The night Shirley Muldowney, a little bit of a baby, was born, her father, Belgium Benedict Roque, a bear of a man, fought his next-to-last professional fight. He won by a TKO, just in time to rush home and take his wife, Mae, to the hospital to deliver their daughter. Belgium—he called himself "Tex Rock"—had a gentle streak and a mean streak. He played the violin; he lost his temper and decked people.
Tex Rock had a fist "like this," Shirley will say, holding up her small hands as if there were a volleyball in them. "I remember very little about my young years. Very little. But I do remember this. I was about six and my sister was eight and we were sitting at the kitchen table with my mother. We were all crying. My father was in jail. He had hit someone. Each of us had a piggy bank. He needed money. He was in trouble. I remember those days."
When Shirley was eight, she was a shy little girl whose legs were "this big around," she says, holding her fingers up as if she were squeezing a pop bottle in them. "She was very tiny, so tiny," says Mae. "Her father encouraged her to learn the accordion. It was bigger than she was. Shirley couldn't even carry it."
The Roques lived in an apartment on the wrong side of the tracks in Schenectady, N.Y. Tex drove a taxi all day and Mae worked in a laundry, so Shirley was on her own a lot. "I went to a tough school where I got my ass kicked every single day," she says. So Tex told her, "Here's what you do: You pick up a board, you pick up a pipe, you pick up a brick, and you part their hair with it." Says Mae, "She was real interested, and she went along with it. There was no more coming home beat up. She went out and took care of herself. She was all thrilled."
When Shirley was 13, she began cutting classes at the school she hated. When she was 15, her favorite class was mechanical drawing because the teacher let her sneak out the window and climb down the fire escape to a coffee shop around the corner, where she would meet her boyfriend. Jack Muldowney, the best hot-rodder around. At home nights she would stay up in her pajamas until Tex would say, "Shirley, I think it's time you went to bed now." So Shirley would go up to her bedroom, and wait until she heard the rumble of Jack's '51 Mercury outside—Tex would also hear the hot rod, but he'd pretend not to—and Shirley would sneak out with Jack, still in her pajamas. They would go out to Depot Road and race other hot-rodders until the lights in the farmhouses came on, soon followed by the headlights of the police, who would chase them all away.
In the summer of 1956 Shirley had just turned 16 and gotten her learner's permit. "Jack's car was this Rebel Without a Cause Mercury. Beautiful. Three-speed. Column shift. I had had my permit about a week, and Jack put me behind the wheel. I remember we were alongside this '56 Oldsmobile on Route 9. We came to this long stretch of road with a wide curve to it. Jack said, 'I'm just going to rest my hand on the steering wheel.' I was going 120."
She quit high school and married Muldowney that year. She was driving through the countryside one day and glanced in a barn and there, a beam of sunshine across its hood, was the car she wanted: a '40 Ford coupe. She bought it for $40. "Jack put a Cadillac engine in it for me," she says. "Guys heard about this, and they would come from Amsterdam, Glens Falls, Albany. I'd race them, and when I'd turn around they'd be going the other way. It was very satisfying.
"I'd say the first time I ever took my life in my own hands and got away with it was when I really appreciated what I thought I was capable of."
What Shirley Muldowney, now 41, 5'4" and 108 pounds and sometimes described by reporters as "sultry," was capable of is drag-racing history. She is the only driver to have won the National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel class world championship twice, first in 1977 and again last year. Don (Big Daddy) Garlits, who was the sport's preeminent figure in the '60s and '70s, has won it once, in 1975. She has won 11 Top Fuel national races, second only to the 49-year-old Garlits' 21, and he is all but retired from racing. And she has made more sub-six-second runs (64 through 1980) and over-250-mph runs (six) in NHRA nationals than any other driver.
"I'll tell you a story that says all you need to know about Shirley," says Richard Tharp, the 1976 Top Fuel champion. With Garlits pretty much out of the picture, Tharp is one of the few drivers with a good chance of beating Muldowney at a national, and he's the only one with a tongue as spirited as hers. Says Tharp, "One time me and Garlits were standing around together at a race, just sort of leaning against the truck and talking, and Shirley comes up to us. She was mad about something. She points her finger in our faces and shakes it and shouts, 'You bleepbleepers better start treating me like a lady!' "
Says Shirley, "I think the difference between me and the other guys is that a lot of them really don't have, truly don't have, that kick-ass attitude."
