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Steaming Back : Muldowney Says Latest Win Ranks Among Her Most Memorable

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than a year, from June of 1984 through the summer of 1985, the biggest question in Shirley Muldowney’s life was if she would ever walk again, much less drive a 3,000-horsepower race car.

Then in January of 1986, she strapped herself into her pink top-fuel dragster, hit the throttle and raced down the quarter mile of asphalt at Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix, in 5.58 seconds.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 26, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 26, 1989 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 6 Column 4 Sports Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Drag racing--The lawsuit filed by drag racer Lori Johns after a racing accident in Baton Rouge, La., in 1986 did not include car owner Kenny Bernstein, sponsor Budweiser or the National Hot Rod Assn., as was reported in Wednesday’s editions.
Named in the suit were driver Jim Van Cleve and King Entertainment, Bernstein’s company, which owned the car.
Johns also denied sending roses, spray-painted black, to rival driver Shirley Muldowney, as Muldowney had implied.

The lady was back.

Then for three years, she heard and read of what a remarkable comeback she had made from a 250-m.p.h. crash during a race at the Sanair track, near Montreal. After she was pulled out of a muddy field in what was left of her dragster, doctors had to rebuild her left foot and repair her legs, pelvis, fingers and a nearly severed thumb.

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The racing world marveled at her comeback, but she felt unfulfilled.

She was walking and she was even racing, but that was not enough. She wanted to be back on the throne she had occupied in 1977, 1980 and 1982--the best damn drag racer in the world.

No one else but Don (Big Daddy) Garlits has won three National Hot Rod Assn. top-fuel championships. Muldowney wanted to be the first to win four.

But she had not won an NHRA national event since the World Finals of 1983 at Orange County Raceway.

Then, 10 days ago, Muldowney returned to Phoenix for the Fallnationals, and on the same Firebird strip where she tested herself nearly four years ago, she beat Darrell Gwynn in the final run.

Now she was completely back. Well, almost completely. She still harbors thoughts of winning that fourth championship, even though she will turn 50 next June.

“We have a lot left in terms of potential,” she said. “We couldn’t really use all the horsepower we had. What I enjoyed most was that I proved I still had my reflexes. I won the last three rounds when my opponents (Gene Snow, world champion Joe Amato and Gwynn) ran quicker than I did. I beat them off the (starting) line.”

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The win was Muldowney’s 18th in national competition and she ranks it right up there with the one in the 1982 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis where she defeated Connie Kalitta, her former lover and crew chief, and the final round of the 1980 Winston World Finals at Ontario, where her victory gave her a second world championship.

“Phoenix was wonderful, but they’re all special,” she said. “What made Phoenix so memorable was how gracious Darrell (Gwynn) was after I beat him. He was such a sportsman, such a gentleman.

“When we got out of our cars, he came over to me with a big smile on his face and said, ‘Shirley, you welded me.’ He was so happy to see me win again, it was written all over his face.”

This weekend, Muldowney will be at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, racing her top-fuel dragster in the 25th annual Winston Finals, last of the year’s 19-race schedule.

Her opponents should beware: It doesn’t pay to get Shirley riled up.

When she feels that someone is messing with her psyche, she responds with a championship performance.

The low point of the year, perhaps of her career--other than the crippling accident--occurred last September in the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis when she failed to qualify.

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“You can’t imagine how low we felt after a back-breaker like that,” she said. “But it was nothing compared to what happened the day after we got home in Michigan.

“A box of a dozen long-stemmed roses were delivered to me. They were spray-painted black, with a note that read, ‘You have finally faced reality.’ I was so upset--it was such a hateful thing to do--that I went right down to the flower shop and demanded to know where they came from. They wouldn’t tell me the name of the sender, but they said they came from Corpus Christi, Tex.

“You didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure that out.”

Corpus Christi is the home of Lori Johns, who is challenging Muldowney’s position as the No. 1 female driver in male-dominated competition.

“I have never forgiven her for the lawsuit she filed against nearly everyone in drag racing after an accident in 1986, and she knows it,” Muldowney said.

Johns was injured while racing in the competition eliminator class at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La., and her family sued the opposing driver, Jim Van Cleve; his car owner, Kenny Bernstein and King Entertainment; Bernstein’s sponsor, Budweiser; and the sanctioning body, the NHRA. The suit was later dropped.

“We have had words, and I told her in writing not to take credit for things she didn’t accomplish,” Muldowney said. “She claimed in a press release that she was the top woman in drag racing. She hasn’t won a thing and I’d won 17 nationals at the time.”

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This season, Johns, 23, is sixth with 8,524 points and Muldowney ninth with 7,396 after 18 of the 19 rounds in the Winston series.

“And I’ll never forget this last thing,” Muldowney said. “I know we did poorly at Indy, but I don’t like having my nose rubbed in it.”

The next race was the Keystone Nationals, in Mahnton, Pa.

“Rohn (Tobler, her husband and crew chief) and the guys were at the bottom, but we wouldn’t have missed that race for the world. We were steaming, and when we got there we ran 4.97 right out of the box and backed it up for a national record.”

In the quarterfinal round, she lost to Amato in the quickest side-by-side race in history, 4.967 seconds to 4.975. It was also the fastest run in her career, 287.81 m.p.h.

“I’ve never been this excited at a drag race, after losing,” she said. “This is history, and I’m a part of it.”

Another incident, she said, stimulated her before her comeback victory Oct. 15 in Arizona.

