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Back in the Pink

Still Racing After All These Years, Muldowney, 60, Is Revved Up About Her First Race in California in Nine Years

November 09, 2000|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Melanie Troxel, who lost in the final round for top-fuel dragsters in last week's National Hot Rod Assn. event in Dallas, was 5 years old when Shirley Muldowney won the first of her three NHRA championships.

The two of them, Troxel, 28, and Muldowney, who turned 60 on June 19, will be on the starting line today when qualifying begins for the 36th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway.

It has been nine years since Muldowney raced at Pomona, or anywhere in California, and six since she pulled up stakes after the Northridge earthquake in 1994 and returned to Mount Clemens, Mich.

She may be 60, a contemporary of the long-retired Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme and Gary Beck, but Muldowney is as feisty and competitive as she was in the '70s, when she stunned the male-dominated hot-rod set with lightning-like reflexes and a steely determination to win.

"I can't wait to get back to Pomona and see all my friends from Southern California," she said after arriving here with husband-crew chief Rahn Tobler and their pink top-fuel dragster. "I've been looking forward to it ever since we found a sponsor that wanted us to race here."

Ashley Power, 15, a high school sophomore from Studio City, is Shirley's latest financial angel. Power is president and founder of Goosehead.com, a Web site for teenage girls that attracts as many as 350,000 hits a day.

"You never know when you'll hit on the right nerve," Muldowney said. "Pat Galvin worked on my crew in 1982 when we beat Connie [Kalitta] and won [the U.S. Nationals] at Indy. Today, Pat is a partner in Ashley's operation and he brought us together.

"We had a week open from our match-race schedule during the Nationals on Labor Day weekend and Goosehead.com sponsored our car. When Ashley and her investors--Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, was one of them--saw the excitement in the crowd when we got to the line, she decided to bring us to Pomona so we could race the Finals in her hometown."

Muldowney had driven in only three International Hot Rod Assn. events this season, but proved she was ready for the higher profile NHRA by defeating 1999 Winston top-fuel champion Tony Schumacher in a pair of match races at Cordova, Ill., a week before the U.S. Nationals.

"It was a slow track--we ran 319 [mph] in the 4.70s [seconds elapsed time]--but it was a very demanding track," she said. "After that, we felt we were ready for Indy."

In the Nationals, her first NHRA competition since the 1992 Winston finals at Pomona where she failed to qualify, Muldowney qualified 16th in a 16-car field.

"We were on the bubble, but we made it," she said with a smile. She qualified with a 4.799 at 309.42 mph.

As luck would have it, the No. 1 qualifier and her first-round opponent was Doug Kalitta, nephew of team owner and crew chief Connie Kalitta, once Muldowney's steady companion as well as crew chief.

"Don't count me short," warned Muldowney in a post-qualifying interview. "I've been here before. Anything can happen."

It almost did.

In what observers called the most exciting side-by-side race of the finals, Muldowney pulled away from Kalitta off the line and appeared headed for an upset win, only to have the front of her dragster lift off the ground near mid-track.

"Doug had smoked his tires and we had him before we had a giant wheelstand," Muldowney said. "When I recovered, we broke a spindle when the front end hit the ground and lost a front wheel."

She had no control over the skittish machine and when it crossed the center line, it was an automatic victory for Kalitta.

"It was too bad we had to end up like that, but the crowd reaction was just tremendous," Muldowney said. "We had a great weekend and a lot of fun, and it was a lot of fun for Ashley and her friends too."

Enough for them to sponsor the Goosehead.com dragster--a 1996 model Al Swindahl chassis updated to 2000 specs by Murf McKinney--this weekend at Pomona.

It may be a tough road for Muldowney, since a near-record 28 cars have filed top-fuel entries and only 16 will be around on Sunday. Other female entrants include Troxel, whose 326.08-mph qualifying run at Dallas is the fastest of the season, and Rhonda Hartman-Smith.

Muldowney has won three times in the NHRA finals, in 1976 and 1978 at Ontario Motor Speedway and 1983 at Orange County Raceway in Irvine. She has also won twice at Pomona, in the 1980 and 1983 Winternationals.

Between 1985 and 1994, she and Rahn lived in Northridge.

"We loved our house in the Valley, but after the earthquake--we were sitting right on the epicenter--we couldn't get out of there fast enough," she said. "We slept in our truck for six weeks, we were so scared."

Although her racing equipment survived the shaking, she lost nearly all of her china, a 16-piece crystal set and a lot of knickknacks.

"We thought about it later and Rahn said, 'When was the last time we had 16 people over to use your crystal?' and we got a good laugh out of it," she said. "We had moved here after the accident."

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