Drag racing is literally an explosive sport. The ideal when building a Top Fuel engine (the fuel being nitromethane) is to put it together so that it uses itself up in precisely a quarter of a mile. "It's like a fuse 1,320 feet long," says Rahn Tobler, Muldowney's crew chief. If the engine's life-span is 1,320 feet, about six seconds, then a drag racer calls it a "stout" motor. Racers like to "hurt" the motor a little bit, hurt being good, the way it hurts good after hard exercise. If the motor burns, or "backsides," a piston as the car crosses the finish line, then it's been built right. If it "grenades"—literally blows up, scattering shrapnel—you've overdone it. If it "dies" 10 feet before the timing lights at the finish, you've cut the fuse too short; if it dies 10 feet after the timing lights, you've wasted horsepower.
One would think you could afford to waste some. A Top Fuel motor produces about 2,500 horsepower, four times as much as an Indy car, 40 times as much as, say, a Honda Civic. There's not much strategy or endurance in drag racing. Its winners are those who can create horsepower and those who can control it.
When the starting light flashes green and a Top Fuel dragster, also called a digger or a rail or a slingshot—Shirley's is more than 24 feet long—leaves the line, the earth literally shakes; the grandstands vibrate and tickle the rear ends of the spectators. The noise is torture to everyone without earplugs. Sound waves whump like clubs over those standing near the starting line; your head buzzes like a chain saw, your hair twitches, and shivers go up and down your body. For a moment the dragster is smothered by eye-stinging white smoke billowing from its spinning tires. You get "burnout"—specks of rubber thrown from the tires like raindrops—all over you, spotting your face like smudged mascara. And then it's gone; within four seconds the dragster has gone from zero to 200 mph.
By the end of the quarter-mile it may be going 250, so fast that a parachute is needed to slow it down, and it may be shuddering so badly that the driver can see only blurs. Its front wheels, resembling bicycle wheels, barely skim the pavement throughout the run. That, like the perfectly cut fuse, is also an ideal; if the weight transfer isn't complete to the rear wheels, traction is being lost. The front wheels should be no heavier on the ground than is necessary to steer the dragster, and the line is fine. If the motor is particularly stout, or if wind slips under the rail, its front wheels will paw at the air gracefully for a second, and then it looks like a praying mantis. And the whole thing could do a backflip.
"If you don't know what you're doing you're in a world of hurt," says Shirley. "You know what you're doing and it's as easy as pie. The one time it's not easy is when they're on fire or when they grenade. They're just a handful then."
When Shirley is staging her dragster at the starting lights, wrapped from head to toe in thick fire-retardant material and wearing a helmet, all you see is her eyes, blue and striking, looking up from inside the rollcage like those of a tiny animal in a dark hole. Were it not for the eyes, one probably couldn't tell it was a woman in the dragster. The eyes are open wide, and mostly they show fearlessness. Shirley's eyes have always been exceptional; ever since she was a little girl and her relatives told her how pretty her eyes were, she has known they're a strength. She can detect movement around her dragster when it's running at full speed. She's also a fine shot with her derringer pistol, and she says she can pick off a woodchuck at 150 yards with her .243-caliber custom-made target rifle. "It uses the fastest bullets in the world," she says.
Shirley has had four fires in the cockpits of racecars in her 25-year career, caused by exploding motors. The last one, the worst, in 1973, melted her eyelids together. ("I rode it out. I came out of the car. My helmet was blazing. It burned the goggles right off my face.") The plastic surgery was near perfect: You can't see any scars. But she can, and she goes crazy if she misplaces her sunglasses.
At the races Shirley often sits in her crew-cab Dodge pickup truck, which has smoke-tinted windows for privacy. Her silhouette can be seen, her hands moving to her eyes to apply makeup. Her hands against the butterfly-shaped steering control of her dragster are almost as striking as her eyes. And she believes they contribute as much to her success. "It takes a light touch in a rail," she says. "It really does. You've got all this incredible power, but you get up and you start manhandling and being a savage and a brute; that doesn't get the job done."
