IRL: Indy500 St. James on the Fast Track

St. James' Business Plan Is on the Fast Track - at the Indy 500 INDIANAPOLIS, May 11 - All 23 million small businesses owners in the United States have felt the incredible highs and the ...

St. James' Business Plan Is on the Fast Track - at the Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, May 11 - All 23 million small businesses owners in the United States have felt the incredible highs and the soul-wrenching lows of entrepreneurship. Few experience them on quite the level Lyn St. James does, however.

Her highs include the adrenaline rush of dicing just inches away from other drivers at speeds of over 200 mph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the celebrity status that is bestowed upon the most popular athletes.

Accidents and blown engines are some of the most visible lows of the sport. Sponsorship deals that looked like they were sure to come to fruition only to evaporate somewhere on the corporate ladder are equally if not more demoralizing.

This weekend St. James will attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. She's been in the race, the world's largest single-day sporting event, six previous times. She's never approached it like she's doing this year though, as she's the driver and entrant through one of her small businesses, Lyn St. James Racing LLC of Indianapolis.

St. James owns two small businesses - Lyn St. James Racing LLC and Lyn St. James Enterprises - and she is the head of one 501(c) 3 non-profit educational organization, the Lyn St. James Foundation. All are built around motorsports. Near the core of all of the projects that these companies encompass is the goal of opening up avenues for non-traditional professionals - especially girls and women - to succeed in the automotive industry and in racing.

St. James has become a role model to millions in the years since that day in 1974 when she spun her Ford Pinto into a pond at Palm Beach International Raceway in Florida during her first regional amateur Sports Car Club of America race. Thirty-one racing records followed, and today she is a popular speaker on the lecture circuit as well as a world-famous driver.

At 51, she knows she won't be able to drive Indy cars forever. She has mapped out a corporate plan for the future as an Indy Racing League team owner when she decides to hang up her helmet, and she's laying that foundation with her Indy 500 effort this year. But she also knows she can still get the job done behind the wheel today, and first and foremost Lyn St. James is a racer.

She also knows all too well the truth behind the old racing axiom: "Speed costs money; how fast do you want to go?"

And Lyn St. James wants to go very, very fast.

Although the Pep Boys Indy Racing League is less expensive to run than the rival CART champ car circuit, it still takes an incredible amount of money. At $283,000, her G-Force chassis costs more than many homes that people take more than 30 years to pay off. Even her $100,000 Infiniti engines are a huge investment. Tires, crew expenses, travel expenses and the like put the budget of the average Pep Boys Indy Racing League team at somewhere around $4 million annually.

Few people have that kind of money to spend to go racing. St. James certainly doesn't. "This Indy effort is a big financial risk," she admitted in early May.

She has been trying to line up corporate sponsorship for the entire season for several years now. Over the winter she thought she had sold the idea to one company only to have the deal crumble a few months ago.

"It all just fell apart," she said sadly in a quiet voice in January while qualifying for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car endurance race at Daytona International Speedway in Florida. "And it would have been such a great program, too. It was perfect for them."

St. James is not easily deterred. Along with Tom Volk, young lion Jeret Schroeder and another Indy car veteran, Pete Halsmer, she finished seventh in class in that race. She rounded out her first quarter of '98 with an even better finish - fourth in class - in a race half that long in Sebring, Fla.

But Indy car racing, not sports car endurance racing, is where St. James wants to be. After a short period of feeling sorry for herself, she got on the phones to every corporate marketing decision-maker she knew and also used her racing Rolodex to put a program together for herself. Rather than running as a driver for an already-established team, she would cut out the middleman and organize her own team for the Indy 500 this year.

"I asked myself if I just wanted to show up at Indy and wait to be hired or take control of my own destiny," she said.

To say it was an eleventh-hour decision is being too kind. It was more like 11:45. Her initial Indy 500 entry was rejected in early April because it didn't include an actual chassis number on the form. The race's sanctioning body, the Indy Racing League, needed to weed out the "paper" teams and would only take seriously those who actually had been able to arrange the purchase or lease of a car. Calls on her cellular phone to the offices of G-Force on April 14 while she attended the funeral of Mary F. George, grandmother of Indy Racing League founder and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George, were necessary before the paperwork was complete to meet that day's deadline for Indy 500 entries.

"It was nerve-wracking because all my goals were going away," St. James recalled, but a representative of G-Force called her on the way to the funeral and said that chassis No. 46 was available, making the Lyn St. James Racing entry the last to be filed with the IRL.

Kevin Doran, a co-owner of the car that won those two races at Daytona and Sebring, agreed to help her at Indy and was named team manager. The deal is a joint venture, and St. James says that without his help she couldn't have taken this step this year. Walter Gerber, who was her crew chief last year when her car was fielded by Hemelgarn Racing, was pressed into service as the crew chief.

