And she beat on his drum. Think of the scene it will make when they do Shirley's movie.
"Connie doesn't talk bad about me," says Shirley. "He can't." She's sitting in her truck, behind the smoked windows. "Connie would love to be sitting in this truck right now," she says.
Actually, it's Rahn Tobler who's sitting in Shirley's truck now. He worked for Kalitta and Shirley until they split, after which he went with her. They keep the full extent of their relationship private, not so much because it's a secret as because it's their business. "It's one of the reasons I don't gossip about other people today," says Shirley. "Because I know how they said things about me. I mean, terrible, terrible things." She leans her head back. "But no one ever says anything to Rahn because everyone is aware of how much he thinks of me. Yes, he'll put them in their place if it's necessary. We get along awfully good. I see things in Rahn that I would like to think a lot of men possess, but they don't. At least not the men I've known."
Shirley came out of this past winter something of a celebrity (if none the richer for it), for the first time, really, for the world at large had overlooked Shirley and her 1977 achievement. Traditionally, the first big race of the NHRA season is the Pomona Winternationals, the quintessential drag competition because it's held in the heartland of hot rodding east of LA. Shirley arrived at the Winternationals confident and smiling, outfitted to complement her car in rose-tinted sunglasses and pink cowboy boots, cuddling her tiny mutt Skippy and joking with her friend and confidante Linda Vaughn, the outrageously sexy Miss Hurst Golden Shifter. Linda is as close as Shirley has come to having a best female friend. Linda once slugged a man who made the mistake of saying something sexually derogatory about Shirley. They share insomnia; Linda has frequent dreams about Shirley, some with unhappy endings. She has been Shirley's shoulder many a lonely time—and vice versa—and has shared with Shirley some of the secrets of her Georgia charm, a natural gift to Linda but hard-learned for Shirley. "I don't think Linda's even aware of what she's done for me," Shirley says. And Linda, who handles a Ferrari and is no stranger to speed, says to Shirley, "I could never strap myself in that digger the way you do."
Shirley set her 255-mph record at Pomona; she always runs well there. She had qualified strong, keeping her foot down through a 200-mph drift toward the guardrail and back. Throughout the run the front wheels had been dancing lightly on the pavement. Tobler had built her a stout motor to begin the defense of her championship. He had cut the fuse close; two pistons backsided near the finish line. "It's just brutal!" Shirley exclaimed happily at the end of the strip after the run. "I like to see fire in the pipes. That does something for me."
In an attempt to offset some of the stoutness of the motor, Tobler added 10 pounds of ballast to the front end between qualifying and eliminations. But even that wasn't enough. Shirley easily won the first round, reacting quicker at the start and leaving her opponent at the lights; but as she exploded off the line in the second round, the front wheels leaped into the air.
A driver has two options when his front wheels take off: lift his throttle foot and gain control but probably lose the race, or keep his foot down and maybe win the race but probably lose control. Guess which option a racer will take. "I lifted when all I could see was sky," Shirley said after the run.
Halfway down the strip the wheels still hadn't returned to earth—they were seven feet high now—and Shirley still hadn't lifted. The dragster was snaking toward the guardrail again, at 150 mph, but Shirley kept thinking she could control it as 220 feet of pavement sped under her every second. Finally she lifted. She clipped the guardrail with a rear wheel. Had she stayed with it an instant longer the dragster's front end might have come down on top of the guardrail and split the car in half.
The crew jumped in the truck and sped to the end of the strip to see if she was all right. She was pacing around the dragster, its front wheels splayed outward because the impact of the landing had bent the axle. Shirley was wired, as she often is after a stout run.
"Too long! Too long, Ma!" John shouted. "You stayed with it too long! I thought the throttle was stuck!"