She paints and manicures her nails as carefully as a model does, and she knows they're attractive. She can be expressive with a single index finger (as Richard Tharp knows). She files her nails as a safecracker might file his fingertips, to make her touch more sensitive, and she hates it when she breaks one and it fouls up that touch. She wears fire-retardant driving mittens rather than gloves so she can feel her fingers and gain even more touch.
"I'm not sure if you'd call it a woman's touch or not," she says. "I do think women have better reflexes [true in her case, at least, for she is consistently the quickest driver away from the start]. But maybe I don't know what makes up a woman."
This touch, woman's or not, is less important after the rail leaves the line. Then another quality takes over. "When you put that thing in high gear, boy, it kicks you in the fanny like you can't believe," she says. "It just shoots." When Shirley talks of the rush that comes from getting kicked in the fanny by 2,500 horsepower and controlling it, her eyes are wide again, revealing not only the fearlessness they show on the strip, but also an eagerness. This fearless eagerness, or eager fearlessness, is the mark of a "racer." "Racer" is a state of mind. Not every professional driver is one. Sometimes not even champions are. When one driver calls another a racer, it is a high compliment. A racer has an unshakable belief that he can go faster than anyone, and a ferocious drive to prove it. He will say, as Shirley does, "There's no such thing as too much horsepower," or "I like to beat them by a mile." A racer would make a point of using the fastest bullets in the world.
Shirley owns her car; she is, in fact, a corporation. She carries a calculator in her briefcase, along with a checkbook to pay the bills and her crew. On the road she does the bookkeeping in her motel room. Last year there were more than 300 such nights; she spent all of about six weeks at her home in Mt. Clemens, Mich. In January she bought a condominium in Van Nuys, Calif. near her race shop. She says Shirley Muldowney Enterprises, Inc. netted $5,000 last year. Her personal car is conservative, for economic reasons; she longs for a flashy car, like the red 1979 Corvette her crew chief drives.
Along the skinny sides of her dragster, which is lacquered in shades of pink, it says merely SHIRLEY where others might display the name of some product. She has a few secondary sponsors, in particular Valvoline and Goodyear and Plymouth (her motor) and Dodge, but she doesn't have a single sponsor generous enough to warrant billing bigger than Shirley's own. Some of her Top Fuel opponents, such as Tharp and Gary Beck, who was Top Fuel runner-up last year, have sponsors that finance large-scale operations, with semis full of spares. Shirley tows her dragster to races in a trailer. Her equipment is treated gently—"massaged," she says—because it has to last longer; she must enter more races than the heavily sponsored drivers to make ends meet. Though the chassis of her rail is two inches narrower than most, taking advantage of her petite size, it is still built conservatively, in order to withstand the abuse of small-time tracks where well-sponsored cars rarely run.
There have been many rejections from sponsors; even Hollywood was faster with its offer than STP, which turned her down. A movie about her is in the works—deal signed, shooting not yet begun. ("What we need is a female Rocky," a screenwriter suggested, and the idea was sold.)
"I don't know what it is," says Tobler, reflecting on the dearth of big-dollar sponsors. "It's absolutely not performance; she's got that. It's absolutely not appeal; Shirley's so terrific looking, and she's great with the press. Maybe sponsors think if they gave her $200,000 she wouldn't know what to do with it. Maybe they think she'd take it and run off and buy dresses or something."
Her fellow drivers say the problem is her lip. Potential sponsors say budgets are tight. Shirley's agent says it's because she's a woman. Some people say it's because of her agent, that his Hollywood finger-poppin' style is too pushy for the sport. Others say it's because sponsors are gotten through the crony system, and Shirley is nobody's crony. Shirley says a sponsor often signs on because "somebody slips him a dolly." She once went door-to-door pitching herself, but when a potential sponsor suggested she perform in a motel room as well as on the drag-strip, she abandoned that method of self-promotion. Now she avoids even the most innocuous of sponsors' cocktail parties. "I don't want it to look like I'm begging," she says.
Then there is the other reason. Top Fuel isn't really the glamour class in drag racing anymore. Funny Cars, which have stylized fiber-glass bodies, are wilder and attract more attention, even though they aren't as fast as the rails. Shirley stopped driving Funny Cars soon after the '73 fire, which was in one, and if she returned to them she almost certainly could land a sponsor, and maybe even get rich. But she has turned down all Funny Car offers; in a Funny Car, she might not be the fastest driver in drag racing. It's the kind of decision a racer would make.
