Lyn St. James Drives the Bugatti 35C at Laguna Seca
Lyn St. James Drives the Bugatti 35C at Laguna Seca
W e’ve seen Lyn St. James racing Indy Cars, earning the 1992 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year trophy and qualifying for the big race seven times. We’ve seen her in an IMSA Zakspeed Ford Probe GTP. We’ve seen her in a Mercury Cougar XR-7 in the Daytona 24 Hours, where she won the GTO class. But what was one of America’s most famous female racing drivers doing at the wheel of a 1925 Bugatti Type 35C?
Yet there she was in one of the most legendary race cars of all time at the 2018 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion late last August, a huge grin dominating her face as she negotiated the demanding Laguna Seca course. When she pulled herself out of the car, she couldn’t wait to talk about it.
“I can understand why women liked Bugattis, because the car is precise, small and has good power,” she told us. She had special praise for the 2.0-liter supercharged single-overhead-cam inline eight-cylinder engine. “The power is surprisingly good,” she said. “I liked the throttle response. It’s smooth and doesn’t do anything erratic. Coming out of the corner, I could just go full throttle, and it didn’t do anything weird.”
“Steering is precise and positive,” she continued, “but the minute you have to go past 10 or 20 degrees of steering input, the effort goes up, and it gets difficult. The brakes are doggone good, and they never overheated. You get good feedback. A couple of times I went deep and they didn’t fade.”
With its skinny tires, tiny contact patches and solid front and rear axles, you might expect the car to be a handful. Not so, St. James said. “Handling is pretty damn good,” she said. “I wanted to do some corrections. I go into a corner, and I don’t know why I do this, but I want to feed out the steering a little bit, which at Indy, at 220 miles an hour, works well. You have downforce, wide tires and all that, and can really make adjustments to let the car have its head.
“I want to go through a corner perfectly, and I want to feed out the steering a little bit. If I do that the slightest little bit in the Bugatti, it wants to go directly there. I went off course twice, once on Thursday and once on Friday, because I did that. The car responded to that correction because there was no downforce and no tires to work with. It’s just you and the car.”
As much as she liked the classic two-seater, she did have to adapt her driving style to the Bugatti. One big adjustment: St. James sat on a two-inch foam pad so she could see out of the car.
“The ride is actually quite good, but not for a race car, because you can’t feel anything,” she said. “I had no ‘butt’ feel.” Then there was the stiffness of the suspension, with its solid axles hung on leaf springs front and rear. “When you hit a bump or change direction at all, this car can become difficult,” she said. “It’s like a go-kart, with the center of gravity well up off the ground.” Given the roughness of the ride, St. James has nothing but admiration for the women who drove Bugattis in competition. The rugged conditions on tracks like Montlhéry in France and Brooklands in England must have been an arduous test for them.
“I’m going 90 here,” she explained, “The physicality and the erraticness of the car, the way it would handle under those conditions compared to the environment I was running it on at Laguna — my hat goes off to them.”
You might be asking: The women who drove Bugattis in competition? It probably comes as a surprise to many that a relatively long list of women raced Bugattis in the 1920s and 1930s. St. James learned this when she read the book “The Bugatti Queen” by Miranda Seymour.
“I thought it was a novel only to discover it was the biography of race driver Hellé Nice,” St. James said. “It just blew my mind. It was rich with not only her story, but also of other racing women. Most of them drove Bugattis. I admit I was not as into the history necessarily. Janet Guthrie seemed to know more about it. But I do remember Billie Jean King once saying that if you don’t know your history, you don’t know your future.”
St. James’ initial introduction to these classic female race drivers led to a project with The Henry Ford museum, which in turn led to St. James’ infatuation with women who competed in Bugattis. These are just a few: Hellé Nice, a Frenchwoman, won her first race in the third all-women’s Grand Prix at Montlhéry on June 2, 1929, which prompted Ettore Bugatti to proclaim, “The perfect match for the color of my Bugattis.” So he entrusted her with a Type 35C to break records at Montlhéry. She went on to compete in Alfas, Millers, Duesenbergs and other cars of the era in addition to Bugattis.
Elisabeth Junek, born in what was then known as Moravia, came in fifth in the 1928 Targa Florio in a Bugatti Type 35B. Canadian Kay Petre raced a blue Bugatti Type 35C from 1933-1935 at Brooklands, as well as other famed tracks like Le Mans and the Alpine and Monte Carlo rallies. Two Frenchwomen, Marguerite Mareuse and Odette Siko, shared a Bugatti Type 40 in 1930 as the first women to race at Le Mans, finishing seventh.
Lucy Schell was an American who raced a Bugatti in the 1932 St. Raphael Rally among other international races. The mother of Grand Prix driver Harry Schell, she shipped two Maserati 8CTFs to Indianapolis for the 1940 500, one of which is now in The Miles Collier Collections at the Revs Institute in Naples, FL.
With that as background, St. James arranged with collector Chip Connor to have Hellé Nice’s Type 35 Bugatti at the 2017 Arizona Concours d’Elegance in Phoenix. The show also hosted a panel discussion titled “Legends: Pioneer Women in Racing.” The moderator? Lyn St. James.
The panel discussion prompted another link in the chain that would eventually put St. James behind the wheel of a classic Bugatti. Peter Mullin of the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California, and Bugatti guru Jim Stranberg asked her if she’d like to drive the collection’s 1925 Type 35C Bugatti at the Rolex Reunion. So there she was, topping Laguna Seca’s famed Corkscrew, in a heat with Talbots, Alfa Romeos and even an ERA. You could almost see her grinning through her full-face helmet on every lap. Judging by her enthusiasm as she talked about the Bugatti after the races, you got the impression this isn’t the last time she will drive a Bugatti.
John Lamm worked for Road & Track for 37 years and is equally happy behind a keyboard or a camera. He has written ten automotive books and has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy award and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor award for writing. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and has been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades.