Lyn St. James made her mark racing powerful cars in iconic places like Indianapolis, where she was one of only nine women to compete in the Indy 500, which she raced in 11 times, and Daytona, where she twice won her class in the 24-hour endurance race.
These days St. James can still found behind the wheel, most often in vintage cars, such as the rare 1946 Delage she drove last month during the Sonoma Speed Festival.
But her focus that weekend went beyond track time.
For as much as St. James loves rolling pieces of automotive art like the rare cars she drove from the Mullin collection, she is just as passionate about recruiting a new generation of craftsmen to preserve and care for them.
In an age when cars are becoming computers on wheels or even driving themselves, their relationship to the newest generation of drivers is changing as well. Unlike their parents or grandparents who may have enthusiastically spent time in the garage working on their own cars, many younger drivers see cars simply as an appliance that takes them from place to place, according to many surveys.
“We know that our generation grew up with a different experience with cars,” said St. James, suggesting that some may have spent thousands of hours learning what went on under the hood either through auto shop classes or working on their own cars.
This generational change has created a shortage of people who have the skills to restore or maintain historic cars like the Delage, as earlier generations of craftsmen who grew up with tools in their hands retire.
“There is no shop, either a restoration shop or a race prep shop, that we talk to that says they don’t need help,” said St. James. “There is an aging factor and a burnout factor, as people get tired of the hours and hard work. The need to replace those people is very, very real.”
To fill that gap, St. James brought 30 students from local junior colleges, high schools and the San Francisco Academy of Art to Sonoma Raceway during the Speed Festival weekend under a program sponsored by the RPM Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes “restoration, preservation and mentoring” by offering grants to schools that teach the skills that the industry needs.
“We love to take students to the track so they can see the sport’s excitement and they can learn things first-hand,” said St. James.
The trip to Sonoma was one of about a dozen events sponsored by the RPM Foundation, that also includes taking students behind the scenes at major exhibitions and automotive museums.
The goal is to spark an interest in the classic car industry or to nurture those who already have a desire to work in a race or restoration shop.
At Sonoma, the group enjoyed tours of the paddock which gave them a chance to talk with car owners and mechanics as St. James pointed out details that most fans would overlook. After tutorials from St. James and RPM Foundation staff, the students also judged cars for awards based on their historical significance and degree of restoration.
St. James stressed that the foundation also advises technical colleges on curriculum that can help students get the education they need to be eligible for internships and apprenticeships that graduates need to get a foothold in the industry.
“We have to convince educators that the jobs are out there,” St. James said, adding, “We’re in a disruptive industry. The auto industry needs technicians and it doesn’t even know what we might be fixing 10 years from now.”
She readily acknowledged that the path to a career in the classic car industry can be difficult, especially since many of the shops are small businesses that don’t offer all the financial benefits of larger organizations and that many of them require experience before giving people the opportunity to work on cars that, in many cases, are rare and almost irreplaceable.
But the benefit of appreciating history and having an opportunity to preserve it outweigh the disadvantages, she argues.
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Visaline Khovina, who is studying automotive design at the San Francisco Academy of Art, agrees.
“Without knowing the roots of car design, you can’t design the future,” she said while standing next to a ’69 Camaro with a strong history of racing success in Trans Am.
Working in the car industry requires dedication and passion, she added.
“You work hard for 24 hours sometimes and then you get a moment of ‘wow.’”
More info: www.rpm.foundation
Garlits looks to break 200 mph in electric dragster
Don Garlits, one of drag racing’s most innovative pioneers and the first to break the 200-mph barrier in a Top Fuel dragster, is looking to break that same speed barrier in an electric-powered machine. The 89-year old Garlits, who racked up 144 wins and 17 world championships in NHRA competition, will make his record attempt at Palm Beach International Raceway on July 20.
The man who revamped the look of contemporary top fuel dragsters with his revolutionary rear-engine dragsters, known as “Swamp Rats,” has spent two years designing the electric machine and has gone 186.5 mph in test runs.
The dragster is powered by six electric motors with three 2,000-amp controllers and four lithium battery packs, a package that produces 2,000 horse power, about one-fifth the power output of a contemporary Top Fuel dragster.
Calistoga Speedway announces Hall of Fame inductees
Veteran sprint car owner Ted Finkenbinder who began his 50-year racing career at the now defunct Vallejo Speedway, is one of eight racers who will be inducted into the Calistoga Speedway Hall of Fame on Friday, August 30, to kick off the half-mile oval’s traditional Labor Day weekend of racing with the Louie Vermeil Classic the following Saturday and Sunday.
After a 12-year career driving sprint cars and super modifieds, Finkenbinder became a car owner, winning a United States Auto Club sprint car championship in 1998 using five different drivers. He has supported racing at Calistoga speedway for 40 years, often bringing more than one of his well-known number 3F machines each night.
Other inductees include:
- Rich Govan, a main event winner at Calistoga in the 1970s.
- Wally Talbot, a three-time Northern Auto Racing Club champion who drove cars owned by Stan Vermeil and Louie Vermeil during a 40-year racing career.
- The late Billy Albini, the winningest crew chief in Northern Auto Racing Club/King of the West sprint car series, including 26 series’ championships and numerous track titles.
- Marvin Faw, the 1962 Northern Auto Racing Club champion as a car owner and driver who was renowned for winning in cars he built himself with a limited budget.
- Rodney and Randy Tiner. Rodney is one of the most respected car owners and sprint car constructors in Northern California who has four career wins at Calistoga. His brother Randy “Boo” Tiner is a four-time winner at Calistoga as a driver.
The Louie Vermeil Classic, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, will feature both the traditional non-wing sprint cars of the Southern California USAC/CRA and, for the first time, the winged sprint cars of the King of the West/Fujitsu series both nights.
Calistoga Speedway will also host the national World of Outlaws sprint car tour on Sept 14. Ticket info at HMC Promotions, (916) 773-7223.