Shirley Muldowney was sitting in a golf cart near the starting line when Big Daddy Don Garlits lined up Saturday for his first quarter-mile run of the Cragar/Weld Wheel Top Fuel Classic.
As the starting light blinked from amber to green, Garlits and Darrell Gwynn catapulted down the L.A. County Fairgrounds track in a deafening roar that no decibel counter could measure. In 5.48 seconds, Garlits had completed the 1,320 feet, and as the lights blinked at the finish line--266.11--Shirley turned to a friend and said, "Isn't he something else?"
Garlits, by posting 266.11, had officially elevated the National Hot Rod Assn. top fuel record to 268.01 m.p.h., a speed he attained last Thursday in the first qualifying round for today's $527,000 Winston World Finals. Saturday's speed was within 1% of 268.01, thus legalizing the faster speed.
Later, in the quieter atmosphere of the garage area, Muldowney lauded her old rival for his newest accomplishment.
"I love it," she said. "He has set a new standard for everybody else to shoot for. And I'll be one of those shooting at it next year."
What had been a euphoric week for Garlits ended abruptly late in the day when he was upset by Joe Amato of Old Forge, Pa., in the final round of the Cragar shootout.
"This has been my lucky track," Amato said. "It's been a long six months, and Garlits had taken just about everything I had away from me. I guess this was sort of like coming out of a slump."
Amato was the 1984 top fuel champion who was dethroned this season by Garlits, and he also was the world record-holder before Garlits' assault on the mark this week.
With 35,000 spectators, the largest Saturday crowd in World Finals history, looking on, Amato got off the line ahead of Garlits, and his quicker run of 5.51 seconds beat Garlits to the finish line, even though his speed of 255.10 was slower than Garlits' 261.76.
Amato collected $30,000, Garlits $6,000.
Garlits also lost the No. 1 top fuel qualifying position for today's World Finals when Gwynn, a 24-year-old rookie from Miami, went through the lights in 5.442 seconds. Garlits' best in four tries was 5.469.
Saturday was only the second time that Muldowney, a three-time world champion, had seen a drag race since she was injured in a 250 m.p.h. crash on June 29, 1984, near Montreal. She attended the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis last Labor Day but was confined to a wheelchair at the time.
"It was great being back around everyone today," she said. "I really enjoyed myself. The racing was clean and there were so many good side-by-side races. I love it the way the speeds have increased in two years. I think that's what the public enjoys talking about."
The fastest speed Muldowney ever recorded was 257.87 in the 1983 Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., when she beat Garlits for the championship.
"That was before (Indy car driver) Eldon Rasmussen designed the little rear wing that sits so high in the air," she said. "Joe (Amato) was the first to show it worked. He had a lot of backbone to try it before we really knew what might happen, but it's been worth about 10 miles extra speed. That's just part of the new technology that's come along since I last raced."
Muldowney, now 45, sat in a top fuel dragster last week for the first time since the accident in which both were feet were badly mangled. It was her 1983 model, sitting on the driveway of her West Coast home in Northridge.
"The '84 car was nothing but a box of junk after the boys (crew chief Rahn Tobler and son John Muldowney) picked up the pieces in Canada," she said. "I knew I had to sit in a car so I had Rahn get the '83 out of the garage. The minute I sat down, I felt I was ready to race next week.
"When I pushed my foot down and put some pressure on my toes and it didn't hurt, I said, 'Hey, Rahn, go get a motor so we can run this thing in the World Finals.' That was out of the question, of course, but that's how good I felt."
Her comeback hopes brightened when she obtained a new sponsor, Performance Automotive Wholesale, Inc., of Chatsworth, after her longtime sponsor, Pioneer Stereo, dropped out of racing.
"I ordered a new chassis from (drag car builder) Al Swindahl that will be ready next month," she said. "We have 90 days before the Winternationals next February. That's not much time, but after a few passes to get the feel back, and the right combinations, I expect to be competitive.
"I might not get it next year but I fully expect to win a fourth world championship. Right now all the guys I raced seem basically happy that I'm coming back. It may be a different story once we become one of the cars to beat again."
In today's 21st annual World Finals, Muldowney sees a wide open fight among the 16 finalists.
"In funny car, Don Prudhomme tops my list," she said. "I think it's time for his turn to come up."
Prudhomme qualified sixth at 5.775 as newly crowned champion Kenny Bernstein continued to dominate his class with a 5.618 clocking.