So it has come to this. Shirley Muldowney, her long hair streaked with gray, hobbles over to the man wearing thick glasses and hands him a plate with a turkey sandwich and potato chips on it. "Let me get you some apple juice here," she says. "Do you want to come in where it's nice and cool?"
The man shakes his gray head. "No thanks," he says, with a pleasant smile. It is a muggy Louisiana afternoon, with both the temperature and humidity pushing 100, but Don (Big Daddy) Garlits is content to sit in a pink plastic chair under an awning attached to a trailer truck, drink from a pink plastic cup and watch four men tear apart the engine of Muldowney's pink dragster.
"O.K.," Muldowney says, before she heads for the air-conditioned truck cab. "You know we've got some of those little juice cans that you like in the cooler."
These words are from a woman who, in years past, repeatedly called him a cheapskate, an old fool, a creep. Garlits, who used to have a dart board with Muldowney's face on it, once said, "Somebody has got to stop Muldowney, and right now it looks like I'm the only one standing between her and glory." Together, this odd couple holds six National Hot Rod Association Winston drag racing championships and has won 52 nationals. Individually, that list breaks down to three titles and 35 nationals for the King of the Dragsters and three and 17 for the First Lady of Racing.
September 3, 1989
Throughout the '70s and much of the '80s, Garlits versus Muldowney was the fiercest of rivalries. Big Daddy kept a running count of their many head-to-head quarter-mile battles on his trailer door. He marked victories over Muldowney much the way World War II fighter pilots recorded enemy kills on the fuselages of their planes. He stopped in the early '80s, when Muldowney began edging ahead in wins.
"I resent her sitting in the cab of that truck filing her nails while those turncoat men flog her car for her," Garlits said in 1979. Now he's one of those Benedict Arnolds with a toolbox under his arm.
"It is unbelievable," says Garlits between bites of his sandwich. "If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be over here trying to make her go fast, I would have laughed. Laid on the ground and kicked my feet and laughed." He takes in the pinkness that surrounds him—Muldowney's trademark color. "I must have mellowed," he says. "In the old days I'd be like a raging bull with this."
Both Garlits, 57, and Muldowney, 49, have mellowed over the years, but they are still the legends of drag racing. In fact, they are the sport's only real stars. Now they are a team, with Muldowney as driver and Garlits as "special adviser"—which means he's supposed to figure out how to make her Top Fuel dragster competitive in a contest in which a racer has five seconds (give or take a hundredth of a second) to cover 1,320 feet. The partnership has held together since it was formed early this spring, and so far, the once-bitter rivals haven't killed each other. Nor have they won anything.
Drag racing has changed so much that it's scarcely recognizable as the sport Garlits took up in 1950 in central Florida. Back then, he built his hot rods using parts scavenged from other cars and plenty of inspiration. He named resultant creations Swamp Rat and began driving them into the record books. He was an innovator (the first rear-engine Top Fuel car was Swamp Rat 13), a barrier-breaker (he made the first 200-mph run in drag racing history in 1964) and, above all, a winner. In the early '70s there were more than a hundred cars competing in the NHRA's Top Fuel class, drag racing's elite. The key to success was either a wily mechanic or a clever driver with quick reactions—and Garlits was both.
Today, it takes more than $1 million to keep one of the 3,500-horsepower cars running for a season; there are only a few dozen cars competing in the Top Fuel division; and the most important piece of equipment on the dragster isn't the engine or the supercharger—or even the driver—but the computer. When a car rolls into the pits after a run, the onboard computer is hooked up to a printer, which spews out a seven-foot-long record of the fuel intake, cylinder firings and horsepower during each stage of acceleration. Today's crews spend as much time staring at these strips of paper as they spend replacing pistons or mixing exotic blends of nitro fuel.
Muldowney has been strictly a driver. In fact, it was the lack of grease under her manicured nails that had so irked Garlits. But now, with the computer timing the shifting of gears, the drivers' role has been diminished. "The driver has just got to have a good reaction time [to beat the other driver off the line when the starting light flashes on] and then not hit the guardrails," Garlits says. "The way these cars are set up, the driver must put it right to the floorboard immediately. In the old days, we'd ease the clutch out, and the driver really made a difference. Nowadays, the actual performance of the car...that's up to the crew."
The driver is still important, and Garlits says Muldowney is good. "At one time," he says, "she was one of the best." Muldowney won the NHRA championship in 1977, '80 and '82. Then there were those head-to-heads with Garlits, many of them Battle of the Sexes match races. Though some of their animosity was probably just hype to sell tickets, Gene Snow, a driver who was there from the start of their rivalry, says, "A lot of it was real." How could such a feud be resolved?
"It satisfied itself naturally when she crashed," Garlits says. "I was really upset about that."
At Sanair speedway near Montreal in 1984, a front tire ruptured on Muldowney's car, and she slammed into a ditch at 250 mph. Her hands, pelvis and legs were crushed in the impact. Muldowney needed a half dozen operations and a year and a half of therapy before she could race again. Her left ankle was permanently fused, and because her right leg is now shorter than her left, she walks with a pronounced limp. After the accident, to her surprise, Big Daddy offered not only his best wishes but also financial help to cover some of her hospital expenses.