Shirley's professional standards are very high. She applies them to herself with few compromises, and to her competitors with fewer still. When she loses, she believes it was only because something prevented her from running her best; when she wins, it was because she outraced her opponent, period. (Again, a racer's attitude: She can't believe anyone can beat her but herself.) She taunts top-dollar operations with, "Anybody who needs more than one spare motor at a race isn't ready to go racing." She dismisses the flashy semis of her rivals as mostly ego displays, though she confesses she would like one for more privacy at the races. She complains that for years she couldn't get decent help. "I always got the mechanics that nobody else wanted, because it was 'degrading to work for the broad,' " she says.
That sort of problem is behind her today. Her team is the tightest in drag racing. They are a threesome: Shirley, Tobler, and Shirley's 23-year-old son, John, with varying amounts of assistance at each race, often from younger men, who tend to feel less threatened by her. She's more the star of the operation than the boss; even though she is president of the corporation, her role is much like that of a hired driver, mostly because she can't create the horsepower, only control it. Tobler and John put her in the rail and point her down the strip and tell her what to do, and she does it.
Tobler, at 27, is youngish for a crew chief. Last year he won the Mechanic of the Year award given by S-K Tools. Shirley says he makes her look good, and she never fails to give him credit. "A miracle, that's what he is," she says.
John was born when Shirley was 17, a year after she quit school and married Jack Muldowney. (Less ambitious than Shirley about racing, Jack divorced her in 1972; seven years earlier she had gotten her high school equivalency diploma, as she had promised Tex she would before he died.) Shirley won her first Top Fuel national the week John graduated from high school in 1976; he skipped his prom for the race. He has seen his mother the way sons rarely see their mothers bared; that, and the fact that they have been through so many miles and experiences together, makes their relationship especially close. He often straps her into her dragster before races, and it wouldn't be too melodramatic to say he knows that each time may be the last. He calls her "Ma" and she calls him "Son," the way a father might, as in, "You can't handle that, Son," when John picks up the bottle of whiskey Shirley makes her Irish coffees with. Theirs is a communion any mother would envy, and not the least of Shirley's accomplishments.
One of the things John has seen his mother exposed to is rowdy spectators. Shirley is unquestionably the crowd-pleaser, but she arouses their passions and isn't unanimously cheered. Epithets containing sexual slurs are shouted from the stands. The last time that happened John went after the heckler and nailed him. (Mae thinks John inherited Tex's temper, and that Shirley only carries the genes.) The police grabbed John and handcuffed him. "Took his face and mashed it into the trunk of my car," says Shirley. "Kicked him. I said, 'If you touch him again I'm going to run over your ass. I'm telling you, I'll get you,' I said. I don't care. Your uniform doesn't scare me at all. You'd better get a bigger gun than the one you're wearing. I'll run over your ass.' The guy couldn't believe what he was hearing. I had him by the shirt. It's a wonder I didn't tear the shirt right off his back. I was violent mad."
This all happened after the first round at a national in Seattle last year. John and Rahn were taken to a police car outside the racetrack, and Shirley, crying, had to use volunteers to rebuild her motor for the semifinal. She did a wheelstand for 400 feet and won that race and went on to win the final. "I do not rattle on the line," she says. "I simply do not rattle."
Mae tells the story of the time Tex was getting whomped in a fight. At ringside, she stood on a chair and began cheering for his opponent so loudly that Tex couldn't miss her. She got him mad, and he knocked the guy out.
Last year a Women's Sports Hall of Fame was inaugurated, with nine inductees, six from the years before 1960 and three from the period since: Billie Jean King, Wilma Rudolph and Janet Guthrie, the race driver who in three starts in the Indy 500 came in 29th in 1977, ninth (out of 14 finishers, three of which were limping) in 1978, and failed to finish in '79. In addition, she failed to qualify in 1976 and 1980, despite having a strong car—and an excellent sponsor—last year. However, Guthrie works actively to promote women's sports, an important criterion of the nominating committee. (Guthrie also is on the advisory board of the Women's Sports Foundation, which established the Hall of Fame.) Guthrie has more respect from the committee than from her fellow drivers, who recognize her for what she is on the track: a stroker, the antithesis of a racer. Of Guthrie's induction, Shirley says simply, "It's an insult." At the time, it depressed her.
