ST JAMES: Standing on the shoulders of giants

Desire Wilson, 1979. Motorsport Images

ST JAMES: Standing on the shoulders of giants

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ST JAMES: Standing on the shoulders of giants


The very first sports car race I saw was the 24 Hours of Daytona in the early 1970s, and besides seeing superstars like Mark Donahue, Mario Andretti, Pedro Rodriguez, and Roger Penske, I remember seeing this incredible Inaltera-sponsored racing car being driven by women racers Christine Beckers from Belgium and Lella Lombardi from Italy.

This left an indelible impression on me. When I watched the “Battle of the Sexes” on television when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in 1973, it really influenced my thought process that it would be OK for me to pursue racing. Then in 1983, while racing in the SCCA Trans Am Series (the series was sponsored by Budweiser), I was invited to the Women’s Sports Foundation dinner in New York. After meeting Billie – she was the founder – she made me realize the importance of knowing the history of women who competed in my sport. She said that we were the most powerful while we were competing, and that we needed to know whose shoulders we stood on.

In 1974 I started racing in the Sports Car Club of America at the very bottom of the ladder, in a Showroom Stock Pinto, and while I was often the only woman racing at the tracks during those years, drag racer Shirley Muldowney was the woman racer getting a lot of attention, and I went to the Gatornationals to try to meet her. I was unsuccessful, but it was incredible to watch her race and see how many fans she had. At that time my goal was to win races, to win the Florida Regional Championship, and to eventually qualify for the runoffs and win a SCCA National Championship.

Beckers and Lombardi wheeling their Inaltera LM 77 Ford Cosworth DFV at Le Mans in 1977. A few years earlier, the same duo had made what would prove to be a formative impression on the author at the Daytona. Motorsport Images

While I didn’t achieve those goals, I quickly realized that to be successful in racing, even at the amateur level, it was going to take more funds than I had access to, which meant sponsorship. I co-owned some businesses with my former husband, so I understood sales and marketing. After reading an article in Car & Driver magazine titled “Ford & Feminism” I wrote letters to Ford, eventually got a meeting in Dearborn, MI and secured Ford as a sponsor in IMSA.

The 1980s provided me with a decade of quality racing with some of the top teams in sports car racing, where I was able to win important races like the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring, to race at the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans, and to set 21 national and international speed records at Talladega International Speedway. All of these experiences and my desire to get as far as my talent could take me led me to competing in the Indianapolis 500, where I won the 1992 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors. During the 90s I ran 15 IndyCar races, including seven Indianapolis 500s. Until 2000 I was the only woman competing in IndyCar racing.

St James on her way to 11th place and Rookie of the Year honors at Indy in 1992. Image via IMS

I continued to work with the Women’s Sports Foundation (eventually becoming President) and learned so much: it takes a group of dedicated people to achieve change, and that while I was competing I needed to bring others into the fold to have an impact. My journey in racing has taken many turns, and I’ve been blessed to have been able to meet some of the most incredible people who have greatly influenced and supported me. After competing in the 1992 Indy 500 I received so much fan mail – and not just asking for an autograph, but asking for advice. With my Women’s Sports Foundation background I was able to start my own foundation, and create a driver development program to try to help the next generation of racers. I’m proud to say over a 20+ year period we worked with over 230 women racers from 30 states and seven countries, many who went on to achieve their goals. But whose shoulders were they standing on?

Let me highlight some significant drivers who influenced me.

I met Desire Wilson through a mutual friend when Desire had recently come to the United States to try to get her career going here. Originally from South Africa, Desire started racing go-karts at a young age, and with the help of first her father, then her husband, was able to move into other types of racing, including formula cars – eventually competing all over the world and winning a race in what is known as the Aurora Formula 1 Series (year-old F1 cars) at Brands Hatch, where there is a grandstand named after her.

Wilson (far right) was an inspiration to St James (second from left), and their careers converged when the shared a car with Kathy Muller at Le Mans in 1991. Motorsport Images

She was also successful in sports cars and made some attempts to qualify at Indy a couple of times in the 1980s in uncompetitive equipment. She struggled to get sponsorship at a time when apartheid was in the headlines, and I believe that made it almost impossible for her to secure sponsorship. She is now a U.S. citizen and lives in Colorado with her husband, Alan Wilson, a well-known racetrack designer. In my opinion, Desire is one of the most naturally talented race car drivers I know, male or female. Opportunity and timing worked against her to realize her potential.

I cannot overlook one important female in our history, and that’s Denise McCluggage. While most of Denise’s racing took place in the 1950s and 1960s, her biggest achievements were in her literary life. She founded Competition Press, which became Autoweek, and was the first journalist inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. She raced in an era with the true gentlemen racers, and since she was racing cars she had great access to the drivers and was able to take some amazing photographs and write stories from an inside perspective. I met Denise at a Ford press event where I had to drag race her in a Ford Mustang. When we honored her with our Pioneer Award, she continued to dismiss her racing accomplishments and focus on her journalist career.

Kathy Rude was an extremely talented racer from the Pacific Northwest who had some great results in IMSA sports car racing. She suffered horrific injuries in a crash in 1983 which ended her career at the young age of 26. She has survived breast cancer, and is married to Indy 500 veteran Ludwig Heimrath, Jr. and living in western Washington state.

The Brumos 924 Carrera GTR shared by Kathy Rude, Deborah Gregg and Bonnie Henn kicks up some spray at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1983. Murenbeeld/Motorsport Images

There was another young driver who was destined to become one of the greatest talents ever seen. Her name was Kara Hendrick. I met Kara while I was racing my Ford Mustang at Sonoma Raceway (then Sears Point), and when she introduced herself to me, all I could see was her huge smile. Her energy was jumping off her like the energizer bunny. She was full of questions about how to have a career in racing. She told me about her racing successes in Midgets and how she wanted to – no, had to get sponsorship so she could move into the higher ranks. I asked around and discovered that she in fact was really good – so good in fact that she often equaled, or sometimes beat, the likes of Jeff Gordon in Midget races. I gave her my contact info and told her I was working hard just to keep my own career going, but that I would help her all I could. We stayed in touch, and then I heard the news of her tragic death in October of 1991 in a midget race at El Cajon Speedway while setting a track record. Kara was only 22 years old. There was a decal made in her honor, which was a pink heart with Kara’s name on it, and I placed it inside my IndyCar for the 1992 Indy 500. It was my way of getting Kara to run the Indy 500. I created a Kara Hendrick Scholarship at my annual driver development program as a way to highlight a special talent and continue Kara’s legacy, and also to tell a story of what can happen.

When I started my driver development program in 1994 I was delighted to see how many young females were not only racing, but who had career aspirations in the sport. It inspired me to work hard to help provide them with the best advice and advisors I could assemble. It was a different world, and a world where moms and dads were now OK with their daughters doing what their sons had been doing for decades. Things were changing. But there was also much work that had to be done to fill the knowledge gaps. There were many young and talented female racers on the horizon, and I was not only excited but motivated to do whatever I could to help them. Next week, I’ll tell you about some of them.