As our popular series “A Generation of Heroes” comes to a close in this issue with the portraits and profiles of Jackie Stewart, Richard Petty, Stirling Moss, and Mario Andretti, I’m missing someone we were never able to catch, the one “great” who could spin a fine tale about all seventeen guys we’ve written about. It wasn’t for lack of us trying to get her; Linda Vaughn — Miss Hurst Golden Shifter for forty years — went to Indy as she has for the past forty-nine years but didn’t surface for her photo call.
It was a tough spring, and who could blame her for hiding out? She lost her friend Booper (Betty Drye, one of Carroll Shelby’s favorite girlfriends) in January and Grumpy Jenkins (legendary drag-racing innovator and “one of the few men with a key to my house”) in March. And then her old friend Carroll Shelby died.
All of this sadness piled on top of what was already a tough 2011 for Linda Vaughn. She suffered a frightening seizure, which was traced to a blocked artery. The cardiologist greeted her coming out of surgery with amazement: “And they’re real, too!” he exclaimed, talking of course about the glorious chest that launched hundreds of races over a career that has spanned more than fifty years.
If you can peel your eyes from that chest for a minute, you might be the first person who’s ever done so. I had my own face-to-famous-chest moment in 1981, and I can honestly say that none of our celebrated heroes affected me as forcefully upon first meeting as did Linda Vaughn. I had scored a press pass to my first Daytona 500. There was a little bleacher set up for the press in the winner’s circle. At the last second, Linda Vaughn climbed up next to me and started cheering as race winner Richard Petty wheeled in. She was stunning in person, just drop-dead beautiful, with a life force I had never experienced. I almost tumbled to the ground. “Miss Gratiot Auto Supply!” I blurted, branding myself as coming from Detroit, where her regional ad for the local auto-parts place ran continually during drag-racing season. “Aren’t you sweet!” she beamed. “Who are you?” When I told her, she said, “You tell David E. Davis that Linda said hi!”
I drove home from Daytona, and when I got back to Michigan a letter from Linda Vaughn was waiting on my desk. “Invite her to lunch when she comes for the next race,” my boss, David E., suggested. I was surprised by the idea but not as shocked as when she accepted. During a long, fabulous lunch, I asked her if she’d ever found lost jewelry in that “grand canyon.” (Yes, I asked her that.) Her laughter was pure honey. “You are so funny, Jean Lindamood!” she said. And that launched a friendship that’s lasted thirty-one years.
In August, Miss Linda’s friends threw her a tribute roast and fund-raiser days after her seventieth birthday to raise money for her and The Quarter Mile Foundation. The members of the drag-racing fraternity were highly represented in Lucas Oil Products owner Forrest Lucas’s party barn, from Hall of Famer Paul Candies to paralyzed Top Fueler Darrell Gwynn to wild man John Force. There was a room full of men and women who celebrated Linda’s dazzling warmth and uncanny ability to remember the names of even the smallest players in the motorsports arena, a gift far more enduring than her physical attributes, as everyone would attest.
It was a fine party, with the greatest jocularity provided by an onstage battle of wits between John Force and surprise guest Tony Stewart. Watch for a DVD of the proceedings to surface. Meanwhile, drop Linda Faye Vaughn a card, a photo, a check (!), and let her know how much we’ve loved racing’s greatest public-relations ambassador of all time: P.O. Box 9577, South Laguna, California 92677.