That body. It was once described by a Midwest sportswriter as 40-24-37, but what did he know? Linda doesn't go around reciting such stats and never has; indeed, she allows as how a woman's age and income, measurements and whether she fools around are strictly her own business. Linda is married, but has been legally separated for some time from her husband, a former drag racer. And as for being put here to do what she's doing, well, that seems fair enough.
Linda is the final refinement of that giddy American institution, the race-trophy queen. Oh, the breed still goes on, all right; there are trophy queens, racetrack princesses and Miss High Octanes all over the place, particularly in the Deep South. But it's unlikely that any of them will ever reach Linda's stature. She has become a symbol the by-God First Lady of auto racing in America, and now her image is nicely etched into our sporting subconsciousness. Not too long ago it was pointed out that because auto racing draws a ton of spectators—more than 51 million in 1981, according to one survey—and because Linda attends some 150 events a year, traveling more than 150,000 miles, she probably has been seen in person more than any other woman in the world. That's a whacko statistic, but you get the idea. And harken unto Harlan Thompson of the Faberge Racing Team, a funny-car driver who saw Linda on a European tour last July: "Some places we raced, none of the fans could speak English, but they could all say, 'Leeeenda Vaughn.' "
Fifteen minutes or so from now, Mario Andretti will crash. He'll lose control of his spanking-new Lola T-700 while practicing at 180 mph, and it will slam into the wall at the No. 2 turn here at Atlanta's International Raceway. It will hit the wall twice, in fact, grinding and chewing up its front so it can't be repaired in time for Sunday's race. But Andretti will walk away from this mishap, not blaming spilled oil on the track or faulty suspension or steering or brakes; "I just...almost lost it," he'll say. Andretti is always honest about such things.
Now, in the springtime Georgia sun, one foot up on the pit wall, he's talking about Linda. She has just stopped by to deliver hugs to everybody in the crew, and at the moment she's doing the same farther down pit lane. "Y'know, I get all the European automobile racing magazines," Andretti says, "and Linda's pictured in them more than the damn Ferraris. The thing is, she fits in everywhere in racing: Formula I, Indy cars, stocks and drag racers, you name it. But what's important is that she's more than a pretty object. I mean it: I've known Linda since 1963—my whole family knows her and loves her. And listen: Some guys in racing like to claim this and that about Linda, or say that Linda does this and that. It's all macho crap. What do you call it? Posturing."
Farther down the line, Frank (Rebel) Mundy peers out from under the rim of his cowboy hat. Mundy is a familiar figure at Atlanta Raceway, his home stamping ground. He was a brilliant driver once. Now he strolls about looking both grizzled and dapper, his neck draped with heavy chains carrying what appear to be solid gold nuggets, and he's wearing a fat gold watchband that weighs 10 pounds if it weighs an ounce. This is an obscure claim to fame, but Mundy was one of the judges who named Linda Vaughn Miss Atlanta International Raceway of 1961. And that started it all.
"See, we had 21 girls come out for the contest," he says, "and let me tell you, she flat won it fair and square. I mean, she was barefoot then, but she was sure the plain winner. Well. She wudn't really barefooted, but you know. See, auto racin' is a little like a circus to a degree: The people love all the hoopla and the balloons and the fancy parades. And the men, well, they like to see a little cheesecake now and again. Ain't no harm in that. But what made Linda different than all them others was that she grew into the job of racing ambassador and has been a credit to the sport ever since."
Winning the Miss A.I.R. title may have been easy, but getting there had been hard. On Thursday's flight to Atlanta from Los Angeles, Linda had filled in the early days. The Vaughns spring from Dalton, a small town some 90 miles north of Atlanta, where just about everybody works in the carpet mills. "Mama and Daddy got divorced when I was little," Linda says, "and she was left to raise three children, my brother, C.B. [now 48], my sister, Betty Louise [now 45], and me [now, and forevermore, won't tell]. Mama worked mostly as a seamstress; we were awful poor, but we got by. I mean, I wore patched, faded little old dresses—but they were always clean and starched. And we all worked. I collected Coke bottles and brought home the deposit money and did odd jobs for 50 cents here and there, and I worked as a helper to two dentists who filled all my cavities for free. Lord, I was the scrawniest little old white-haired thing you ever saw."
The family grew and spread on a grand, sort of Faulknerian scale: Mama married twice again and had twin girls, Shirley Jan and Sheila Ann, now 29, and Daddy remarried four more times, producing a half-sister, Cheryl, and a half-brother, Gregory, who died at two. In a profile on Linda four years ago, the Detroit Free Press reported that there were 14 brothers and sisters. That's not true. But there are dozens of aunts, uncles, half and full cousins, nieces and nephews—all of them comfortably neighborly and all on speaking terms, including Mama and Daddy, great huggers and kissers in the oldtime Southern style.
"But through it all," says Linda, "I always dreamed that I'd be something special when I grew up. I always pictured myself in long satin gowns with long sleeves like real ladies wore and with mirrors all over the place and owning a pure white, fluffy cat. There I was, a skinny kid tap-dancing on our back porch with my best friend. Patsy Brazell, just tippy-tapping away, not knowing what we were doing, and next thing I knew I was in the Miss Junior America contest. I didn't win it—but I got Miss Congeniality."