As it turned out, that's about the time puberty struck. "I mean, in one summer, about when I was 14," says Linda, "I was all arms and legs and ears, and then, suddenly, my chest just, uhh, just blossomed. Lord, I mean, I didn't go to an A cup—I went from flat zero to a C cup just like that. And next year in school, suddenly all the boys wanted to carry my books. Wudn't that funny?"
Linda went on to graduate from Dalton High, and the only sad touch was that, while she had all the requisite physical attributes, she couldn't become a cheerleader. "That stuff was just for the rich girls," she says. "I mean, they had to buy their own cheerleading uniforms. Heck, the letter sweaters cost $40, and we just flat couldn't afford it."
Schooling stopped right there, but then came more contests, "each one of them a college education on its own," says Linda. She was crowned Miss Poultry Princess (nobody in the family remembers just whose Miss Poultry or much else about the contest: "Oh, you, know, just, umm. Miss Poultry"). And then came Miss Atlanta International Raceway in 1961 and Miss Pontiac in '62 and Miss Firebird in '63, '64 and '65, not to forget a Queen of Speed in there somewhere. There was a life of glamour on the racing circuit. There was a lot of parading, shaking it for the world, presenting trophies and striking artful poses standing beside cars at auto shows. And, finally, there was also the ugly scene that was probably inevitable. It had to do indirectly with Linda's bosom and directly with her public appearances—and it was to establish her guilty-until-proven-innocent theory.
As one might imagine, stock-car-racing wives tend to be mostly good ol' country girls. "They're pretty cliquish," Linda says, "and they're not keen on seeing anybody kissing their man, even if it's just to give him a trophy." And. sure enough, at one race in the early '60s, several of them advanced in a growling, angry group, finally bunching up on the outside of the chain-link fence at Victory Lane and muttering about big-breasted home-wreckers and threatening to tear Linda to bits for messin' with their men, as they put it. And suddenly, along came Glenn (Fireball) Roberts, who marched right up to the fence and chewed everybody out. "Y'all let Linda alone," he growled. "She's just doin' her job, and she ain't messing with nobody's husband. Let her do her job and you do yours."
And that pretty much ended it. After that, the wives gradually accepted Linda, and nowadays she's one of the crew, sitting in the stands worrying right along with everybody else, with racing kiddies climbing in her lap or tugging at her pants legs. Indeed, Roberts was to become one of her best alltime pals—right up until 1964 at the Charlotte Speedway. After the terrible smashup that was to kill him. Fireball was carried past Linda on a stretcher. "He was all broken and burned and all," she says, crying now at the memory. "And the last thing he said to me was, 'Linda, please go and get Judy [his girl friend] for me.' "
It's a rare occasion when you get all the Indy-car drivers assembled in the same room—they're not the most fraternal bunch in the world—but here they are at a Hilton in Atlanta, with a Dixieland band blaring, booze flowing freely and everybody all gussied up and mingling around several lavish buffets. This is the cocktail party of PPG Industries, the sponsor of this racing series, which will start Sunday with the CART Dixie 200 at Atlanta International Raceway. It will be the first race of the year because the official opener at Phoenix was rained out.
Linda is out there, playing ambassador for Hurst. She's wearing a $400 lavender silk party dress that's cut up to here on both sides—a design that permits more than occasional flashes of thigh. It's easily the least conservative outfit at this party—heck, maybe in all of Atlanta—and already a couple of race drivers have approached her and allowed as how "Ah swear, Linda, yore dress is tore plumb up to yore whoozis."
Linda's association with Hurst has been her longest and most successful, going back to 1965, when Union Oil swallowed up Pure Oil, leaving Linda temporarily out of a queendom. But along about that time, transmission mogul George Hurst was advertising in the auto-buff magazines for a new Miss Hurst Golden Shifter, which was then, and still is, one of the alltime great dumb titles. The ads specified that the entrants must have sound teeth. "So I called George Hurst," Linda says, "and I asked him, 'Listen, are you lookin' for a lady or a racehorse?' " Well, Linda says the story going around at the time was that Hurst's earlier girl had been a stunner, shapely and all, but that her false teeth kept falling out. "Anyway," says Linda, "I took my mama with me to the meeting so's there wouldn't be any hanky-panky. But as it turned out, it was all business, and in 1966 I signed a contract for $8,000 a year plus expenses and a car."
The growth after that was phenomenal for both parties, and Hurst sales aside, perhaps the most vivid memory of those heady times was the Hurst gearshift parade car, an unbelievable creation that could give phallic symbolism a bad name. There would be Linda, standing beside the oversized shift lever and waving and blowing kisses to the crowds. But to Linda the Hurst car was preferable to the conventional parade floats she had ridden on in her earlier roles. "At last I could stand on a real platform and they could see all of me, legs and all," she says. "It got to be a regular, expected part of so many prerace shows everywhere. I mean, I was like the national anthem."