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But a 5.59! That was a mere .03 slower than Muldowney's alltime best.
Minor advanced in Shirley's place and lost to Bill Mullins in the final, but her crew was hardly disappointed. Her 5.59 held up as the lowest elapsed time of the day. The new season was just beginning.
The race at Phoenix was a shakedown for last weekend's NHRA Winternationals, the first major event of the new season. It was held at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, east of L.A., the heartland of hot-rodding. It drew 48,000, and the warm focus on Shirley was more of the Firebird treatment, only this time her admirers brought her single pink roses. Among the competitors was Garlits, Big Daddy himself, now 53 and the reigning Top Fuel champ.
In her qualifying run on Saturday, Muldowney might have overdone it as she stormed to a 5.470—the quickest run of her life. Her speed through the timing lights at the end of the quarter was 252.8 mph—"It was singin'," Muldowney said. Screaming might have been more accurate. The needle on the tach had spun to 10,000 rpm, which was 1,500 above the limit Tobler had set. As a consequence the big V-8's crankshaft bearings had burned and the driveline had been damaged. But that stuff could be fixed, and Muldowney's time stood as the second fastest of 35 Top Fuelers, with the top 16 moving into the first round of Sunday's single elimination.
Garlits was 10th fastest at 5.615 and, according to the system, he would face Muldowney in the opening round the next day. It was a promoter's dream. "If we're gonna face Garlits, I'm glad we're doing it in the first round," said Muldowney. "He gets better with age."
After early morning haze, the sun broke out as Muldowney wheeled her dragster to the line with Garlits. Her gleaming violet car was in sparkling contrast to his black machine—Big Daddy is known for his shabby-looking but sleek-performing equipment. She blasted immediately into her burnout. Garlits, no slouch as a showman, planted his foot at the same time. The two burned out side-by-side, burying themselves in noise and smoke, and the fans loved it.
When the starting lights flashed green, they exploded toward the end of the strip together. After the first 60 feet, Muldowney had him—a readout from the clocks would reveal what the human eye could miss. But then an oil line on her engine burst. The rear tires broke traction and smoked, and the engine revved to 10,000 rpm again. This time it exploded, sending chunks of shrapnel cartwheeling into the sky. And she still turned 5.718 in losing to Big Daddy's 5.59. (Darrell Gwynn beat Garlits in the semifinals and Kalitta in the finals to win the Top Fuel crown.)
"Babe, it was blazing so much you couldn't see the car," said Tobler softly to her at the end of the strip. "From where I sat it was still chewin'," Shirley said, meaning the traction had felt fine. Not to mention how wonderful it had felt to have her foot planted in every bit of the 3,000 hp, where it belongs.
"Well, let's load it up and go home," Tobler said with a sigh.
Shirley was already home.