Drag racing and the woman with the winning reflexes

Drag racing is a macho sport where you are considered timid if you don't burn rubber at the starting line or pour nitrometh-ane in your fuel tank, or if you take more than six seconds to go from zero to 245 m.p.h.

If your car's cockpit doesn't catch fire at least once during the racing season, you probably haven't been trying as hard as you should. The first thing you do when you enter this sport is buy yourself a set of flameproof coveralls.

Of course if I were to tell you that a driver who goes to the hairdresser regularly is the National Hot Rod Association's only three-time world champion and the winner of this year's Pomona Winter-nationals, you probably wouldn't believe me.

But it's true. Shirley Muldowney, a 5 ft. 4 in., 110-lb. dynamo, is just such a champion.

When Muldowney, whose pit crew includes her 25-year-old son, John, first got into dragsters, she was quickly put down by most male members of the sport as some crazy female looking for publicity.

But after 19 years in drag racing, Shirley has beaten her chief opposition a lot more often than they have beaten her.

Those who know Shirley best say that she is consistently the quickest driver away from the starting line - and that takes split-second timing.

Muldowney, 42, has been involved with souped-up cars since her former husband bought her a used 1940 Ford Coupe when she was 16.

Although the car came out of an old barn and cost only $40, the Muldowneys drew racing challenges from all over upstate New York once the car's original powerplant was yanked out and replaced with a new Cadillac engine.

When a driver the quality of Shirley puts the front wheels of her Top Fuel dragster (also called a dinger or a rail or a slingshot) on the starting line, it's the equivalent of showtime on Broadway.

The curtain goes up when the starting light flashes green, the black strip of macadam under the car is suddenly covered with smoke, and the grandstand begins to vibrate from the force of the engine's explosive power. Repeat business among racing spectators is high and there were more than 35,000 at this year's Winternationals.

Drag racing, if you can stand the noise, the smell, and the smoke, is a treat for the eyes. The cars themselves cost close to $100,000. They look a lot like giant insects with oversized wheels. Muldowney, whose sense of theater and crowd appeal has not been lost on promoters, drives a car that's painted shocking pink and has her name in huge letters on each side.

The idea is to equip your vehicle with a Top Fuel efficient engine that can make a car into a speeding bullet, at least for a quarter of a mile, which is drag racing's standard distance.

Unless you have a major sponsor or several minor ones who are willing to pick up the tab, you can go broke awfully fast, because even top prize money isn't enough to keep you in business. Tires last about as long as it takes to drive from Minneapolis to St. Paul. Fuel costs $34 a gallon, or about $240 per race. And after you've gone down the track three times, producing some 2,500 horsepower a trip, it's time to rebuild the engine.

The way you get into one of these cars is through a liftout panel in the roof. The area the driver sits in is made for someone about the size of ''Fantasy Island's'' Tattoo. For $100,000, you don't even get a clock on the dashboard, but you do get a rollbar that might save your life.

The steering wheel is shaped like a butterfly and, while the car has excellent brakes, what really stops it after crossing the finish line is a parachute that is built into the vehicle's tail section. The force that hits you when you accelerate to the floor, one driver told me, has the feel of someone grinding a hand the size of a breadboard into your chest.

The standard party line is that there is not much strategy in drag racing. What's needed is a super mechanic, who can create horsepower, and a super driver , who knows how to control it.

''Drag racing takes a light touch,'' Muldowney told reporters after winning the Winternationals. ''You're sitting on all this incredible power, but if you don't handle it right you can blow the whole thing. It's a sport in which reflexes count heavily.''

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