Other drivers came to Muldowney's pit area to welcome her back and admire, compliment and envy the car. They included Gary Beck, the Top Fuel champion for '83, and Connie Kalitta, a character with a roguish past and stormy history as Muldowney's live-in crew chief who was played by Beau Bridges in Heart Like a Wheel, the movie of Shirley's life through 1977. Bonnie Bedelia had received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Shirley.
It was time to fire up the engine—for the first time, ever. The car was on jack stands, about two feet off the ground. Muldowney stepped up on a kitchen stool and carefully climbed in. She had rehearsed this part many times. "I've been in that car for eight hours already," she said. "Just sitting."
The engine started, and bystanders put their fingers to their ears. With the roar, a wave of bliss flowed over Muldowney's face. Tobler leaned over the engine and blipped the throttle, and the torque from each blip sent a jolt through the car and Shirley's eyes lit up.
"I needed it," Muldowney said afterward. "That thing is stout."
When it was time for the run, she retired to the trailer and came back out in her quilted fire-retardant suit, her left foot encased by a specially made boot that splits open for her unbending foot. She gathered her dark hair into a pony-tail and yanked off both earrings at once—no messing around now. Her fire-retardant fabric hood and full-face helmet were drawn on, and Tobler strapped her in. "All set, Babe?" he asked. "Yeah," she said.
Without further ado Muldowney did her burnout—a false start on a hosed-down patch of pavement. The wheels are spun to heat the rear tires and thus give them more traction. It's also a spectacular maneuver that's literally ground-shaking and hair-raising, and it gets the grandstands screaming. "Woo! Burly!" came shouts from Muldowney's own crew, on the edge of their seats in the van behind the starting line, ready to chase down the strip after the run. "As soon as she did the burnout I knew she hadn't lost a thing," said Tobler. "It was perfect. Like she'd never been gone."
As Tobler had ordered, Muldowney shut off the engine after half the run; it was merely a shakedown. "Let me tell you, I was tempted to keep going," she said, beaming, when the van caught up to her. "And it felt pretty wonderful to make the turn at the end. I thought about the last time.
"Look how perfect I'm walking with no lifts!" she said suddenly. "No stupid heels." Indeed, there was a spring in her step—without the cane, which would be forgotten for the rest of the weekend. I don't know how to tell you how nice that car is to drive. Let me tell you, I can punch the clutch with the best of 'em. That pedal is perfect.
"It was a cakewalk. I knew that's what it would be."
Saturday's qualifying run, however, was not so successful. After the car passed through the timing lights at 236.22 mph, the braking parachutes became tangled. They streamed and twirled behind the hurtling vehicle as Muldowney stood on the meager brakes. "Open," John was saying urgently, watching from the van at the start. "Open...open...open!" But the chutes refused to blossom, and then the long violet car was swallowed by a cloud of dust on the desert horizon. Hearts pounded in the van as it raced toward the end of the strip.