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?"