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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."