J.T. Hayes won over 500 regional and national championships in go-kart, midget and sprint racing and competed in NASCAR Winston Cup before undergoing sex-reassignment surgery in 1994 at age 30. During the two years she transitioned from man to woman, the Corinth, Miss., native raced throughout the South and California, wrapping an Ace bandage over her breasts to flatten them out ("Boys Don't Cry"-style), wearing baggy T shirts and tucking her long hair under a baseball cap. Now as Terri O'Connell, she's had very little luck breaking back into the racing world. O'Connell still lives in Corinth with her elderly mother and is working on a clothing line for female NASCAR fans. The petite redhead is also writing a memoir, "Dangerous Curves," (due this fall). She'd like to get back on the track and is currently looking for a sponsor.
The terms transgendered and professional motor sports just don't go together, especially when you say I'm 5 foot 6 inches and weigh 118 pounds. I have girl's body—small, fragile and tiny.
I grew up in a little community in Mississippi. There were 10 or 15 boys in the neighborhood, we played sports in the front yard, and my daddy always had men over to work on race cars in the garage. He was a race-car driver, so I had this cache of toughness. I didn't get bullied too much. But by junior high, my mom stuck me in these sports programs to make me tougher and I started getting picked on. I was looked at like a girl, so bullies in gym class used to sit on top of me and put me in headlocks. I was lugging around this whole transgender thing and I was already depressed—suicidal really. I will never forget when we registered for school in the fall of eighth grade, this girl said to me, “You know, you got prettier legs than any girl in this school.” It scared the hell out of me because I knew it, but I didn't want anybody else knowing it.
When puberty kicks in, that's when it becomes complicated. You're in a panic over it. “Oh, my God, what am I gonna do!” As a kid, I had girl clothes I hid under the mattress: I'd slip 'em on, put some makeup on. … You're depressed over it, but you're still not mature enough to know this is gonna get out of hand at some point. No matter if you’re from New York or Corinth, it's difficult to endure, but when you throw on the social atmosphere of the right-wing, bigoted, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal South—and motor sports—you build a wall around your life and don't let anybody in.
I never did feel I was in the wrong body though, because when I woke up and looked at myself, I was looking at a girl. I saw this little cute face looking back at me. I knew my body compared to my friend's bodies was different. I had a small waist and bigger hips than they had. I was just tiny and feminine. But I had this male urology. Not only was I psychologically and emotionally feeling what girls feel, I also have this girl's body with things attached to it that don't fit. That's how I knew I was transgender; not only was I feeling it, I was looking at it everyday.
Eventually, I started racing more and more, and started racing on a national level and became a national champion, so I had that cache too. But I told my story to three of my best buddies in my hometown back in the early '80s—“Oh, I'm hurting, I have to go do this thing [transition]”—and they went and told everybody in town. So really, from then on I was a scandal in my hometown. They were just looking for something. You had to watch your P’s and Q’s.
Once that rumor was out on the racing circuit, throughout my career, I was always trying to outrun it. Moving from one team to the next until the rumor caught up with me. Then once I had my surgery I walked away from the sport entirely. It was like, “OK, I'm done with this.”
What pushed me to that point was a sprint-car accident in Little Rock, Ark., in 1991. I went end over end, side over side, destroyed the race car. I was trapped upside down, engine throttle stuck wide open, fuel running all over the race track and me. Once all the smoke had cleared and they got me out of the car, I thought, “You know, this could have been it.” I've had a ton of accidents, broke half the bones in my body, had wrecks where I should have died. This one, I only busted a rib, but I was trapped like that. I suppose the accident didn't scare me as much as the thought that I hadn't lived my life to it's full potential. That just gave me chills.
I'd been toying around with this gender issue for 10 years, driving my parents crazy, driving myself crazy, outrunning the rumors. I had all these high-powered people lined up to get my career going down the road, and I wasn't happy. I knew what I wanted to do, I'd just been putting it off. That night, I made a decision. I knew it was going to take two years. It was the first time I had a plan, and I didn't care this time if anyone rejected me, if I lost my career—I had to fix my life.
I went home, told my parents [I wanted surgery], my daddy went crazy: “Oh, my God, you can't do that!” So I went and lived with some friends in California and I was living full time as a woman. I got a job working at a print shop, but ultimately, I couldn't make a living. So I got my old black book out and started dialing up some race people I knew on the West Coast. They said, “If you show up you can drive.” Here I am going through transition, so I thought, what am I gonna do? I just put my hair up under a cap, put my only pair of boy jeans on and went to the racetrack. I looked pitiful. They noticed, but they didn't say much. We were making money.
