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And the racing fans weren't the only ones yelling hoo-eee. Over the years both Playboy and Penthouse magazines have offered handsome checks to Linda to pose for picture layouts. But she has turned them down. She has a gut instinct—correct, as it turns out—that these magazines don't quite understand what it is she's doing up there. This is true of some fans as well, but there's really nothing complicated about it: The idea is to look but not leer. Come on. It's sexy but not sexual. "All this prancing and posing is done in a sort of high fun, and the fans know that," she says. "Posing naked would spoil it all; it just wouldn't be fair to them and to me."
This straightaway attitude extends also unto boyfriends and gentleman callers: Everybody in racing knows there have been plenty through the years, from an army general to a famous quarterback to movie idols to "a millionaire who wanted to buy me my own private jet with my initials on the side." But Linda wouldn't discuss her love life any more than she would dream of telling auto racing secrets: "I've been in and out of garages, and I overhear or they tell me the most inside things about racing," she says. "But they could break all my arms and legs and I'd never tell."
But, you know, the parading and the whoopee costumes and the parties and all probably create the impression that Linda's job is all play and no work. And we might as well settle that number right here. There was a time when a trophy queen was pretty much just that: The winning driver would whip his car into Victory Lane and tug off his leather helmet. His face would be all oil-stained—with those marvelous white circles around his eyes where his goggles had been—and the trophy queen, wearing a sash banner reading MISS WHATEVER RACEWAY, would hand him the trophy and give him a nice big smooch. And then do it over and over again as photographers recorded it with their 4 X 5 Speed Graphics. And that was about it for the queen.
But Hurst and a few other automotive entrepreneurs changed all that in the '60s. To Hurst, whose goal was to sell more competition transmissions than anybody on this planet, his new Miss Golden Shifter had to represent his product: He wanted instant recognition, and he understood his market. He established Linda as his trademark the way Campbell's Soup did those dumpling-cheeked kids and Morton Salt did its girl carrying the umbrella. He exhibited gear shifters at sport and trade shows throughout the U.S. and overseas; it seems like there's a show somewhere every week. And his queen was always there, banner, blonde curls and all, talking to the customers. But knowledgeably. Maybe the big surprise here is that Linda really understands transmissions and high-performance stuff. She even attended the Jim Russell driving school for racers so she could do her job better. Good student, too; she says she's absolute murder in a chicane.
Not long after Linda joined Hurst's team, he used her as the centerpiece of a big move on NASCAR, a campaign involving trade shows and speaking engagements, plus the parades and posturing. That first year, 1965, just two NASCAR stockers raced with Hurst gear shifters; a year and a half later, the entire field was equipped with them. And Linda began to appear as a speaker at civic-and service-club luncheons around the circuit—sometimes introducing race drivers, bin always plugging the product. She also started promoting the Hurst Rescue Tool, a device that can quickly rip open smashed cars to free trapped drivers, and began to raise money for burned and injured race victims. And finally, with Hurst's blessing, she served as liaison between some sponsors and drivers, to bring some of them together. It all ultimately grew into a kind of ambassadorship—precisely the role Hurst had envisioned years before—that resulted in Linda and the Hurst company being completely identified with each other. And she works hard at her role: Last year, she traveled 180,000 miles to attend 134 different events, from races to speeches to parades to whatever.
There are some 20,000 racing fans on hand for the NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway—and they all seem a bit feverish. They don't care much for any other sport, including Georgia football and its famous dropout. Several pickup trucks out in the nearby meadows carry bumper stickers that say HERSCHEL LIED LIKE A DAWG. But, ah, drag racing brings color to their cheeks—and eventually, because of the fumes, to their eyes; by sundown at one of these events it's like the Night of the Living Dead. On this particular morning, there's a restless, changing wind. For long moments the air is awash' with the delicate scents of spring flowers amid the pink and white flowering dogwood—and then, suddenly, along comes the thick, biting smell of fuels and hot exhaust and burning rubber, as well as the crashing sheets of sound that seize and rattle the entire body. The American Medical Association ought to do a study on the physiological effects of funny-car burnouts: "You got to get right down there beside them and let the whole blast engulf you," says Linda. "It's like nothing else you've ever felt in your life."
Today's Miss Hurst costume consists of a white semitransparent jump suit, made of the silk used in drag racing's brake-parachutes. The suit is worn over a flesh-toned body stocking, creating vague nude effects that seem to change with the light. On all sides men and boys stumble into each other and walk into ditches, staring at her. But Linda knows her racing psychology, "I think this outfit is probably too sophisticated for this crowd." she says. "I ought to be wearing a T shirt and shorts."
But Mama likes it. Indeed. Mama Mae drove over from Dalton. along with a clutch of cousins and a niece and nephew or two, all of them solid Linda fans. "I used to make all of her costumes," Mama Mae says, "and in the old days, if there was any doubt about a miniskirt, well, we'd just make it a bit shorter. No. Come on, we're all just kidding."
It's easy to see now that Linda came by her figure honestly: Mama Mae is a stout little woman with an absolutely formidable chest and carefully coiffed white hair and a disarming smile. "You see my mama's figure?" Linda says. "Well, when we both sit down at a table to eat—and if we happen to spill something—well, nothing ever falls in our laps." Mama shakes her head at this teasing, but she positively glows with maternal pride. "We're all just so proud of Linda," she says. "As for what she's doing, these skimpy little outfits and all, we all recognize that it's part of this racing business. Why, one of the twins, Shirley, is married to a man who's just got himself a new ministry in the Assembly of God Church. But they both understand and respect that Linda is just doing her job. You know, it wasn't easy, raising three children by myself, but we managed. Looking back on it all now, it seems as how Linda just grew up overnight. And she was never ugly, like she says she was, though I can remember her saying to me, 'Mama. I ain't got no more figure than an ol' mop handle.' "