"I'm a sensitive person," she says. "I don't let it show. It builds up, and the guy who is next down the line is the one I lay it on," she adds, almost apologetically.
"I like men, I'm crazy about them," she will say, adding in the next breath, "I'm hard on men, I like to beat on their drums.
"All of them, every single one of them, when they come to that starting line, they're afraid. Not because I'm a woman, but because they know we're good—the whole team. They're scared to death of us. That's good. I want them afraid."
Shirley is the straw that stirs the drink in drag racing now. (Garlits no longer races NHRA events, having become the vice-president of the less competitive American Hot Rod Association, of which he was champion last year.) She might not have the sponsorship of some other drivers, but track promoters know the value of letting the world know that Shirley Mullll-dow-ney is coming to town.
Few drivers have beaten her more than she has beaten them in her eight full seasons as a Top Fuel driver. She defeated Garlits three of the four times she faced him in NHRA nationals, Tharp three of five. "When they do beat me, the way they carry on you'd think they had just won the Indianapolis 500," she says. The worst of Shirley's flak comes from non-drivers; for the most part, the drivers treat her as they would a male champion who so actively enjoys beating on their drums. Tharp has threatened to punch her out, to the amusement of many, and his is, in fact, a liberated attitude. Were Shirley a man, she probably would have been punched out long ago.
Though Shirley gets respect, it's often conceded grudgingly. The men contend she has an advantage because she's so light; some discount it, others use it as an excuse. Some—especially Garlits—disparage her because she has little mechanical ability. Tharp isn't so tight with his praise (and Shirley will always remember and appreciate that he was the only one who could calm her son, then 14, the day of the bad fire). "She's a hell of a driver," he says. "If only she didn't get so carried away. She's in a man's game and behaves like a man, but wants to be treated like a lady. She sweet-talks you to your face, and then she turns around and throws bleepbleepers at you. What are you supposed to say: 'Yes ma'am, no ma'am'? I'm just glad things aren't the other way around. I'd a hell of a lot rather have it 15 of us and one of her than 15 of her and one of me."
After one of their scraps Tharp said, "I used to like Shirley six days a week and couldn't stand her on Sundays. Now I can't even stand her during the week." Today he says, "Shirley's had to be so tough for so long to get where she is today, she doesn't really know how to ease off. But I still like her. I like her a lot. I like to outrun her."
"They don't really look at me as the woman driver anymore, but what devastates them is that a woman whips their asses," says Shirley. "That's why I paint that racecar pink. It isn't just to rub them, but if it does, fine. That's the way I feel. I would be a fool if I didn't paint the car pink. The pink car stands out. The pink car is known. The women like it. The kids like it. Little girls love it; they come up to me and squeeze me around the legs. It's part of an image, that's all the color is. It's feminine. It's a girl's image."
Shirley is so rare as to be one of a kind. She has a woman's sensitivities and Tex's attitude and a "racer's" urges, and it is a volatile combination. She isn't nerveless; she feels the pressure, and there is undeniably more on her because she is a woman. The more upset she gets over the grief thrown her way, the harder she drives. Some people think it is too hard, and they worry for her life.
This is only the fourth year Shirley has been captain of her team. That is, for 20 of those 25 years as a drag racer, from a teased-hair teen-age hellion on dark back roads in a Rebel Without a Cause Mercury to being the best at firing the fastest bullets in the world, she has had a man telling her what to do. Not even counting Tex, there was Jack Muldowney, and then...and then, Connie Kalitta.
It was the stormiest of affairs. They were together seven years, scratching and kicking every inch of the way.
"Shirley and I started doing our thing in 1971," says Kalitta. "She came to me. She wanted to go drag racing—first and foremost. She would have done anything to race." Kalitta, who also races Top Fuel, looks like Charles Laughton gone to seed. He has a large head balding on top, with crooked teeth and one wandering eye. His greasy jeans usually droop toward his buttocks, nudged down by a spare tire, cuffs dragging under his heels. He can be found scurrying around his dragster with a hammer in his hand.
But Kalitta was, and is, a charmer, generous and well liked by his fellow racers; a scoundrel, maybe, in the mode if not the appearance of Errol Flynn. "He definitely has a way about him. Yes he does," says Shirley.
