The rest of Mama Mae's chatter is lost in a rolling, percussive clap of sound, an explosive shock that makes kidneys and kneecaps bounce. It comes from the pit of Shirley Muldowney, the three-time world top fuel champion. Her son and her crewmen are vigorously zapping the engine on her long, pink rail dragster before sending it off into combat. Standing off to one side in her bulky fireproof pants and boots, Muldowney waits until the engine is shut down and then says, "Never mind Linda's costume; it's part of the scene. The point is that Linda really belongs here. She plays several roles, and the fans expect all this and love it. You know, the ones who don't belong here are some of these pit dollies who hang around, looking for a free ride to the bigs. If I see them hanging around my place, ogling my crew, I tell them flatly. 'Look, why don't you try the next pit?' "
The jet truck made it all worthwhile. As one of the fans said just a few moments ago, "Who-eeee, I'm probably sterile for life now, but, Lordy, how about when he put a match to that big sucker? I mean, he lit off that truck and there was a ramblin' trail of fire clear back to Savannah."
Was there ever. The act was used to close the show—Bob Motz and his big Kenworth truck, with 17,500 pounds of thrust, out of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. It looks pretty ordinary, as these tractors go, with no trailer behind it, but when Motz cranks it up, bright shafts of fire flash upward out of the vertical exhaust pipes, and rolling, thunderous whomps of flame and concussion shoot out the open jet tube at the back end. On Saturday, at the first session of the Southern Nationals, this blew out a big window in the Winston Tower, and it pasted a few people right up against the chain-link fence. Today nobody had gotten any smarter about taking cover, and when Motz fired it off, the air was full of Styrofoam picnic hampers and beer cans. Then when he let her roll, the truck exploded out of its own smoke cloud, trailing this long tail of fire. Have you ever seen anything lurch fast? Well, he made it through the quarter-mile in 8.28, which converts to 146.57 mph, while the crowd was going absolutely bananas, their clothes all whipping every which way and their teeth getting blackened in the smoke. Now that's gross.
But that's really the idea: Somehow the entire madcap scene serves to italicize auto racing and Linda and their roles in sports. For the record, earlier in the day Muldowney had been beaten. The winner of the event was Gary Beck of El Toro, Calif., who had rolled away to a 5.534 elapsed time (249.30 mph). The victory kept him ahead of Muldowney in Winston Series points. Over at Atlanta International Raceway, Gordon John-cock had won the Indy Car Dixie 200, in spite of making one goofy, sliding-side-ways pit stop. And now, at a typical Southern drag strip, Linda is dutifully saying goodby to her fans.
This is more of a goodby than they realize. What's coming is a real wrench. Back at Brighton, Mich., the home of Cars & Concepts, the chairman of the board, Dick Chrysler, has decided the time has come to promote Linda Vaughn. After this season, there'll be no more parading and posturing for Miss Hurst Golden Shifter, the former Miss Poultry Princess. No more of those skimpy costumes with fringes and cowboy hats and cleavage, no more garters snapped off into the eager crowds. The new Linda will be entirely different.
"We want to bring her into more of a corporate position," says Chrysler. "Really, where Linda excels is in her wealth of contacts; she knows everybody and is well-liked and trusted by everybody. It's our goal to make Hurst the principal supplier of shifters to the entire U.S. automobile industry. And we need Linda to help us." With that in mind, Chrysler plans to make Linda vice-president of public relations and promotion, responsible for directing overall activities in those fields.
Imagine it! A vice-president. Linda Vaughn, executive. There'll be other Hurst queens, of course—some successor is probably out there right now, tippy-tapping away on her mama's back porch—but there will never be another Miss Golden Shifter. That act and title will be officially retired. Maybe they'll have Linda's bra bronzed and put in a Hurst trophy case somewhere for unbelieving future generations to goggle at. But, who cares? What counts is that the company has been smart enough to recognize a national treasure and to act to preserve it.
Linda has been thinking about this new departure. She asks: "How do you think I'll look in a gray pinstriped suit, very severe, with a nice blouse that'll play down my boobs and with my hair all pulled back in a bun? And carrying a leather briefcase? I can do it, you know. It's what I've been working for."
Certainly she can do it. She also knows that a race queen can carry on only so long; it's an exhausting job. Indeed, the biggest recent boost to her morale came with the April 11 issue of PEOPLE with its cover billing, SEXY FOREVER, and story about all those artfully maturing glamour girls. Cover-girl Linda Evans of TV's Dynasty is 40. And Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Ursula Andress, Joan Collins and others—they're all 40 and older. Linda admires them and knows some of them personally. And, while she doesn't usually talk about it, she will now admit to an old friend that she, too, is about that age. But does her precise age really matter to anyone? Could it possibly change anything with her racing fans? Earlier in the week, Johncock had looked at her for a long moment, squinting. "I swear," he said, "I keep getting older and you keep getting younger." And one could tell that he found that to be a comforting verity, something a guy could count on.