Lynn St. James blames media Danica Mania Lyn St. James, former sports car, Champ car and IndyCar Series driver, was Dave Despain’s guest Sunday night on Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain on SPEED. St. James, who runs the Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation, lent her perspective concerning Danica Patrick’s stock car venture and the challenges women drivers face. Before her foray into professional racing, Patrick participated in St. James’ program two times during her teenage years.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Despain: Women have been prominent in racing for years … you all convinced me that by now, 2010, there would be so many women not just driving race cars but winning races and winning championships that we wouldn’t even notice this anymore. Clearly, that is not what has happened with the obvious exception of drag racing. You tell me how you feel about the progress in general of women racers.
St. James: Well, the progress has been good, not as good as I wish it had been and as you just commented. It’s not for the lack of talent but there’s only so many top seats available in just about any type of racing, even drag racing, although more have been successful there. There are only so many seats. There’s a lot of guys vying for those seats. We just don’t have the depth yet. For every guy that’s out there, there are 10, 20 that are as good as that driver. For every female driver that maybe gets an opportunity like Danica, there’s not 10 or 20 that can take those seats. There are maybe a handful, I would say, that are as talented but maybe don’t have as much experience. It’s that grassroots level that we still have to have more experience, more depth of good opportunities with good rides so that when they get the good ride at the top level, they’re ready. I’m not about advocacy as much as I’m about training. I do my driver development program – I started it 15 years ago and it’s mostly off-track training and some physical fitness, mental preparation, media training, all the stuff you’ve got to know to be ready when you do get that opportunity. Danica came through our program when she was 14 and came back when she was 16 and we’ve had over 250 drivers coming from 38 states and five countries. So, I’m working on the behind-the-scenes stuff trying to make the drivers aware of what they need to know and how they need to prepare themselves for success.
Despain: I editorialized a long time ago that racing might be the first big sport in which women might truly be able to compete on a level playing field because you don’t have to be 300 pounds of muscle to drive a race car. So, what has kept women from getting involved to the degree they need to build up that foundation you’re talking about? Is there something holding women back in terms of their numbers in the sport?
St. James: Well, the numbers are growing. I think it’s 20 to 30-percent of quarter midget racers and go-kart racers. It’s going to take us a while before they get hold of it. Quite frankly, the most promising are the 12- and 13-year olds I see. When Danica came through when she was 14, which was 13 years ago, she was really extraordinary as far as her talent and she probably was one of the youngest that I’ve ever seen that I took through. Now I’m getting applications from nine, 10, 11 and 12-year-olds and in the last class we just had of 16 drivers, over 80-percent of them were under 16 years of age. So, what’s happened is that they are getting younger – there’s more of them at that age but we’re not seeing them yet at the top levels. I think we’re about five years out before we’re going to get more depth of experience at the very top level … Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened as fast, it’s just taken us a little while.
Despain: Your reaction to ‘Danica-Mania?’
St. James: Well, first of all, I watched every lap she took at Daytona and I think she did a really good job there. I remember the first time I drove a stock car at Talladega in 1988 and it’s a different animal – it’s a different thing to drive. I did not get a chance to see her race at California because I was out at Firebird (International Raceway) watching the drag racers. Part of this, Dave, is … it’s hard to put a perspective on it but the media complains about the fact that there’s this ‘Danica Mania’ but it’s the media that keeps promoting the ‘Danica Mania.’ She’s a race car driver. I’ve known her for many years. She’s a race car driver through and through. I know she wants to race and she wants to win. At the same time, she’s attractive and there’s all this other stuff that society is caught up in. We’re in this sort of ‘celebrity mindset’ now that we make celebrities out of people that aren’t celebrities at all and then we’re really dissecting all the celebrities. I don’t know. I don’t even know how to put a perspective on it. I just know that she’s a race car driver and wants to win races and I want her to win. I want her to be successful … because everyone is paying attention.
Despain: She gets opportunities that other drivers don’t, in part because she’s attractive and sexy, but when I point that out, I get accused of being sexist. The way I remember it, the term “sexist pig” was coined to describe people that treat women as sex objects. Two generations later, GoDaddy.com makes a business of portraying women as sex objects but when I point that out, I’m the one accused of being sexist.
St. James: To me, she’s earned the opportunity to be in that race car and for every guy that gets the opportunity to be in a race car, there are at least 10 or 20 that aren’t given the opportunity. So, it’s really no different when she gets it versus … you know doggone well … I could go down and list the drivers in NASCAR that have never won in the Nationwide, the Truck Series and have never won in Cup, and year in and year out, they’re still in a seat. So, life’s not fair. She’s worked hard. I think she’s done a reasonably good job and as long as she gets better … we’re all going to get to watch and see how long this plays out. I just think that part of it is not right because for everybody that gets a spot, there’s at least a dozen or more that don’t get the spot.