Racing in her father’s footsteps

Admittedly, when I first was introduced to Terri O’Connell at Tribe on the day she was to make a public appearance promoting her clothing line, I was unsure what to expect.

Much has been said about O’Connell in the media over the past several years since her story has come to public light. She has been called everything from an instigator and a fraud to a freak and a sideshow. One editorial went on to call her an unqualified threat to the NASCAR community.

Why would this 5-foot 7-inch, 117-pound strawberry blonde become a target for such virility?

See, when O’Connell was the top dog on the tracks in the ’80s she was $100,000-a-year daredevil T.J. Hayes not Terri O’Connell, and she was a he.

O’Connell is still NASCAR’s best kept and dirtiest little secret come-to-light despite the media feeding frenzy surrounding her and despite her roots as the offspring of legendary racer Jimmy Hayes.

Before there was a NASCAR there was Hayes and his friends who had all returned from World War II and taken up stock car racing in order to fulfill their yearning for mechanical work after the war.

Jimmy Hayes was every bit a man’s man with looks that could have inspired James Dean’s persona in the decade that followed -- his indelible influence on the person who would one day become Terri O’Connell is undeniable though their relationship was fraught with peaks and valleys that, over the years, severely strained it.

When Hayes and his buddies weren’t working their day jobs or racing they were sequestered away in the racecar shop behind the Hayes household where young T.J. was brought up immersed in the lifestyle.

The men tended to spoil the young boy as he was the only one of their offspring who was a boy, physically at least. The fascination with racing that infected the impressionable young man would later be one of the only things that kept him going later in life as the struggle with gender dysphoria started to take hold.

“I was always a girl,” O’Connell explained, “What you see now is not far from who I was then. I have always been very small framed with small hands and girlish features, and I always enjoyed wearing girl clothes. My father took it all in stride at first, but my mother was at a loss and had no idea what to do. She thought she had done something wrong as a parent.”

It was Jimmy Hayes who would later take the then 12-year-old T.J. in a long ride in his red and white ’59 El Camino Hot Rod Pick-Up to try and figure out what was wrong with his son. The two talked calmly for hours as they drove around Corinth, MS as the elder Hayes gently tried to reassure his son.

“I remember promising him that I would get hold of it,” said O’Connell with a distant melancholy, “but I never could. My father was always very receptive to the idea that this was the symptom of something more serious than what everyone else thought. My mother thought I could just deal with it.”

By the mid-seventies when the younger Hayes’ racing career started to take off his father began to drink more heavily as he spent more time entertaining customers for his new business and the gender issue would manifest itself more and more when he was drinking. In 1981 T.J. announced to his parents he felt he was a girl and wanted to eventually go through with living as and becoming one physically. He was initially met with rejection and hatred but it didn't take long before Jimmy Hayes was back in his corner again.

“That year I followed in my father's footsteps and started racing midgets (a type of racecar),” explained O’Connell. “It was around that time that I told three guys who were my supposed friends about what I was going through and it took about thirty minutes before the whole town knew. I was completely persona non grate. I spent my time in my father's shop building myself a new midget racecar to get through it all and take my mind off my troubles.”

But hiding out wasn’t enough for the future NASCAR racer. The young Hayes blew off work one weekend soon after finishing the new car to sneak off to Montgomery, Alabama to participate in a race—a race that resulted in the engine of the new car being blown out. When he returned home, Jimmy Hayes was furious and once more distanced himself from his son refusing to pay for the parts to fix the car.

“I was at a loss for what to do,” said O’Connell, “The National Championships were coming up and the year before I set quick time and a new world track record. I was feeling the heat because I knew I could win this year but not without my car. Over the next two and a half weeks I slowly got more depressed as things get worse around town and at home with neither of my parents understanding or supporting me at all and my father especially giving me his tough love.”

The young Hayes got so depressed that by the end of the two week period he had suffered a complete emotional breakdown and planned on ending it all with a butcher knife to the heart, a final act of defiance that would end his suffering once and for all—that is until the intervention of the elder Hayes stopped him seconds before the knife was to do it’s job.

“Just as I had finally built up the courage to do the deed,” O’Connell remembered, “my door cracked open and my father's voice came softly from the other side telling me to get dressed so we could go get the parts to fix my car and get ready for the nationals. With just that everything was better because my father was in my corner again and that was more important to me than anything else.”

The relationship between the two continued it’s up and down turns more heavily as O’Connell began living full time as a woman and especially once the gender reassignment surgery was completed turning T.J. once and for all into Terri. Jimmy Hayes took Terri back into his life after a long period of distance in the months leading up to the surgery, but afterwards the rejection was complete and total once more for about a six-month period of time.

“It was like a light switch came on and he was back,” remembered O’Connell with a sigh, “and I was his daughter in every possible way. He wouldn't let me change my own oil or put gas in my car.”

When Jimmy Hayes passed away in May of 1999, he and Terri O’Connell had completely mended fences and he put his full backing and support behind his newfound daughter to the end.

In all, the story of Terri O’Connell, when compared to that of other trans-identified people is not so new and different. Many people have gone through similar stories of rejection for who they were. What makes, O’Connell’s story stand out from the crowd is the fact that she is the inheritor of a legacy.

Unfortunately NASCAR—the very sport that her father helped to define and usher into the world—is the sport that rejects her because of who she is not. She has the racing chops and background to be a world class racer in the NASCAR circuit, but the powers that be won’t allow it for whatever trumped up reasoning they may harbor.

Regardless, the fact still remains that Terri O’Connell, aka T.J. Hayes, carries on the legacy of the late great Jimmy Hayes who in many ways helped to lay he foundation for what we know as NASCAR today. If he could put aside his problems with Terri’s lifestyle and accept her for who she is, why can’t NASCAR?

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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