Like most small
towns in the Deep South, Corinth, Miss., is home to
weekly Pentecostal revivals, countless Confederate flags,
and a fair share of good ol' boys. But one big
difference between Corinth and places like Booneville
or Decatur is that this hamlet's most famous native
son--an immensely skilled race car driver who competed
in NASCAR--has grown up to be a woman.
Little J.T. Hayes
is now the larger-than-life Terri O'Connell, a regal
40-something Southern lady who zips around the pickup trucks
of Corinth (pronounced
"Car-inth," appropriately enough)
in a sleek, black Ford Edge SUV. Maybe her maternal
mannerisms charmed them, or her soft features proved
disarming, but for whatever reason, Corinthians have
taken to Terri, and Terri to them.
"I'm always drawn back to Corinth because of
my friends," she says in her home office, which
doubles as a trophy room. But with her trademark sass
she adds, "The town's changed dramatically
since I was a child, but sometimes you get a little
worn out with the Bubba."
Terri has big
dreams that may take her out of Corinth, maybe out of the
South entirely. She's attempting to get her fledgling
clothing line off the ground, trying to find a
publisher for her memoir, and God willing, hoping to
return to the sport that she believes saved her life.
for me, is Zen," she says. "I need that
adrenaline rush. I need a deadline. I need to be in
the wheel was an escape and a survival mechanism in
J.T.'s high school days. As a diminutive,
feminine boy in macho Corinth, J.T. used his lead foot
to earn the respect of his classmates. Encouraged by
his father, a legendary racer himself, J.T. racked up
trophies and wins in go-kart, midget, and sprint car
races, all while wrestling with severe inner tumult
over his gender.
"I wore my
parents out about it," Terri says. They sent J.T. to
a psychiatrist, and for a while the teen was able to
suppress his true self, dating girls and keeping
suspicions at bay. "The racing allowed me some
machismo," Terri recalls.
J.T.'s skills only grew stronger. As a male driver --
albeit one with long hair and painted toenails -- he
had by the early '90s tallied up more than 500
wins and competed in the prestigious Winston Cup.
But success did
not bring serenity. A narrow brush with death after being
trapped upside-down in a 1991 racing accident proved to be a
blessing on two counts. "That was the pivot
point. I was thinking, I'm so unhappy,"
she recalls. "That was the night I put
everything into gear."
away from racing for what she believed would be a temporary
break. She began to transition in 1992 and had
sex-reassignment surgery in March 1994, at age 30,
after which she allowed herself a long recovery.
"I needed some time off from the shit I was going
through for 20 years," she says.
Acceptance was a
mixed bag. Terri's family and friends eventually
adjusted -- Terri currently lives with her mother (her
beloved father, Jimmy Hayes, passed away in 1999) --
but the racing world did not. Post-transition, the
expensive search for sponsors has led to dead ends. In
the world of competitive motor sports, Danica Patrick is an
anomaly, but Terri O'Connell, it seems, is a
so much bravado in racing," Terri says with
resignation. Competitive drivers have to be made of
steel to survive the physical and mental stresses of
the sport, and female racers must adapt to this
pressure-cooker environment. Instead of resentment, Terri
expresses reverence. "These people -- racers --
they're the gunslingers. Hockey ain't
Terri rises to
challenges, at times brushing aside easy opportunities in
favor of doing things the hard way. She's passed on
media opportunities with aspiring gay race car driver
Evan Darling and Christine Daniels, the transgender
Los Angeles Times sportswriter. "I
don't get photographed with transgender
people," Terri says, sounding a little like a
down-home Norma Desmond. "Then it's
outcome, Terri's clearly determined to do things her
way, and her energy is infectious. She's
hustling to get her book out, hoping the publicity
will encourage racing sponsors. She's aided in her
efforts by a network of admirers, a world growing more
tolerant, and her own unflagging spirit.
had perseverance. My mother, my grandmother -- they all had
that 'get your butt out of bed'
mentality," she says. "I was teased and
tormented at an early age, but I've just been defiant
need everything she's got to make the racing world
look past her femininity, her age, and the fact that
she was once J.T. "Fear is not necessarily a
bad thing," Terri says. "It can raise you to