October 22, 1979 12:00 PM

Lyn St. James might well have ended up as a concert pianist, wearing flowing gowns instead of coveralls and putting polish on her fingernails instead of trying to take the grease off. But at 14, she learned to drive the family Pontiac and a year later was the star of her high school driving class. Then, as a 16th birthday present, a friend let her drive his 18-wheel semi and, she recalls, “I was in heaven.” With that head start—even with a 10-year detour studying and teaching music—St. James is now, at 32, the top woman driver in pro auto racing. Not to mention the prettiest racer on the circuit this side of Paul Newman.

She has already placed higher in a major race than her rival and friend, Janet Guthrie, finishing second in a mostly male field in the Kelly girl Challenge in the Road Atlanta series in April. In the 24 hours of Nürburgring in West Germany, early this month, Lyn’s team wound up 25th (out of 120 starters) over 1,800 grueling miles. Driving everything from a Pinto to a Ferrari, she has set one-lap speed records at Palm Beach, Daytona, Sebring and Gainesville. Finally two years ago, after compiling an impressive amateur record, she turned pro. “I have a long way to go,” says St. James, one of the few people unawed by her performance. “Now we’re talking about big-time racing—and there’s a difference.”

Daughter of a Willoughby, Ohio sheet-metal businessman and a housewife, Lyn was a top scholar and president of her private school choir. Her mother says she “was a delight to raise. I never told her not to smoke but she didn’t. I didn’t have to ask her to be in by 10 because she would be in by 9.”

Lyn tried drag racing after she graduated. But auto racing didn’t hold much future for women then, so she taught music while working days at secretarial jobs in Cleveland. At an electronics company, she met John Carusso, whose wooing included a suggestion that she slim down. “I was kind of a fat, athletic girl,” she admits. “John and I started seeing more of each other after he left a bottle of vitamin C on my desk and gave me Adelle Davis books to read.”

In 1970, John left to start his own electronics and auto parts business in Hollywood, Fla., and Lyn soon joined him. They married and to avoid being known as “Mrs. Carusso” at the office, she changed her name—Lyn from her real name (Evelyn Cornwall) and St. James after actress Susan. When John went to race-car driving school, Lyn went too. She entered her first pro race at the Palm Beach Raceway in 1977 and promptly spun off the track and into the infield lake. Last year at Daytona she totaled the Corvette she was driving—her husband’s. Her worst scare, though, came in a taxi in Chicago last winter: “There were snow drifts all over, horrendous traffic and we had a driver who was freaked out. All I could think was, ‘What an ignominious end.’ ”

Lyn is now general manager of the family auto parts company; since her career winnings would barely buy enough gas to fill her tank, she’d need more sponsors to race full-time. To keep fit, she lifts weights, runs and plays racquetball with her husband. He also drives as a pro, but so far they haven’t competed on the same track.

In addition to solo events like the Road Atlanta series, St. James has team-raced with Guthrie (they placed 17th in a 77-car field at Sebring this year) as well as with men—and has never felt ostracized. “A lot of men have even helped me,” she says. “And pit crews seem to like having a woman driver. Maybe they get tired of male egos.”

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