For nearly three days the air around the starting line at the National Hot Rod Association's Summernationals in Englishtown, N.J. resounded as thousands of cars leaned back on their rubbery haunches and bolted down the quarter-mile track, two by two. But when the finals for the fastest of these cars—the Top Fuelers and the Funny Cars—rolled around last Sunday there was almost a hush. What was meant to be the race's crescendo turned into the sound of one hand clapping, as the winners motored down the strip alone.
One survivor was Shirley (Cha Cha) Muldowney, winner by default in the Top Fuel division when the other finalist, Jeb Allen, found he was unable to start his car because a $45 battery had failed. The other big winner was Don (the Snake) Prudhomme in the Funny Car division. Prudhomme, too, won the title when his opponent broke down at the starting line. The Snake proved during Friday and Saturday's qualification rounds just how difficult it is for 2,000-hp dragster engines to survive four successive rounds of hard racing. After uncorking a sizzling elapsed time of 6.09 seconds, a Funny Car track record, his problems began. On his next qualifying attempt, he ripped apart the transmission and had to shut his motor off halfway down the track. On his third try he clicked off a 6.15 ET, but the tires shook so badly that the car looked like a giant cocktail shaker.
His fourth qualifying pass, on Saturday night, was even worse. He had waited for the cool evening air to make his final attempt at a better time, but a cylinder blew, which meant that the Snake would go into the first round of eliminations on Sunday with an engine that might come apart like a Tinkertoy.
During the past two years Prudhomme has managed to maintain an astonishing edge over the rest of the Funny Car drivers, but corning into Englishtown it looked as if that edge was wearing. He had already lost two of the three national meets this season, and for the first time in 2½ years he was not leading the series' point championship.
What had happened was that during much of May and June, Prudhomme and his crew chief Bob Brandt experimented with new combinations of engine parts, often without much apparent success. "We wanted to use that time to learn some things," said Brandt. "We looked bad for a while, but it was worth it."
Worth it, indeed. Prudhomme reeled off three strong races in making his way into the finals against 23-year-old Billy Meyer of Waco, Texas. Meyer had been forced to go all out to make it to the last round. "Burning his motor to the ground," is what they call it, and in this case it was not hyperbole. Meyer's tired engine refused to start for the final round, giving the title to Prudhomme.
Muldowney established herself early as the favorite in the Top Fuel division. Her first qualifying run on Friday produced an elapsed time of 5.78 and the next day she bettered that with a 5.77. Both of these times were well under the previous Summernational record of 5.94 seconds held by Richard Tharp. Tharp, from Dallas, had won the Top Fuel title at Englishtown last year. That victory helped him recover from a slow start and go on to win the point championship.
Again this year Tharp was off to a slow start. Muldowney had taken a great deal of satisfaction in displacing him as the No. 1 Top Fuel driver. So much so that Tharp was quoted as saying he was "not above punching her out." Muldowney retorted. "Tharp is the world champion, and he got to be that way by picking on a lot of little guys last year. He knows he'll never be the champion again."
Tharp has not backed down, and last week he seemed ready and willing to waive Marquis of Queensberry Rules in his backbiting bout with Muldowney. "I used to say I liked Shirley during the week and couldn't stand her on race day," he said. "Now I don't even like her during the week."
Muldowney is used to such broadsides after 20 years of drag racing. Growing up tough in a tough Schenectady, N.Y. neighborhood, Cha Cha began to dabble in street racing at the age of 15. "I knew I had the things necessary to be a success, but getting the guys to respect me took time," she says. One man who respected her enough to marry her when she was 16 was Jack Muldowney, a topflight mechanic who knew a good driver when he married one.
The Muldowneys teamed up to race low-budget stockers, then a gas dragster, and finally a Funny Car. "I went racing because I didn't dig having the cleanest wash on the block," Shirley says. "After a few years, Jack couldn't bring himself to tour anymore. So one night I just put my Funny Car on the trailer and left." The marriage ended after 15 years but produced a son, John, who is 19 now and a member of his mother's crew.
If the breakup of her marriage was one indication of Muldowney's determination to become a star in drag racing, another was soon to come. She was driving a Funny Car at Indianapolis in 1973 when the engine exploded in a ball of fire. The flames got inside her goggles and burned her eyes. "My eyelids were welded shut," Muldowney recalls, "but the first thing I did when they got me out was pull off my false eyelashes."
Since 1974, when she moved into a Top Fuel car, Muldowney has promoted herself as the fastest woman in drag racing, but the distinction now seems overworked and in some ways demeaning. Both this year and last she won the NHRA Springnationals at Columbus, Ohio, and with her showing in the Summernationals she clearly established herself as the person to beat for this year's series title. She is one of the top drivers in the sport. Period. It is ironic that Janet Guthrie, who has never won a major USAC or NASCAR race, is better known outside racing than Muldowney. "Let's just say I wouldn't be out celebrating for three nights just because I qualified here," Muldowney said last week.
Tharp, on the other hand, was happy even to make the semifinals. He had destroyed one engine in qualifying and a second during the first round of eliminations, but managed to sneak into the semifinals for his grudge match against Muldowney. "I can outthink her, outsmart her and outdrive her," Tharp said.
When the semifinal race was over, Tharp was just plain out. His tires shook so badly that he nearly drove off the track, but he never backed off the throttle and forced Muldowney to punish her engine to beat him.
Jeb Allen and his crew had to replace all eight pistons for the title run with Muldowney, and they were still trying to throw the engine back together in the staging lane minutes before the race. They made it, but their battery didn't. "When you come to the starting line, you've got to have your equipment ready," said Muldowney. "All your equipment."
That's why the lady is a champ.