When they got to the scene, Muldowney was pacing next to the car, which was stopped about 50 yards beyond the end of the pavement. She was bursting with adrenaline. "I'm sorry," she said to Tobler. "I couldn't get it stopped. What was my time?"
"Five ninety-seven," he replied.
"Oh," she said, disappointed. "I was looking for a .40." She meant 5.40 seconds, which would have been .01 away from the world record. She had lost neither her timing nor her cockiness.
The crowd of 20,000 on Sunday, Jan. 20, was Firebird's largest ever for a drag race, and it was evident that most of the people had come to see Muldowney. WELCOME BACK SHIRLEY signs were everywhere. The promoter posted four security men at the corners of her roped-off pit area so that the crew could work. A singing welcome-back telegram from a fan was delivered, as were a dozen red roses. "I feel like a bride," said Muldowney. But it was the children who were especially drawn to her. They streamed up and shyly waited for a hug.
Muldowney rode in the van as it towed her dragster up for its first run. What does a three-time champion lead-foot driver talk about moments before the start in this ultramacho game? "I love the smell of roses," Muldowney said to her friend Cheryl Juhlin. "Rahn got me these nice bath salts for Christmas that smell-like roses. If there's one thing I like it's nice-smelling bath salts."
After the driver introductions and a standing ovation for Shirley, Tobler strapped her in once more. In the lane next to her was veteran driver Larry Minor. Commonly known as the world's biggest potato farmer, he farms something like 92,000 acres and has the girth to show for it.
Muldowney burst away first with her front wheels raised, carrying them a foot or more off the ground for half the length of the strip. The giant digital timer at the finish line flashed 5.59, 235.60 mph. She had blown Minor away.
But then, the boom. An engine explosion, inches behind Muldowney's head, scattered chunks of metal into the air. Once again John Muldowney's heart stopped.
"When it went boom, I thought, 'I know I'm past the crowd,' said Shirley. "I've never, ever, put parts in the stands. I'm proud of that. But boy, that's some concussion behind your head."
A valve keeper had broken, allowing a valve to hang open and nitromethane fuel to gush into the engine. "It's just like a big bomb," said Tobler. The supercharger was blown off the engine.