There’s an old comedian’s routine which joked that mankind would likely still be hunting mastodons with sharp sticks if man’s drive for impressing the fairer sex didn’t motivate him to “one-up” the guy standing next to him; and we’re akin to believe it. It’s not hard to imagine the Roman Legionnaire with the fastest chariot didn’t ride off into the sunset with his fair share of handmaidens. Alas, how the times have changed over the years. While we’re not bemoaning Woman’s Suffrage or the Woman’s Liberation Movement of the mid-to-late 1970’s, we do long for the days when flight attendants were called stewardess.
Although the National Hot Rod Association dates back to the mid-20th Century, it’s arguable that it’s Golden Era was during the mid-1960’s through the early 1970s, exactly the same period as the Big Three fought for street and strip dominance. Big money was being thrown around during these tentative years and it only made sense that with all of the fanfare and publicity some of that money would go into some added showmanship. Sponsors, manufacturers and even promoters were quick to enroll “trophy girls” and other so-called “Cheesecake” to “brighten up” the pits.
Most famous of these trophy girls, was Linda Vaughn. Who would eventually become known as “Ms. Golden Shifter,” Linda’s chapter in the history of drag racing began – humorously enough – as a dental technician. In 1961, she entered a contest put on by the Atlanta Raceway and won the title of Miss Atlanta Raceway. Visiting various race tracks in the south over several years, Linda noticed an ad looking for a new “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter.” Thus began Linda’s career representing Hurst Industries. In the mid-60’s, Linda – along with Don Garlits and Richard Petty – toured military bases in Vietnam to boost morale and wow the soldiers as the two racers raced up and down the tarmac.
Today, Linda has become as much a part in drag racing’s history as the drivers, builders and amazing machines that made it what it is. Linda still continues to make the occasional guest appearance, signing old headshots, Hurst promotional material, and other memorabilia (usually provided by the doting middle-aged man who remembers her photographs from their early teens).
“Jungle Jim” Liberman embodied this new spirit of showmanship during the early 1970’s, employing all sorts of tricks and gimmicks to guarantee the Pennsylvania funny car driver all sorts of media coverage. Liberman earned a significant portion of his fame for driving backwards at 100 mph after doing each burnout. The flamboyant showman, though, had one more trick up his sleeve, Pam Hardy. The tall, buxom brunette was hired to assist Jim as he prepared for each “flopper” funny car pass. After Jim’s notirous burnouts, she guided him back in the path using over-the-top gyrations and contortions.
Touring the country, Liberman and Hardy averaged an estimated 100 events per year during the 1970s. Liberman’s fame as a driver was galvanized as he notoriously refused to lift off when a run was completely out of shape. While “Jungle Jim” passed away prematurely in 1977, “Jungle Pam” has gone on to pen several memoirs of her raucous race years as well as attend several events with the likes of Linda Vaughn and Judy Lilly.
Now, not all of the beauties were stuck trackside. The IHRA and NHRA rosters were rife with female racers, but most were nowhere as notable as Spotsylvania, Virginia-native Carol “Bunny” Burkett. Bunny’s career is also one of the most storied and longest-running, becoming an IHRA World Champion, an NHRA Division II Champion, and the 1991 IHRA U.S. Open Nationals Champion in drag racing competition. Bunny’s career spans 30-plus years, starting with an E/S ’65 Mustang. A “sure-fire hit” with the media, Bunny’s charm, good-looks and talent earned her numerous interviews, personal displays, and celebrity appearances over the years.
Bunny has set numerous quarter- and eighth-mile world records and is the first and only female driver to win an NHRA National Event in Alcohol Funny Car competition. In September 1995, during her 31st season racing, Bunny experienced a near fatal accident where a fellow competitor rammed her car at over 200 mph. Bunny survived the impact and rebounded to continue racing for several years afterward. Bunny, today, is instrumental in promoting charitable causes and the needs of special-needs organizations.
Of all of the woman drag racers, there’s few who can stand up to the shadow cast by Shirley Muldowney. Born in Burlington, Vermont, Shirley was named the “First Lady of Drag Racing,” as she was the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to drive a top fuel dragster. She went on to win the NHRA Top Fuel championship in 1977, 1980 and 1982, becoming the first person to win two and three Top Fuel titles and walk away with 18 Wallys. In fact, Shirley was immortalized in the inexplicably-titled “Heart Like a Wheel” 1983 film starring Bonnie Bedelia.
In Bill McGuire’s biography, he retold how Shirley earned one of her more notorious nicknames. Given to her by Connie Kalitta when her fiery temper caused him to reply, “Cha-Cha-Cha,” hence naming her “Cha-Cha” during the 1970s. Shirley hated the nickname and later dropped it, saying, “There is no room for bimboism in drag racing.”
In 1984, a crash crushed her hands, pelvis, and legs, necessitating a series of operations and 18 months of therapy. Shirley returned to racing in the late ’80s, continuing to race without major sponsorship throughout the 1990s. She returned to the NHRA, until her retirement at the end of 2003.