So it has come to this. Shirley Muldowney, her long hair streaked with gray, hobbles over to the man wearing thick glasses and hands him a plate with a turkey sandwich and potato chips on it. "Let me get you some apple juice here," she says. "Do you want to come in where it's nice and cool?"
The man shakes his gray head. "No thanks," he says, with a pleasant smile. It is a muggy Louisiana afternoon, with both the temperature and humidity pushing 100, but Don (Big Daddy) Garlits is content to sit in a pink plastic chair under an awning attached to a trailer truck, drink from a pink plastic cup and watch four men tear apart the engine of Muldowney's pink dragster.
"O.K.," Muldowney says, before she heads for the air-conditioned truck cab. "You know we've got some of those little juice cans that you like in the cooler."
These words are from a woman who, in years past, repeatedly called him a cheapskate, an old fool, a creep. Garlits, who used to have a dart board with Muldowney's face on it, once said, "Somebody has got to stop Muldowney, and right now it looks like I'm the only one standing between her and glory." Together, this odd couple holds six National Hot Rod Association Winston drag racing championships and has won 52 nationals. Individually, that list breaks down to three titles and 35 nationals for the King of the Dragsters and three and 17 for the First Lady of Racing.
Throughout the '70s and much of the '80s, Garlits versus Muldowney was the fiercest of rivalries. Big Daddy kept a running count of their many head-to-head quarter-mile battles on his trailer door. He marked victories over Muldowney much the way World War II fighter pilots recorded enemy kills on the fuselages of their planes. He stopped in the early '80s, when Muldowney began edging ahead in wins.
"I resent her sitting in the cab of that truck filing her nails while those turncoat men flog her car for her," Garlits said in 1979. Now he's one of those Benedict Arnolds with a toolbox under his arm.
"It is unbelievable," says Garlits between bites of his sandwich. "If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be over here trying to make her go fast, I would have laughed. Laid on the ground and kicked my feet and laughed." He takes in the pinkness that surrounds him—Muldowney's trademark color. "I must have mellowed," he says. "In the old days I'd be like a raging bull with this."
Both Garlits, 57, and Muldowney, 49, have mellowed over the years, but they are still the legends of drag racing. In fact, they are the sport's only real stars. Now they are a team, with Muldowney as driver and Garlits as "special adviser"—which means he's supposed to figure out how to make her Top Fuel dragster competitive in a contest in which a racer has five seconds (give or take a hundredth of a second) to cover 1,320 feet. The partnership has held together since it was formed early this spring, and so far, the once-bitter rivals haven't killed each other. Nor have they won anything.
Drag racing has changed so much that it's scarcely recognizable as the sport Garlits took up in 1950 in central Florida. Back then, he built his hot rods using parts scavenged from other cars and plenty of inspiration. He named resultant creations Swamp Rat and began driving them into the record books. He was an innovator (the first rear-engine Top Fuel car was Swamp Rat 13), a barrier-breaker (he made the first 200-mph run in drag racing history in 1964) and, above all, a winner. In the early '70s there were more than a hundred cars competing in the NHRA's Top Fuel class, drag racing's elite. The key to success was either a wily mechanic or a clever driver with quick reactions—and Garlits was both.
Today, it takes more than $1 million to keep one of the 3,500-horsepower cars running for a season; there are only a few dozen cars competing in the Top Fuel division; and the most important piece of equipment on the dragster isn't the engine or the supercharger—or even the driver—but the computer. When a car rolls into the pits after a run, the onboard computer is hooked up to a printer, which spews out a seven-foot-long record of the fuel intake, cylinder firings and horsepower during each stage of acceleration. Today's crews spend as much time staring at these strips of paper as they spend replacing pistons or mixing exotic blends of nitro fuel.