Lyn St. James and Janet Guthrie are products of two different eras in racing. Guthrie struggled for acceptance and got it, grudgingly. St. James is just another driver in today's Indianapolis 500.
She can't escape the obvious. She's a woman, and except for Guthrie, no other woman has ever qualified for a starting spot in the world's most prominent showcase of speed. On Sunday, St. James becomes the second female member of the once-exclusive and still somewhat skeptical male domain.
"There was a lot of skepticism with Janet, and there still is some skepticism with Lyn," three-time Indy winner Johnny Rutherford said. "People can say, well, she's never driven an open-wheeled car, she's never driven a race on a closed course, she's never done this or that. And she still has a great learning curve she'll face when the race starts.
"But she's done an incredible job," said Rutherford, who admits he was one of the drivers who greeted Guthrie's arrival 16 years ago with doubts.
The 54-year-old Guthrie came to Indianapolis in 1976 after 13 years of sports car competition. Former car owner Rolla Vollstedt gave her a job, and driver Dick Simon took her under his wing.
Simon now owns his own racing team, and St. James is one of his drivers, along with rookie Philippe Gache of France and veterans Scott Brayton and Raul Boesel.
"The professionalism of Lyn St. James is unquestionable. She's really a unique person," Simon said. "Her personality is beautiful to work with. It's good for the press, good for the fans. . . . From a driver's standpoint, she gives us as good feedback on what the car is doing as anybody I've ever seen.
"Janet came at an early time in my career, somewhat. I just basically don't remember exactly that whole situation. I remember it was a lot of work. I enjoyed helping Janet. She did a nice job. But to compare her to today's Lyn St. James is not fair to either one of them," Simon said.
The 45-year-old St. James, the oldest of seven rookies starting on Sunday, qualified at 220.150 mph in a year-old Lola-Chevy A. She's on the outside of the ninth row, next to rookie Brian Bonner and just in front of former winner Tom Sneva.
"Lyn comes from a whole different era," Simon said. "She comes with 232 mph from Talladega speeds, 222 at Texas, it's a different breed of car today than it was back then. Janet was a good person and a good driver but Lyn St. James is a girl of what it's all about today in the marketing world. She's tremendous."
Like Guthrie, St. James came from a totally different racing environment. She began racing sports cars and sedans in 1976, ran the IMSA Kelly American Challenge series in 1979-81, was rookie of the year in the IMSA Camel GT series in 1984 and was the first woman to run a closed-course lap above 200 m.p.h. in 1985, driving a Ford Thunderbird.
She was the first woman to win an IMSA race in 1985 and teamed with three men to win the GTO division of the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race in 1987. She won the 24 Hours of Daytona again in 1990, when she first tested at Indianapolis.
She is also the president of the Women's Sports Foundation, a consumer advisor for Ford Motor Co., a cable television commentator, a columnist for Cosmopolitan and Seventeen magazines and runs her own sales and marketing company, LSJ Motorsports.
Her path to Indy was much easier than that of Guthrie, who battled constant pressure from the media as well as the racing fraternity.
"I don't know how much of a burden it's been, because I don't know what it would be like not being a woman. So I don't have anything to compare it to," St. James said after she qualified last week. "I'm proud of the fact I'm a woman, I'm extremely proud that I'm a race car driver, and I'm very glad that I'm not the first.
"I see Janet usually every year at the Women's Sports Foundation annual dinner in New York," she said. "Quite frankly, we talk more about the issues of women's sports. I have not spoken to her specifically about my program at Indy or anything like that."
But that doesn't mean Guthrie hasn't thought about it.
"It surprises me that it has happened so soon," Guthrie said of St. James' successful bid at Indy. "I predicted that no woman would find a sponsor until 2010. It's not from an absence of talent or desire, but because of sponsorship. I would have continued racing had the funding been there."
She said St. James is "going to have her work cut out for her, coming to Indianapolis pretty much cold. I'm sure Lyn would have loved to have had funding last fall to have something tested . . . and come to Indy with that experience under her belt," said Guthrie, whose best finish was ninth in three Indy appearances from 1977-79.
Arlene Hiss was the first woman granted a competition license by the U.S. Auto Club and was the first to drive an Indy-car race, at Phoenix in 1976. But she never entered Indy. Besides Guthrie and St. James, the only other woman who tried to qualify at Indianapolis was Desire Wilson, who made one unsuccessful attempt in 1982. She returned in 1983 and 1984 but did not make a qualification attempt.
The only other women on the immediate Indy horizon are Cathy Muller of France, who drove in the Indy Lights series last year, and Giovana Amati of Italy, who drove briefly for the Brabham team in Formula One this season.