|The Lady Driver reaches the finish line|
By Alysse Minkoff
Special to Page 2
It's the final stop on Shirley Muldowney's 'Last Pass Tour;' and as the legendary drag racer prepares to warm her car's engine last Saturday for the final day of qualifying at Pomona Raceway -- the final day of qualifying, period, in her 42-year racing career -- we scramble for our earplugs. As soon as Rahn Tobler, her husband and crew chief, fires up the 2,100-pound, nitro-methane-fueled, 8,000-horsepower machine, you begin to understand how powerful this drag racer really is. Fumes fill the pit area. Our eyes tear and our bodies shudder from the sheer power of the engine.
There is nothing in the world quite like standing a foot away from the engine when it fires. Nothing even comes close. Drag racing is a multi-sensory experience. You see it. You taste it. Smell it. Feel it through your entire body. And despite earplugs and headphones, you hear it.
Shirley's legendary hot pink dragster -- vintage 1996 -- covers the quarter-mile track at 320 miles per hour. Not too shabby for a lady who carries an AARP card and whose hair always manages to look fabulous, even when she whips off her Bell helmet following a race.
In one of many bittersweet moments during this final weekend of drag racing's Shirley Muldowney Era, we walk together with Amy, her beloved miniature greyhound, through the grounds and among the other pit crews. The economics of scale in this sport are blazingly apparent here. As we pass Kenny Bernstein's candy-apple-red Budweiser truck, his Top Fuel dragster is parked on matching red carpet, with sponsorship logos blazing from every available surface. Even the seating area for Bernstein's invited guests is decorated with the kind of flourish that might make Martha Stewart swoon with envy.
It's a startling contrast to the unadorned look of Muldowney's equipment. Shirley claims to be unfazed by the money and the glamour (and the corporate politics) that literally fuel her competition, but the truth is that they've hastened her retirement.
"Listen, I love this sport," she says. "Mainly, it's the cost of it that drove me out. Look around here ... I'm a dying breed, and I don't know if that's a good terminology to use or not. Owner/drivers do not exist anymore. There are plenty of paid-in drivers -- drivers whose nails don't have an ounce of dirt under them. All these teams have 15 guys on them. I have one guy in my garage -- my husband -- and Tobler does the work of six or seven people. But that's why we only race six-to-eight races a year. What we do with what we have is the story."
Bernstein backs her up.
"If she'd had the kind of sponsorship and money that we had," he says, "She would have won hundreds of races. She's as good as it gets."
Muldowney is resolute about her decision to retire at 63, with very few regrets ... although it's clear as this final weekend unfolds that parting with the sport is going to be a sweet sorrow for her.
Tears suddenly well in her eyes. Then, just as quickly, she shrugs them off.
"Yeah, I've earned the right to cry, but I'm a hard-ass. I'll never let them see me sweat."
She changes the subject. Toughness is a big part of her makeup, and so is tenderness. You don't excel in this Man's Game for as long as Shirley Muldowney has by being a creampuff.
"Listen," she offers, "I didn't have to put up with all that chauvinism. I chose to put up with it. It wasn't ever really about changing the world -- it was always about the racing. I'm from the Old School, a street racer. I'm proud I've been able to make a living for all these years at what I love. Remember, that's 30 years in Top Fuel. I've really been drag racing 42 years, but 30 years has a nicer ring to it, doesn't it?"
There is a lot to remember about Shirley Muldowney. The wins, yes. But the strength, too -- the courage to speak her mind.
"If you look at this 'last pass,'" says John Force, an adorably-ebullient former competitor, "you have to look at the other million, too. Look, she's dedicated her entire life to this sport -- to beating up the (Don) Prudhommes and the Bernsteins -- and I think that's really cool. But the best part about Shirley is that she saw things the way they were and always spoke the truth. Consequences be damned. I sure wish I had a little more of that in me."
Later Saturday, it's Shirley's 'Last Pass' at the buffet line, too -- or, as crew member Darren Capps says, "It's the 'We Came To Eat Tour'." Seconds, anyone? While the crew eats, Shirley walks over to her fans, five-deep at the pit, to sign autographs. "One per!" she occasionally hollers, but she never fails to chat with a small child or pose for a photograph with a fan in a wheelchair.
"It's turkey and mashed potatoes, guys," she says. "And the cranberry sauce is excellent. Come on over and join us."
Like awestruck schoolboys looking at the Playmate of the Month, they follow three-time Top Fuel Champion Shirley Muldowney to the buffet line.
Shirley's pit crew is comprised of long-time friends. Former competitors. Sponsors, who not only write the big checks but also occasionally get their hands dirty with the work. And guys who just love racing.
