By William Hall. Photos by the author and Tom Heinrich.
Lyn St. James climbs into the cramped cockpit of the 1964 Alfa Romeo TZ 1 and takes a few moments to familiarize herself with the instruments and switches. She wants to know everything; she explains that her learning process is visual as she methodically programs herself for driving. We are only going for an hour-long spin on desert roads in this borrowed race car, but the preparation is the same as if she were back on the grid at the Indy 500.
Of all the race cars she’s driven – GTPs, GTOs, Indy cars, Formula Atlantics, Le Mans, SCCA sedans – this is her first Alfa. First introduced in prototype form at the 1962 Turin Motor Show, it went on to homologation for Grand Touring racing. The drivetrain is an Autodelta-tuned version of the Giulia GTA engine and transmission, but that’s where the similarity ends. Legendary Milanese carrozzeria Zagato handled the rest, utilizing a custom lightweight chassis, independent rear suspension, and a Kamm-tailed aerodynamic body to dramatic effect.
St. James is no stranger to small-bore race cars. This was the first woman to attempt the 200 MPH barrier in the turbocharged four-cylinder Ford Probe GTP car on a closed circuit at the banks of Talladega in 1986. She recalls the event as nerve-racking; the singular-focused media attention was akin to Evel Knievel jumping the Snake Canyon. Helicopters with camera crews buzzed overhead and the infield was filled with expectant Ford execs. Only after climbing into the Probe’s gullwing door did a wave of calm wash over her. Now she was in her office, ready to do business. And on the final lap, she delivered: 204.22 MPH. The success led to a marketing arrangement with Ford to promote the Capri to women drivers. She still fondly recalls the long drives between Ford dealership promotions, just enjoying time behind the wheel. A pure driver.
The slippery Zagato shape lends itself to exterior airflow, but not within. The stuffy cabin wafts radiant heat from the firewall. Gone are the traditional Alfa Giulia ergonomics of straight arms and splayed legs. The quick release steering wheel is close to the vest, like an MGA or Jaguar XK120, and does not require nor allow hand-over-hand steering. St. James saws at it with calm confidence, commenting on the wooden dead pedal attached to the outboard foot well. A racer’s touch sadly missing from her Audi daily driver.
At 7000 RPM the little Alfa is abuzz. The term we mutually agree upon is “frenetic.” The experience is like getting a root canal with a dull drill. The thin aluminum coachwork vibrates like a tight snare drum near redline. It is the soundtrack of anxious danger. Yet this is what separates racers from the rest of us: the ability to live in the upper 10 percent of what other drivers might deem uncomfortable. I take firm hold of the top tube frame of the Alfa racer, the structure which gives this “Tubolare Zagato” its name. It’s so tight in the cabin I could rest my temple against it.
The noise is deafening. Our heads are only inches apart in the cockpit, but we are still lip reading and yelling into canted ears. St. James is busy exploring the steady power curve of the little Alfa’s DOHC 1600 motor. She likes the smooth, long throw of the five-speed gearbox. At 90 MPH, we hit a dip in the road. The supple Alfa soaks it up and keeps tracking true. She unweights her hands from the wheel, arches one eyebrow and gives an appreciative nod. I’m wound tighter than a roll of piano wire. It’s said that a car is never faster than from the passenger seat; all the more so if the driver is a seven-time Indy racer.
The story of St. James becoming 1992 Indy Car Rookie of the Year is not that she was the second woman ever to make an Indy start, but that she was 45 years old when she did it. It was only her second race in an open-wheel car and her first on an oval. Plenty of reasons to stay home and just watch it on television, but that’s not in her nature. She went on to have six more Indy starts before pursuing off-track interests, which included efforts towards women’s advocacy and advancement in motorsports. Sports Illustrated named her one of the Top 100 Women Athletes of the Century.
Today, St. James has a new cause and passion. She is an ambassador for the Hagerty Education Program, a non-profit set up by LeMay-America’s Car Museum to stimulate education and assist in job placement for young people entering the classic car industry. She learned of the dwindling pool of experienced craftsman in the restoration field from firsthand experience. A few years back she acquired the crashed Lola monocoque of her last Indy racer and sought out a shop to repair the car. An experienced restorer took the job, but it would be his last before retiring. Sadly, his shop closed without passing his trade onto an apprentice. The gleaming body shell now hangs above the mantle of her Phoenix, Arizona, home, a daily reminder of the need to impart these restoration skills on to a new generation of artisans.
We turn the Alfa around and head for home. A hopped-up Miata rolls by next to us, and St. James cannot resist the urge to goad him for a race. The Alfa surges ahead, then falls back alongside, egging the Mazda driver on. Both cars engage, but the Alfa shoots a gap in traffic and leaves the little roadster behind. The poor guy may never know that he just lost to one of the greatest female drivers of all time. As it turns out, if you put the lady back in a racecar, the racer is not far behind.
William Hall is a writer, car collector and classic car broker based in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.