At first they each campaigned a Funny Car, with Kalitta building and maintaining both. And with Kalitta as agent and Shirley billed as "Cha Cha" Muldowney—a name she despises today—they were often booked together by dragstrips, racing each other as the special attraction. Their act was promoted as a match race, but the words match and grudge sometimes got confused in the hype. The situation was a 1,320-foot fuse, which at times sparked at both ends. But somehow the relationship survived to move on to Top Fuel. Funny Cars were new and death-defying back then; after Shirley's fire in 1972, Kalitta retired from driving and had a rail built for her.
Shirley's Top Fuel license application had to be signed by three drivers in that class. "TV Tommy" Ivo, one of the best then, joined Garlits and Kalitta in endorsing Shirley. "Three greats, really," she says. "I was always very proud of that. You know, Ivo, Garlits and Kalitta signed for my life. But Garlits didn't have any idea what he was starting. And Kalitta feels he created a 'goddamn monster.' "
Used to wielding a hammer, Kalitta's hand with his creation, monster or not, wasn't always gentle. "Connie never put my driving down," says Shirley. "I will say that. But a problem with the racer or something would start an argument, and it would get me down. It would really get me. I'd say, 'Connie, I'm getting disgusted. I don't think I really want to do it anymore,' and I'd get, 'Why you ungrateful——' from Connie. 'But, Connie, you don't understand, it's not the same for me. It really is different. I am a woman in a thousand. Try to understand.' "
Shirley imitates Kalitta's voice now. " 'Bleep! There ain't no difference! You can get in that truck and you will drive to New England Dragway. You will be there on time.' And I would in fact get in the truck and drive all the way to New England Dragway, 14 hours, run the race, and drive all the way back. And he'd fly in his airplane.
"Those years with Connie were so hard. God, the tears used to come right down my cheeks, I was so mad at him. I weighed 100 pounds. I looked so old—it was terrible."
There is a story for every battle: the time Kalitta kicked down the door to her house in Michigan; the times they shared the truck towing cars to races, Kalitta driving and Shirley with her back braced against the passenger door, her feet Hailing at Kalitta's head; the dent that still exists in Kalitta's truck from the time Shirley threw her helmet at him when he beat her in a race; the time he motioned her to wait when she wanted to do a burnout right then. She did the burnout anyhow, in front of the whooping crowd, straight at him. "I whopped it," Shirley says about that one. "He got out from in front of that car. Yeah. He did not like that, either.
"Connie is a lot like my father was: hot-tempered, free-swinging, the language," she says. "I used to tell Connie, 'If my dad was alive now, he'd kick your ass from here to China.' Oh yes, I would tell him that. 'Make mincemeat out of you, crush your head like a grape'—stuff like that. Oh yes."
The final battle may have been the stormiest of all. It was either ironic or fitting that it occurred the night of the NHRA championship banquet in 1977. It was Shirley's big night, her coronation after 21 years of campaigning, and a historic night for hot rodding. They say that after the banquet you could hear shouting and the crashing of lamps from behind the door of Connie and Shirley's motel room.
"When the smoke cleared, I was left with the bills," says Kalitta. "It cost me $50,000 to make Shirley the champion that year. But I'd never have put as much money in the car as I did if I hadn't had so much faith in her.
"Yeah, we had a lot of fun together. A lot of heartaches and hard times, too. Shirley is a classy lady. But I'm telling you, she's a two-sided coin. I know her better than anyone. I've watched her in action many, many times."
Kalitta returned to driving for the 1978 season. He and Shirley went through six races without facing—or speaking to—each other. Then, at the Indianapolis Nationals on Labor Day, the biggest event of the year, in the second round Shirley wheeled her pink "massaged" dragster under the starting lights alongside Kalitta 's hammer-tuned rail.
And she beat on his drum. Think of the scene it will make when they do Shirley's movie.
"Connie doesn't talk bad about me," says Shirley. "He can't." She's sitting in her truck, behind the smoked windows. "Connie would love to be sitting in this truck right now," she says.