South Carolinian Richard Jeske met Muldowney and Tobler in 1996. Now he does the 'hot and nasty' work of rebuilding the clutch after every race.
"You have to understand something," he says. "The best thing about the whole crew is that none of us have to be here. We do it for the love we have for Rahn and Shirley. They treat us probably better than anybody else treats their crew. We work hard. We do this with half the crew most people use. And we can still turn the car around in 75 minutes. Rahn is the best mechanic I've ever worked with."
On qualifying days, like Saturday, the crew ordinarily can be a bit relaxed -- lots of wisecracking, pranks and laughter. But today, it's clear that the Last Pass is every bit as poignant for them as it is for Shirley. As the wrenches fly, so do the stories.
It's inevitable: At the end, you remember the beginning.
Mike Ranney, who spends most of the weekend on his back under the car, recounts his first meeting with Shirley in 1993 when he was competing against her, racing Top Fuel with his Dad. His team blew a cylinder and lost; Shirley came over to their trailer to offer comfort -- and one of Rahn's legendary tune-ups -- to help get them pointed in the right direction. When Ranney's Dad died of an aneurysm in 1999, Rahn became a father figure to Mike; he's been with the crew ever since.
As the moment comes to tow the car out for the last qualifying pass of Shirley's career, crew member Johnny Look harkens back, too.
"I first started watching her on TV when I was nine years old," he says. "I always thought, 'One day, I'll come and work for her.' Darren introduced me to them in 1996, and I've been working for them ever since. A childhood dream come true."
Young, the heavy-metal guitar player, agrees as he pulls on a Hot Pink crew shirt: "Yes, this is every little boys dream."
ESPN2 has miked crewmember Donnie Couch for its telecast. As the crew pulls Shirley's car into position in the starting lane, he says to a national viewing audience, "Call Darren Capps, live, right now for racing reports. The cost of this call is $2 a minute -- Burn-outs extra." And he gives out Capps' cell-phone number.
They've lit her engine. As they're moving her into starting position, Capps' phone is ringing off the hook. And he's answering it! Shirley eventually has to steady the wheel with her knee and motion for him to get off the phone! All afternoon, the phone rings. And as soon as the fans stop calling Capps, the crew starts.
On Sunday, the 16 fastest drivers will be bracketed in tournament format. You race 'til you lose. Back in the pit, Rahn and the crew make more changes to the engine -- among them, a repair to a broken pinion that requires removal of the rear of the car. The pinion is sent out to be rebuilt, which means the car isn't put into the trailer until 11:15 on Saturday night.
Another 16-hour day has passed in a happy, well-fed blur.
And Muldowney is down to one day left in a career.
On Sunday morning, the crew is at the track by 7:00. Doughnuts. Coffee -- lots of it. The focus of the crew inevitably gives way to the emotions of the day. Donnie Couch pulls me aside. "I don't want to pull the Kleenex out, but it's pretty emotional," he says. "We've all been around her for a lot of years, and it didn't hit me until this morning that this is really over. But we're gonna go after it."
Emotions are kept in check ... at least as long as there is work to be done. Capps joins us, looks at the car and sighs. "We're gonna do what we do best, and that's race. You don't always have to be the quickest car to win. We're gonna go for the throat. Even if we were to run on adrenaline, we'd run 4.30's."
Before the race, all the drivers are introduced, and there is a special tribute to Shirley. On stage, she is handed a plaque from the Auto Club of Southern California (who sponsor the race) and pink roses and pink Cha Cha Commemorative PowerAde bottles. Then a Chevrolet representative presents her the keys to a brand new Trailblazer.
"I guess they must think that name Trailblazer has something to do with me," she says. "This is one of the nicest things anyone's ever given me."
I can tell she's overwhelmed by the outpouring of tributes and love and applause, but she shifts gears quickly and smoothly.
"Ready for the ride From Hell?" she says. She laughs as she hops into the Trailblazer and drives past the grandstands. Her dragster is already in the staging area, and it's time to get back to work.
But as she steps in to the cockpit, fans swarm her again for autographs. This is ... a moment. Can you imagine Shaq signing an autograph before a free throw in Game 7 of his last NBA Finals?
Shirley wins the hole shot and beats Romine to advance to the next round -- against sixth seed, Cory McClenathan. As she hops into a van for the ride back to the pits, she barks to a film crew, "C'mon, guys. I don't want to hitchhike back. Let's go!" And the van speeds back. The clock is running.
As Shirley repacks her parachutes, the car's pistons and rods are changed. The clutch rebuilt. The oil changed. The blower changed. The crew changes the exhaust manifold and then warms the car. While the team works like a swarm of happy bees, Shirley signs more autographs.