Finding funding was still the challenge, and the clock was ticking.

St. James' phones were hotter than Indiana asphalt in August as she, her vice president of business development, Debra Turner, and her assistant, Michele Buddenbaum, solicited sponsorship and cajoled for the best deals.

Lifetime Television, the cable TV network for women, agreed to be part of her program for the third year in a row, and the whoop that St. James let out on April 30 when the network's check arrived at her Indianapolis office sounded just like Arie Luyendyk's when he took the checkered flag at last year's 500. Lifetime Television wants to encourage women doing amazing things, and St. James certainly fits the bill.

Biomet, the leading manufacturer of surgical implants and orthopedic supplies, lent its support for the fourth year in a row. Its president and chief executive officer, Dr. Dane Miller, had played a pivotal role in St. James's appearance at the 1995 Indy 500, when her sponsorship commitments dried up just prior to opening day. That year a race fan suggested that she contact Dr. Miller, since Biomet entertains physicians during qualifying and the race each year. He said "yes" to her request for sponsorship, she made the race, and Biomet enhanced its visibility at the speedway and truly became part of an Indy car team.

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which has a long association with St. James, also agreed to provide vital support to make St. James' dream a reality.

Yesterday when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway officially opened for practice for the 1998 Indy 500, St. James' sponsors list had grown to 20 different companies: * Lifetime Television for Women, New York; * Biomet, Warsaw, Ind.; * Spirit of San Antonio, a community-wide movement to promote racing in San Antonio, Texas; * Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Akron, Ohio, a long-time supplier of racing tires; * G-Force, Sussex, England and Golden, Colo., which makes Indy car chassis; * Nissan Infiniti, Gardena, Calif., an Indy car engine manufacturer and supplier; * Doran Enterprises, Cincinnati, a racing company that is a limited partner in her Indy 500 effort; * HomeGate Studios and Suites, Atlanta, a new extended-stay hotel chain; * Comcast Cablevision, an Indianapolis-based cable TV provider; * The Indiana Hand Center, Indianapolis, which specializes in treatment of injuries from the shoulder to the fingertips; * Flying Color Graphics, Pontiac, Ill., a major pre-press facility; * StinkFish, San Francisco, an apparel company; * MCL Cafeterias, an Indianapolis-based chain of cafeterias; * Einstein Bros. Bagels, a Speedway, Ind. unit of the bagel restaurant chain; * Purity Farms, Vineland, N.J., the nation's leading producer of bacon and other pork products; * Stutz Business Center, an Indianapolis-based business center; * National Car Rental, the Indianapolis-area offices of the car rental company; * Dreyer & Reinbold Infiniti, a car dealer on the north side of Indianapolis; * WQFE, 101.9 FM, a radio station in Brownsburg, Ind.; and * Pilot Air Freight, the Indianapolis office of a freight and courier service.

St. James says she was able to become involved with these corporate sponsors by keeping four things in mind. First, one must understand the varied reasons that companies become involved in motorsports. Second, one must establish realistic financial needs. The third point is the importance of networking prospects face to face. And the fourth point St. James lists is the importance of ultimately closing the deal herself.

"This is the first time in my career that I have had to work a deal from beginning to end," she notes. "Previously I raced for teams [Dick Simon Racing, McCormack Motorsports and Hemelgarn Racing] that had the necessary infrastructure in place. The deals were already done and all I needed to do was drive the car.

"This experience has taught me that you are building the blocks to your ultimate success every day of your life that you are involved in a career."

Yesterday, close to the end of the afternoon's practice session on opening day, the Lifetime Television G-Force Infiniti No. 90 rolled down pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a systems check for the first time ever, with St. James at the wheel. It's a simple procedure done to race cars just to make sure that all the lines and hoses have been connected properly, there are no leaks, and all the gauges show the proper readings.

"I know it wasn't appropriate, but I felt like crying just for a couple of seconds when I went out," St. James disclosed later that day in a quiet voice and with a visible lump in her throat. "Just for a second, I thought about what I'd gone through to get here this year, and what a big financial gamble this is. Still, in that moment I knew this is my destiny. For me, it's not being in the garage area, it's not walking around in the pits, it's that moment when I am in my car, all buckled in, looking through my helmet's visor at the scoring pylon, and I'm on pit road heading out onto the track. I'm in my space; my turf; where I'm meant to be.

"Everything was worth it in that instant," she added quietly. "That's 'it' for me."

That's a feeling all small businesspeople - and everyone else who is willing to take a risk in order to live life to the fullest - understands perfectly.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Arie Luyendyk , Jeret Schroeder , Pete Halsmer , Lyn St. James , Tony George , Kevin Doran