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Steady Steps, Simon’s Help Pushed St. James to Indy Rookie Success

Note: IMS.com is celebrating Women’s History Month with this feature story.

Lyn St. James was surprised to realize it had been 30 years since her monumental run in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, where she became the first woman to win Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors and just the second woman to compete in the race.

On May 24, 1992, St. James drove the No. 90 car for Dick Simon Paragon Motorsports to an 11th-place finish in her first oval race and just her second open-wheel race. The six drivers she beat for the award were Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Eric Bachelart, Philippe Gache, Brian Bonner and Ted Prappas.

Her surprise today stems from her laser focus on helping to grow the female presence in racing through initiatives like Women in Motorsports North America. Back then, though, she was just as surprised to earn the distinction, which she found out one hour before the annual Indy 500 Victory Banquet the day after the “500.”

“Rookie of the Year was never a goal,” she said. “I just figured there was no way. We had seven rookies that year. That was off the radar for me completely. When they made that announcement, I was in a state of shock, and it takes a lot to put me in a state of shock.”

St. James spent the 1980s strategically racing in cars or series that would build her knowledge and hopefully get her to Indianapolis. First came Trans Am, then IMSA and its high-speed road course racing at tracks like Daytona International Speedway.

Then, St. James twice attempted to break the speed record at Talladega Superspeedway, which she said opened the door for her to get to Indy after learning how to drive on an oval at such high speeds and with large amounts of downforce.

Once she arrived at Indianapolis in 1992, St. James said it was hard to stay focused all month long and not revert to being a spectator, because even just being at the Racing Capital of the World in May was beyond her imagination.

“It’s like living a dream, but yet you don’t float to the Indianapolis 500,” she said. “It was like a pinch-me moment. I was in this floating cloud because I was a competitor not a spectator. It was totally surreal. I loved Indy. I loved that racetrack. I loved driving that racetrack. I lay in bed at night sometimes just doing laps in my head because it’s just perfection.”

St. James said she attributes a lot of her success to team owner Dick Simon, who was known for fielding cars for rookies in the Indianapolis 500 and had a knack for teaching the inexperienced drivers how to handle the daunting 2.5-mile oval.

Part of his training for St. James was to take her to Texas World Speedway, a fast 2-mile oval that opened in 1969. St. James said testing at TWS helped her gain the confidence needed in the car, as well as with the crew, to make a successful run at Indy.

She went to Indy just weeks later and completed her Rookie Orientation Program in a Cosworth-powered car. But when qualifying came around, she moved to Chevrolet power with the hopes of finding more speed needed to qualify for the race.

On the second weekend of qualifying, St. James qualified 27th with a four-lap average speed of 220.150 mph. The initial realization of a lifelong dream, St. James said, is the memory that tops all else from 1992.

“I think the biggest pride was qualifying,” she said. “That was not a slam dunk. Making the field is big.”

Her other sense of pride that year was that she was the first driver to earn Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors for Simon, who was an INDYCAR SERIES team owner for nearly two decades. Of all the rookies Simon brought to Indianapolis, all qualified but none won Rookie of the Year honors until St. James.

“The magic was Dick Simon,” she said. “Dick Simon was a driver, not just a team owner. And he was an owner that believed in his drivers. Dick is also a really good teacher. He’s probably taken more rookies to Indy than any other team owner, and he had an ability to tell me what I needed to know when I needed to know it. He helped guide me through the steps.”

As a thank you for what Simon did for her career that year, St. James had a second Indy 500 Rookie of the Year trophy made so they both could cherish the honor forever.

She raced seven times in the Indianapolis 500. Her last came in 2000, but her career-best finish remained that 11th in 1992. St. James set another record that year when she became the oldest driver to win Indy 500 Rookie of the Year at 45 years old.

Ironically enough, on the 30th anniversary of her historic achievement this May, it’s a record that could be broken as seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will attempt to qualify for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” If all goes well, Johnson, 46, could become the oldest Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.

“I’ve become good buddies with Jimmie Johnson,” St. James said. “I told him, ‘I’m real happy you’re going to Indy. I’m a fan of yours, so I’m going to cheer for you, but damn it, you might take my record.’”

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