Father's Day weekend I called my daddy, told him I won a race the night before in hopes he'd say, “Oh, that's great!” But when I called him, he hung up on me. I broke down, slid down this telephone booth, onto the sidewalk and started to weep uncontrollably. People rushed outside to see what was wrong with me. Daddy took me back in because I said I was going to be J.T. again. I was racing again too. We started putting the NASCAR program together. So I went from living full time as a woman to driving as a man for a sprint-car team in Mississippi to running a NASCAR Nextel Cup race in March. That was a hell of a year.
All through my transition, my dad tolerated it. We went racing together, I lived at the house. We had even made a deal we would sell my race car to pay for the surgery. But when I finally asked for it, he reneged on me. I was suicidal after that. Then my mother told him she'd kill him if he didn't do it. He did it. I raced a Midget race in Memphis on Saturday night and was in surgery on Wednesday in Colorado. What a damn deal. It's almost difficult to believe at times. … If I had not lived this life, I would not believe it. My parents took three or four days to call me in the hospital. You know, they were small-town Mississippi people, plus I was their only child. When I got back, my dad totally shut down. It's like he went into mourning, so I moved to Charlotte, N.C., in April of 1994. It took him five months to talk to me. Ultimately, by Christmas, my dad came around. There we were, watching TV, hanging out under the Afghan on the couch. I later brought my boyfriend around, and he and my dad hung out, rummaging around in junk yards for parts.
After my surgery, I knew I had to leave Corinth and racing. My background, my education, was motor sports and mechanical engineering. I grew up working at my dad's tool-and-die business and I always hated it. I wanted to get as far away from the mechanical engineering field as soon as I could. When I moved to North Carolina, I had $25 to my name and no job. I drove to the mall in Charlotte, filled out at an application at Dillard’s and they hired me on the spot. I went from driving race cars, making a six-figure salary and signing autographs to selling purses for $8 an hour in the mall. One of the biggest things my psychiatrist and I dealt with was the ego blow after I left racing.
But I did not want to race right after surgery. I fully knew I had to heal for at least a year before I could risk having a racing accident. My head was in a good place at that time, but I did miss the action and the atmosphere. I fully felt like my professional driving career was over.
I knew I had this gift for art though, specifically motor-sports art, and my creativity was in full throttle. When I was selling handbags, I put my brain to work figuring out how to do something with my art … that's when I came up with the idea of a Disney-type store with a motor-sports theme.
I was still going to the racetrack, and dealing with a lot of people on the racing circuit because I had all these ideas for different businesses—the Disney-store thing, women's NASCAR-themed clothing … But they knew me as Terri. I just remembered my loss of anonymity back in my home town, and all that implied over the years, and it sent chills down my spine. I felt if any one in Charlotte was to find out my past, all hell would break loose.
It did. I had two roommates who outted me. After my story broke in the Charlotte press, NASCAR officials went nuts. In fact more than nuts. They were putting their TV contracts in place with Fox, NBC and TNT at the time and they were hell bent on killing the story. I was the last thing they wanted in their midst. But I had been living with those bubbas for four years, socializing, doing business, drinking coffee and eating donuts, and dating a few of them. I really pissed them off at the highest level. They just want me to go away. Not doing it! Some people said if you can get a sponsor you can come back and race, but they know how difficult that is. You need more than $100,000 just to get out on track. Maybe someone will sponsor us at some point. Maybe I just need to get more aggressive and do it.
I don't think the public opinion is one way or another. It's the big boys at the top, the corporations, who don't know what to do with me. For all the negativity I've had to deal with, I've also had a lot of positive reaction—from women. I was with my mom at the Daytona Beach Mall two summers ago, the day after the Fourth of July race, thinking no one would know who I was. There was a group of women who spotted me, and here they come. I said, “We need to get out of here.” But a crowd gathered, and I ended up signing autographs for 45 minutes. The love I was gettin'! The women crowded in, the men just stood back. The women see me as a woman, but the redneck bubbas wanna make an issue out of it.
I'm not gonna put a sign on my forehead, OH BY THE WAY, I USED TO BE A MAN. In a situation where you may have a date, I have to suss the person out. If they have common sense, I may tell them, if not, I'm never going to see them again so I don't say anything. I'm not sleeping with anyone at that point anyway. I kind of play it by ear. My boyfriend Ray, I told him on the second date, and he didn't care. I went out with this NASCAR team owner, he knew from the beginning, and we ended up sleeping together. He did not even blink an eye—I was just somebody he found sexually attractive. I was constantly hit on by high-ranking executives in the NASCAR world.
I would like to race again. I've been doing testing and training, a little bit of racing locally, and I'm gonna try and do a NASCAR truck event this June. We need about $150,000 to do it. It'll be big if it happens.