Garlits knows a thing or two about accidents. In 1970 he lost half of his right foot when his dragster's clutch blew and his car flipped over. He was finally coaxed into retirement by a 1987 "upset" (the drag racers' euphemism for a flip) in Spokane, where he broke some ribs. He has spent the past two years doing television commentary for Diamond P, an outfit that supplies NHRA coverage to television networks, running his drag racing museum in Ocala, Fla., updating his 1967 autobiography (entitled Big Daddy) and waiting for the financing to materialize for a movie about his life.
This spring, Muldowney's crew chief and husband, Rahn Tobler, asked Garlits if he would like to do a little tinkering on Shirley's car. The dragster wasn't running well, and she hadn't won a major title since the Sanair accident. Muldowney is in the last year of her four-year contract with her sponsor, Performance Automotive Wholesale, a California auto parts supplier. She needs a new sponsor before February, when the new season begins, which means she needs to start winning. Tobler and Muldowney thought Garlits might be able to help. Big Daddy, in turn, would get a chance to take a firsthand look at the latest in drag racing technology, a useful move should he decide to go back into racing. A match was made, and the two are now known in the pits as Fred and Wilma. Their car, unfortunately, has behaved like a dinosaur. Of the eight national events entered since Garlits joined the team, the car failed to qualify in three and lost in the first round four times.
Muldowney, though, has no intention of quitting. "I'll drive as long as I can," she says. One of her incentives might be the emergence on the drag racing circuit of Lori Johns, an attractive, 23-year-old debutante from Corpus Christi, Texas, and the first woman since Muldowney to drive Top Fuel cars with some success. Johns is now seventh in the national rankings, and she is having a splendid year, both on and off the track. She has reached the semifinal round of three nationals so far; she has sponsorship money rolling in from Jolly Rancher candy company; photographers and autograph seekers swarm around her whenever she is out of her car; and she has made recent TV appearances on Current Affair and The Pat Sajak Show.
"She's like the bubonic plague around here," Muldowney says of Johns, fairly spitting. "She's had unbelievable rookie luck, but that luck is going to run out pretty soon."
Muldowney says she is particularly upset by a lawsuit Johns brought against another driver, in 1986, after an accident at the State Capitol Dragway in Baton Rouge, La. Johns was racing in a sportsman race when a car driven by Jim Van Cleve crossed the center line and flipped over on her racer. Johns suffered a broken neck, broken back, broken wrist and internal bleeding. She sued Van Cleve for negligence—an action that astounded many racers, including Muldowney. "I was seriously hurt in my accident," Muldowney says. "It changed my life. And there was no lawsuit out of that."
Johns now claims she wants to drop the suit. "I didn't intend it to be a huge major legal battle," she says. "I just wanted to regain some of my losses."
It's clear that Muldowney's antipathy toward Johns is based on more than the lawsuit. Taped to the windshield of Muldowney's truck is a T-shirt bearing the words: WHERE ARE THE FASHION POLICE WHEN YOU NEED THEM? Muldowney wears a pink polo shirt with that message embroidered on the front. The phrase comes from a letter that was published earlier this year in an issue of Drag Racing magazine, criticizing a photo of Johns wearing huge black hoop earrings while posing with her Top Fueler. "That letter got her big time," Muldowney says.
"Some letters have said that I exploit women. I've never had a picture taken in anything but my fire suit and the shoes I race in," says Johns. "In that picture they said it was hair by Dolly Par-ton, nails by Elvira and makeup by Tammy Faye." She shakes her head. "I guess it's just because I look the way I look. I don't have a feud with [Muldowney]. I'm just out here to race my car."
When asked about other women in the sport, Muldowney says, "I'm a bit of a toughie, and I had to be in the early days or I would not have survived. I like to think I made it easier for other ladies, but maybe I made it too easy, because now they license people who simply did not earn it."
Driver Connie Kalitta, who was Muldowney's crew chief and lover for seven years in the "70s, chuckles when the rivalry with Johns is mentioned. "Shirley is a gutsy little bitch," says Kalitta, "and she has a hard time tolerating the changing of the guard."
Garlits has been in enough feuds himself and isn't particularly interested in this one. "I know you can't always believe what you read," he says. He's more concerned with the lackluster performance of the big pink car. Although in Seattle in August, Muldowney drove to a track record in a qualifier, the car is still nowhere near a winner. It's been a long hot summer.
At the Cajun Nationals Garlits pores over the printout after yet another disappointing run. "We took too much fuel away from it, and it didn't like it," Garlits says, pointing to a line on the graph. Somehow the crew has to find a way to make the car .1 of a second faster. "I thought we'd have it running good in less time than this," Garlits says. "I figured this was the event where we'd be strong. Now, I don't know. I know guys who have struggled with these things for a year."
He frowns and peers through his glasses at the lengthening shadows. The popping roar of engines can be heard in the distance, and the sticky-sweet smell of nitromethane hangs in the air. "In this heat you just get beat up, you know? Tired without doing anything."
Muldowney's pet, a mutt that looks like a miniature coyote, walks up to Garlits. Skippy is 15 years old and gray around the muzzle. Garlits scratches the dog under her pink collar. "What's the matter, Skippy?" he says. "Feeling kind of old and fragile?"