“One of the guys, who I choose not to identify, was out of it but he wandered out to the starting line and got in my vision. I knew he was trying to bug me, but it only made me concentrate more. If guys think they can get to me that way, they’re sadly mistaken. It only makes me try harder.”

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The result was her winning run against Gwynn, ending a six-year losing stretch.

It doesn’t pay to get the lady mad.

One of the fascinating facets of Muldowney’s season was her employment of her one-time archrival, Garlits, as a consultant.

Garlits, who has not raced since an accident more than two years ago in Spokane, Wash., joined Tobler and the Performance Automotive Wholesale crew in Atlanta before the Southern Nationals in April.

“Garlits definitely helped us on the road back,” Muldowney said. “It was a team deal. We all put our heads together and took our ideas, and his ideas, and came up with a combination of everything.

“Overall, he made a lot of contributions, but at Phoenix it was pretty much our combo. Garlits wasn’t there, but we had some of his ideas incorporated into what we dialed in.”

As a thank-you for Garlits’ input, the team put him in Shirley’s car at Dallas for a try at the Cragar 4-Second Club membership. Big Daddy came close, 5.07 seconds and 287.81 m.p.h., the quickest and fastest runs of his legendary career even though he missed the 4-Second Club.

“The track (condition) wasn’t there for him,” Muldowney said. “I have no doubt he would have run a 4 if conditions were right. The car wasn’t built for him, and he had it right on the ragged edge. I think he did a masterful job.”

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Garlits, who will be at Pomona this week, working with the Diamond P television crew, said he felt he got as much from working with Muldowney’s crew as it did from him.

“Things are changing so much, I couldn’t believe how electronics and things like that have progressed in two years,” Garlits said from his drag racing museum in Ocala, Fla. “Making that run was absolutely phenomenal. That 5.07 was a full two-tenths quicker that I’d ever run and 287 was 12 miles faster. It was a lot of fun.

“As far as my contribution to what Shirley did, it was mostly toward conservation of the parts. Her boys know how to make her go fast, but it seemed it was always blowing a head gasket or something like that. I gave them more of a conservative approach.”

Garlits still harbors thoughts of coming back to the top-fuel wars.

“I’ve got all the parts I need to build a car right here. If I can get some sponsorship money, I’ll build a car and come to Pomona (for the Winternationals in February).

“I’d still like to take another shot at four seconds.”

The speeds approaching 300 m.p.h. that Muldowney hopes to attain in her top-fuel dragster will pale alongside what she achieved last year at Seattle, where she flew in a Blue Angels F-18 jet at 650 m.p.h.

“I don’t like to fly, especially commercial planes, but when I was invited to go up with Lt. Doug McClain, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “My word, how could I turn down a chance to fly an aircraft that cost $18 million?

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“It was an experience like I never thought existed. Nothing in driving a race car can compare with it. It’s as far removed as black is from white. Any race driver who tells you that the two can be compared is pulling your leg.

“The G forces (pressure on the body caused by acceleration) were incredible. I really concentrated in our briefing session because if you don’t keep yourself together, it will black you out in an instant. I was up for an hour and when Lt. McClain told me to take the controls, I was able to stretch it out and bank it, but when he said to roll it, I told him I couldn’t do it. Just taking hold of the controls made me a little queasy.

“The wildest part of the hour was when we took off. We pulled off, maybe no more than 50 feet off the ground when suddenly we headed straight up. All the way to 40,000 feet. It was the most unbelievable pressure I ever felt in my life.

“When you hear someone say something was breathtaking, now that was it. No race car in the world can do that to you.”

Muldowney has won twice at Pomona, in the 1980 and 1983 Winternationals.

“I like the Pomona track,” she said. “I can’t tell you exactly why, but there’s something about it that is special. Of course, if you win in the spring, it gets the year off to a fabulous start for you, your crew, your sponsors and everybody. And if you win the fall race, it gives you and your crew a good feeling through the off-season and gives you a lift in getting ready for next year.

“The track is a little short (in the run-off area), but overall, the people at NHRA have become masterful at preparing the track. It’s certainly one of the best we run on.”

This will be Muldowney’s last race of a four-year sponsorship and although she has a new car on order from Al Swindahl, who built her current model, she says she needs $1 million to run the NHRA’s 19-race schedule.

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“We have so much to offer, we can’t stop now,” she said. “With a new car, and the engines running the way they are, I don’t think that fourth world championship is out of sight.”

She’s not in the running this year but is rooting for Gary Ormsby to win his first top-fuel championship against two-time champion Amato. Ormsby holds a narrow lead, 13,828 points to 13,258.

“Joe (Amato) is a good friend of mine, but from a selfish standpoint I’ll be rooting for Ormsby because I want Garlits and I to still be the only three-time champions.”

The left foot, which Muldowney almost lost, still bothers her almost constantly. She can walk only short distances and fights to keep from limping.

“There is a bone in the ankle that actually is moving around,” she said. “It can’t be fused, or pinned. It just floats around, and when my ankle is at certain angles, the pain is almost unbearable.”

She used to say when she was recuperating and she and Tobler were engaged, that she would never get married until she could walk down the aisle in high-heeled shoes. But she finally changed her mind.

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“I wore black bedroom slippers,” she said.

She hasn’t lost that urge for high heels, however.

“I love to go into shoe stores and try on high heels,” she said. “When the clerk asks me if I want to walk around to see if I want them, I say, ‘No thanks, I’m just looking.’ ”

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