Actually, it's Rahn Tobler who's sitting in Shirley's truck now. He worked for Kalitta and Shirley until they split, after which he went with her. They keep the full extent of their relationship private, not so much because it's a secret as because it's their business. "It's one of the reasons I don't gossip about other people today," says Shirley. "Because I know how they said things about me. I mean, terrible, terrible things." She leans her head back. "But no one ever says anything to Rahn because everyone is aware of how much he thinks of me. Yes, he'll put them in their place if it's necessary. We get along awfully good. I see things in Rahn that I would like to think a lot of men possess, but they don't. At least not the men I've known."
Shirley came out of this past winter something of a celebrity (if none the richer for it), for the first time, really, for the world at large had overlooked Shirley and her 1977 achievement. Traditionally, the first big race of the NHRA season is the Pomona Winternationals, the quintessential drag competition because it's held in the heartland of hot rodding east of LA. Shirley arrived at the Winternationals confident and smiling, outfitted to complement her car in rose-tinted sunglasses and pink cowboy boots, cuddling her tiny mutt Skippy and joking with her friend and confidante Linda Vaughn, the outrageously sexy Miss Hurst Golden Shifter. Linda is as close as Shirley has come to having a best female friend. Linda once slugged a man who made the mistake of saying something sexually derogatory about Shirley. They share insomnia; Linda has frequent dreams about Shirley, some with unhappy endings. She has been Shirley's shoulder many a lonely time—and vice versa—and has shared with Shirley some of the secrets of her Georgia charm, a natural gift to Linda but hard-learned for Shirley. "I don't think Linda's even aware of what she's done for me," Shirley says. And Linda, who handles a Ferrari and is no stranger to speed, says to Shirley, "I could never strap myself in that digger the way you do."
Shirley set her 255-mph record at Pomona; she always runs well there. She had qualified strong, keeping her foot down through a 200-mph drift toward the guardrail and back. Throughout the run the front wheels had been dancing lightly on the pavement. Tobler had built her a stout motor to begin the defense of her championship. He had cut the fuse close; two pistons backsided near the finish line. "It's just brutal!" Shirley exclaimed happily at the end of the strip after the run. "I like to see fire in the pipes. That does something for me."
In an attempt to offset some of the stoutness of the motor, Tobler added 10 pounds of ballast to the front end between qualifying and eliminations. But even that wasn't enough. Shirley easily won the first round, reacting quicker at the start and leaving her opponent at the lights; but as she exploded off the line in the second round, the front wheels leaped into the air.
A driver has two options when his front wheels take off: lift his throttle foot and gain control but probably lose the race, or keep his foot down and maybe win the race but probably lose control. Guess which option a racer will take. "I lifted when all I could see was sky," Shirley said after the run.
Halfway down the strip the wheels still hadn't returned to earth—they were seven feet high now—and Shirley still hadn't lifted. The dragster was snaking toward the guardrail again, at 150 mph, but Shirley kept thinking she could control it as 220 feet of pavement sped under her every second. Finally she lifted. She clipped the guardrail with a rear wheel. Had she stayed with it an instant longer the dragster's front end might have come down on top of the guardrail and split the car in half.
The crew jumped in the truck and sped to the end of the strip to see if she was all right. She was pacing around the dragster, its front wheels splayed outward because the impact of the landing had bent the axle. Shirley was wired, as she often is after a stout run.
"Too long! Too long, Ma!" John shouted. "You stayed with it too long! I thought the throttle was stuck!"
"I tried to stay with it as long as I could. I tried, I tried. I tried to ride it on the rear wheels," she said.
"If the wind had caught it you would have gone over backward quicker than you know it," John said. "If it happens again, let off!" Then he took his mother by the waist, and they walked away down the strip.
That was in February. In March, at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., Shirley had a 5.74, the quickest time in her life, on her way to winning the event. In April, at the Southern Nationals in Atlanta, she won again, making it four national wins in her last five races.
In the final round at Gainesville her time was .04 of a second slower than her opponent's, but because she reacted .084 of a second quicker at the start, she got to the finish first and won the race. That is known as a "hole shot" in drag racing, and it means flat outdriving one's opponent.
"Shirley was always determined," says Mae. "Whatever she went out for she got. If there's anything missing today, it's that she would like to have her father see this. He was very, very proud of her."
As Shirley says, "I think the difference between me and the other guys is that a lot of them really don't have, truly don't have, that kick-ass attitude."