Rahn walks over to say, "This morning, when we warmed up the car, I thought, 'Is this going to be the last time?' I'm just happy she got a competitive run. She is in this race. She has just as good a chance of winning it as anybody out there."
The staging lights change, and she is off.
Thirty years of Top Fuel history come to a close, as Cory McClenathan becomes the last driver to beat Shirley Muldowney. But she does not go quietly. She posts the fastest reaction of all of the Top Fuel drivers on race day.
In the van, tears flowing, Rahn says, "I wish we could have given her a better horse to ride."
At the other end of the strip, past the finish line, Rahn jumps out of the van to embrace his wife. She says, "It's still a pretty nice car, huh?"
And the self-described hard-ass finally lets her emotional guard down. She lets the boys see her cry. And the boys are crying right back, including the boy who beat her.
"So you had to be the bad guy?," she says to McClenathan as she pulls him into a hug. "It's a good thing it was you. Out of everybody out here, you've always been a good person. I'm glad it was you."
Cory tells her how much he loves and appreciates her.
"This means so much to me. So much history. Where you came from. Making this sport safe. What a privilege."
As they tow Shirley back past the stands, watching her toss her gloves into the cheering crowd, the tears continue in the van.
Rahn is philosophical. "We've been the top car. We've been in the Final Rounds of 70 percent of our races. We've been the Top Dog. But ... I'm gonna miss my friends. That's where all the tears come from. That's the hardest part. I'm not going to get to hang out with these guys."
As the car is pulled into the pit, fans surround her. She stands on the drivers seat, hugging and talking to every single sobbing crew member in turn, looking into their eyes, telling them how much she appreciates them, loves them.
Now the champagne flows. Toasts are made, and tears give way to sweet laughter.
"Just for the record, I quit!" Capps yells. Rahn looks him straight in the eye and says, "Just for the record, you're off the team. But you still gotta take the awning down."
Donnie Couch stage-whispers, "Shirley is the only woman in the world who could make 20 grown men cry."
Shirley looks around at her team, and barks, "Turn in your shirts, guys." She takes a long beat, before this: "I'm selling them."
And finally, she heads into her trailer to get out of her fire suit.
"She really did her job out there today," Dana Kimmel, another crew member, sighs. "We were the ones who came up short."
It's time for the regrets. The What-If's. The Could-Have-Beens. The Utter Relief. And, of course, the food. Sponsors, old friends and enemies, drivers and owners all stop by for one last hug.
To the utter delight of her crush of fans, Shirley signs literally hundreds of autographs. She has the most exquisite penmanship since John Wooden, every signature an exercise in perfection. "I just should have had a shorter name," she chuckles.
At last, the food is put away. The tables are taken down. The tools are packed up. The hot pink dragster is wheeled into the truck one last time. Yet no one really wants to leave.
It's been a roller coaster of a four-day journey. As Jeske closes the trailer door, I noticed a sign on the back that reads: "For Sale. Complete Top Fuel Outfit. Inquire Within."
"I'll try to get somebody pointed in the right direction. I've massaged and nurtured this car and had it for a lot of years, and I don't want someone to tear it up."
In an odd bit of synchronicity, Rahn and Shirley met on the track at Pomona in 1977 when Connie Kalitta, then Shirley's paramour, hired Rahn to be Shirley's crew chief. Their first meeting was memorable. Shirley lost the race, came back to the truck and threw her helmet. It bounced; hit Rahn Tobler in the face and broke his nose. Blood was everywhere. It was his first day on the job.
How unbearably romantic.
On Dec. 1, Rahn Tobler will go back to work as crew chief for Connie Kalitta. Kalitta is thrilled to have Tobler on his team, but sad for what the sport is losing in Shirley.
"Our relationship has come full circle," Kalitta says. "She's excelled in a man's sport stronger than any other woman has. I know how much fun it is to drive that car. And I know she's going to miss that. I just love her. She's family."
In the trailer, sipping a cup of tea, Shirley looks at her husband and says, "No regrets. This life just suited me. I've always loved everything about this sport. I'm from the Old School -- I'm a Street Racer. Taking left turns does not appeal to me one bit. I'm lucky. Look how I did this -- where I've been and what I've done."
Rahn puts his arms around his wife and kisses her on the forehead.
"And now that it's ended, that's OK, too. I want to be remembered as a Lady Driver who won races. There's a lot of Lady Drivers out there, but being remembered as a Lady Driver who won races ... now that's really important to me."
Alysse Minkoff has written for Ladies Home Journal, Cigar Aficionado and MSNBC. She looks forward to her next nitro-methane fix at the Winternationals in Pomona in February. She can be reached at AGirlReporter@aol.com.