Legendary Ladies Meet The Fans And Tell Stories

Lyn St James had a very colorful start to her career when she literally sunk her Ford Pinto race car into a pond in her first race. Photo: Ford Performance

The Automobile Driving Museum (ADM) in El Segundo, California hosted the “Women in Speed” fan day, headlined by three-time NHRA Top Fuel World Champion, Shirley Muldowney and 1992 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, Lyn St. James. For fans of racing history — and the history of women in motorsport — this was a treat! The museum itself is a hidden gem in an industrial area near LAX and has a cult following of “motor-heads” who come to the many weekend meets and events put on by ADM.

Three-time NHRA Top Fuel World Champion Shirley Muldowney revs her 1978-era dragster for a very appreciative crowd. Photo: Tom Stahler

The entire panel, which also included famed “Stainless Steel Carrot” author Sylvia Wilkinson, karting pioneer Faye “Ladybug” Pierson and Off roading and LSR racer Jessi Combs, told great stories, enjoyable historical chat, and banter with the more than 100 person audience. The big highlight of the day had to be a start-up/warm-up of Muldowney’s 1979-era Top Fuel Dragster in the Museum’s courtyard. It wowed attendees — and the author — to no end.

Muldowney told very candid stories that made the listener almost feel like an insider. Anyone who has seen the 1980s Hollywood biopic, “Heart Like a Wheel,” would especially enjoy the realities she shone on a career in drag racing that spanned back to 1958, when she caught the “bad habit.” She talked about her driving test. “I took my street driving test in a jaguar XK120, with the radio on. The first thing the instructor said was ‘turn off that radio.’ I failed the written test the first time.” She also talked about her long history with “Big Daddy” Don Garlitz. “We are very good friends today, but back then… It was a REAL rivalry. We hated each other’s guts.”

Photo: Tom Stahler

Lyn St. James told a good portion of her rise to the pros from club racing, including deep-sixing her Ford Pinto race car in a pond during her first race and the satisfaction of later beating some of the best in the business. “I always wanted to beat someone who was better than me. So my target a lot of the time was Scott Pruett. Not because it was a rivalry, but because I had such a huge amount of respect for him. I was once quoted saying ‘God didn’t teach me to walk on water like Scott Pruett, but he did teach me to paddle real hard.’ So when I would beat guys like him, it would be so much sweeter…”

1992 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, Lyn St. James tells stories during the panel session at Automotive Driving Museum.

Also on the panel were Sylvia Wilkenson, novelist, journalist and timing and scoring guru for Bobby Rahal and Paul Newman — back when they used stopwatches. She spoke of the once highly concentrated and analog methods, along with the hazards of the gig: “At Indianapolis, I had to do 28 cars on one stopwatch. Once, Gordon Johncock lost it and crashed into the pit wall right under my timing stand. Later, I looked at my chart and I had put a circle around his time, like he had made a pit stop. I watched the race later that evening on television and was amazed at how close I came to being killed.”

Jessi Combs describes what it is like to travel at more than 400 mph in a jet car.

Jessi Combs has made her mark both as a fabricator and builder, as documented by her cable TV shows like “Xtreme 4×4” and “Myth Busters.” She is also an accomplished off road racer with a 2016 EMC class victory in the King of the Hammers, a 2nd in class in the Baja 1000 and recently broke the women’s 4-wheel land speed record with an official run of 398.954 mph (632 km/h) and a top speed of 440.709 mph (709 km/h). “The car we used was essentially a fighter jet without wings,” explained Combs. “The jet engine on the car was rated at about 35 thousand horsepower. When you are driving it it takes off like a plane — but just never takes off.”

Fans get pictures and quality time with Shirley Muldowney.

The panel was followed by an autograph session and some individual conferences. The unique and lite event was fun, entertaining, and informative. Considering the wide swath these ladies have cut for so many more to follow.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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