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Go, Terri,

Go, Terri,


As a young man, J.T. Hayes was one of the most promising race car drivers in the South. Now J.T. is Terri O'Connell, a fierce woman preparing a second act to rival the first.

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.

"Racing, for me, is Zen," she says. "I need that adrenaline rush. I need a deadline. I need to be in the game."

Getting behind 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.

Meanwhile, 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."

Terri stepped 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 liability.

"There is 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 shit."

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 their story."

Whatever the 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.

"My father 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 since birth."

She'll 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 greatness."

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