the scholarship program.
“There’s a number of them. At least I know we made a difference with them. They took the material and they executed. They actually did stuff with it.”
“It really is a passion,” Lyn St James concluded of her drive to bring females into racing.