June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

Dressed in bell-bottom jeans land a clingy white tank top, fashion model Terri O’Connell deftly maneuvers a yellow ’98 VW Beetle around a tight corner at the Memphis Motorsports Park, then pulls off the track. “Oh my mercy!” exclaims the lithe 5’8″ beauty from Charlotte, N.C., removing her helmet and shaking out her strawberry blonde mane. “I’ve got helmet hair!”

Vanity aside, O’Connell, 43, is one of the most remarkable competitors on the racing scene. Not just because she is a woman in what remains a testosterone-fueled sport—but, rather, because she once was a man. In the 1980s, O’Connell, then known as James Terry (J.T.) Hayes, was a veteran midget-and-sprint-car driver, pocketing $100,000 a year in prize money and beating the likes of reigning NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon back when Gordon was still racing sprints. “He was a racer all the way,” says car owner Junie Donlavey, an elder statesman of the NASCAR circuit. “I thought he had a good future.”

But in all the years he spent rebuilding engines, Hayes secretly longed for an overhaul on himself. So in 1992, J.T. underwent sex reassignment surgery and emerged as Terri. “I finally felt whole,” O’Connell says now of her long-awaited transformation. “I was who I should have been all along.”

One thing the operation didn’t change: her need for speed. In May, after a six-year absence in which she changed her name and built a new identity, O’Connell returned to racing in the One Lap of America competition, an eight-day, cross-country charity derby that resembles the storied Cannonball Run. Her performance—she placed 68th in a field of 80, mostly more powerful cars, including Porsches and Vipers—was impressive. “She did a good job out there,” says Car and Driver magazine editor-at-large Brock Yates. “She handled herself in a very competent manner.”

For O’Connell, the event “was like coming home.” As for her fellow drivers, “They just treated me like a lady,” she says.

Which, as O’Connell tells it, is what she always felt she was. Growing up in Corinth, Miss., a conservative, working-class town of about 12,000, some 90 miles southeast of Memphis, O’Connell says she “was never comfortable as a boy.” The only child of Jim Hayes, now 70, a onetime tool-and-die-shop owner and weekend racing-car driver, and his wife, Kate, 66, a former telephone factory supervisor, J.T. was fascinated by things usually thought of as female. At school, he was chastised by teachers for playing jump rope with the girls, and at home, recalls O’Connell, “I’d get caught going through my mother’s drawer and putting on her bras and panties.”

So J.T. covered up. “I became a little rougher, a little more athletic,” O’Connell says. As a youth, he played baseball and basketball and dated girls, though there was never any physical intimacy. Hoping to win his father’s approval, J.T. also threw himself into car racing, the only “masculine” pursuit he enjoyed. In his 20s, he was breaking track records for midget and sprint cars. “But I not only wanted to be A.J. Foyt,” says O’Connell, “I wanted to be Marilyn Monroe too.”

Risky ambitions, both. In his senior year in high school, his mother discovered a stash of women’s clothes under his bed and sent him to a psychiatrist. “We spent a fortune trying to get things straightened out,” she recalls. “It didn’t work.” After graduation in 1974, J.T. spent the next several years living between Corinth and Memphis, where he raced three nights a week—and also began living as a woman, shaving his body hair and taking female hormone pills.

In 1981, J.T. suffered a concussion and a broken ankle at the Houston Astrodome, when his midget car slammed into a wall at nearly 100 mph after its steering mechanism failed. But his injuries weren’t his greatest concern. “I was worried about [the paramedics] seeing the lacy panties I had on,” says O’Connell, “and the pink nail polish I hadn’t quite gotten off my toes.”

Not long thereafter, he told his parents in a letter that he wanted to change his sex. While Kate tried to be understanding, Jim refused to speak to his son. “He thought it was something [J.T.] could have controlled,” Kate says. Fearing that news of his lifestyle would hamper his advancing career, J.T. taped down his hormone-induced breasts when he raced and, in 1986, entered into a sham marriage with a friend, Pam Thompson, a lesbian U.S. Marine who wanted to conceal her sexuality from the Corps. “She needed a cover; I needed a cover,” explains O’Connell. They split up after just 2½ months and were ultimately divorced.

Eventually, J.T. tired of the charade. In Corinth he began to dress publicly as a woman—much to his father’s distress—and began hatching plans to raise the $20,000 he would need for the operation. At meets, some racers responded frostily to J.T.’s new persona, but strangers were none the wiser. “They’d come up and say, ‘You know, for a girl, you race pretty good,’ ” says O’Connell.

By 1991, J.T.’s relationship with his father had thawed a little and, with Jim’s reluctant consent, he sold a midget race car they owned together to finance his surgery. On March 11, 1992, the day after racing his final midget car meet in Memphis with his father, J.T. loaded up his Mazda Miata and drove 923 miles to Mount San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad, Colo., to face the 2½-hour procedure alone. A week or so later, J.T. returned to Corinth—physically, this time, as a woman. “I was happy,” she says, “but I knew things were going to be different.”

Beginning with her troubled relationship with Jim. “He was cool before,” says O’Connell. “But after I had the surgery, it was almost as if he despised me.” Unable to make amends, she changed her name—choosing O’Connell to reflect her Irish ancestry—and moved to Charlotte, where she could live in anonymity. O’Connell sold purses at a department store and started her own graphic design company before becoming a part-time model in 1995, appearing in local print and television ads. In all that time she revealed her past only to the two men she dated—one of whom she saw for 18 months. Then, in July 1997, O’Connell told her story in a local newspaper. “People think all transsexuals are 6’2″, have big arms and are ugly,” she says of her decision to come out. “Someone had to speak up.”

The move cost her a couple of modeling jobs, but O’Connell hopes to have better luck attracting sponsors to finance her return to race-car driving by the time the Indy Racing League’s Las Vegas 500k revs up in October. Indeed, her sex change just might help her win a ride. “Professional racing isn’t solely about talent these days,” says Jack Arute, who has covered auto racing for ABC for 14 years. “Every driver has to be a salesman as well as a fast guy. Everybody has to have a hook.” Though O’Connell could find an enthusiastic constituency among the nearly 40 percent of NASCAR fans who are female, she will ultimately be judged on her driving. “It will all boil down,” says Arute, “to whether she can get the job done on the track.”

Meanwhile, O’Connell, who currently lives with friends in Charlotte, has begun to patch things up with her father, who doesn’t mind being seen with her these days, even in Corinth. Still, her latest ambition may further test his equanimity. “I’d love to be married, with 2.5 kids and a picket fence,” says O’Connell, with a sigh. “I believe in family values, probably more than most people do.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Fannie Weinstein in Charlotte

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