Great Race: 1975 U.S. Nationals
by Phil Burgess
On Sept. 20, 1973, Billy Jean King walked all over the late Bobby Riggs in a "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match before a Houston Astrodome crowd of 30,472 spectators and an estimated 50 million television viewers.
Less than three weeks shy of the second anniversary of that well-publicized boost for women's rights, drag racing had its own highly publicized version when Shirley Muldowney, the sport's best-known woman, faced off against its then undisputed king, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, in the final round of the season's biggest race, the U.S. Nationals.
The 1975 edition of "the Big Go" concluded with this titanic showdown between the man who at year's end would become the first NHRA Winston Top Fuel champ in history and the woman who eventually would be a three-time champion, bringing a memorable end to an event that was dogged by rain in the four preliminary days.
Garlits defeated Muldowney to capture his fourth U.S. Nationals title with a barrage of nine five-second runs to take his 14th national event title and move nearly 1,000 points ahead of defending season champion Gary Beck.
The final was Muldowney's second that season, after having been runner-up to Marvin Graham at the Springnationals, and her Connie Kalitta-tuned English Leather entry clicked off a best of 5.99 and a string of consistent 6.0s in her march to the final round.
Garlits had earned lane choice based on his quicker semifinal-round clocking (5.89 to Muldowney's 6.09) and motored to a stout 5.93, 242.58-mph winning effort against Muldowney's traction-plagued 6.44 at 191.08 mph.
Top Fuel qualifying, led by Beck at 5.86, was marred by a spectacular crash during a last-ditch attempt by veteran Dick LaHaie, who had just recently returned to driving after an accident at the Gatornationals in March.
At the conclusion of a 6.16, 236.84-mph pass, LaHaie's car made a violent right turn and flipped into the guardrail right behind qualifying opponent Jim Murphy, then did a series of flips.
Although the car was completely destroyed, LaHaie came out of the accident with a broken arm and badly cut toe in what were the only injuries at the 21st U.S. Nationals.
The Funny Car final also featured a super showdown as the class' two top drivers, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme and Raymond Beadle, squared off for top flop honors.
Prudhomme, at the wheel of his famed U.S. Army Monza, already had won the Winternationals, Gatornationals, Springnationals, and Le Grandnational, missing only at the Summernationals. Prudhomme had beaten Beadle, whose best years with his fabled Blue Max entry were still four years away, in the final of the Springnationals.
Prudhomme came into the event hot off an impressive victory at the prestigious Popular Hot Rodding Championships, where he had had run back-to-back 6.12s — quicker than the 6.16 national record then held by Dale Pulde — making "the Snake" much more than a big favorite to not only win but reset the record in Indy.
Pulde's record was broken at the U.S. Nationals, but it was Beadle, not Prudhomme, who did the breaking. Hot off his own match race successes and a string of 6.20s in the Southeast, Beadle piloted Harry Schmidt's Blue Max Mustang II to a 6.14 in qualifying to steal the No. 1 spot from Prudhomme's 6.17. The bump spot was a record 6.42, held by Norm Wilcox in Roland Leong's Hawaiian entry.
Things seemed to tilt back into Prudhomme's favor when he opened eliminations with a 6.16 and Beadle ran just 6.23, then followed with a second-round 6.21 to Beadle's 6.31, but shifted back the other way when "the Snake" lost final-round lane choice.
The track had turned tricky for the semi's, and Prudhomme could muster just a 6.42 in besting Bob Pickett, and Beadle ran a 6.21 in trailering Lil' John Lombardo. Prudhomme did a masterful job in negotiating the inferior left lane in the final, but his 6.21 could not match Beadle's 6.16, allowing the Texan to capture his first national event title.
Wayne Gapp wheeled the awesome Gapp & Roush four-door Maverick to its third straight Pro Stock win of the season, riding a string of 8.80s to the Indianapolis Raceway Park winner's circle.
Wally Booth's slick AMC Hornet had unleashed low e.t. of the meet at 8.78 in qualifying but red-lighted against Gapp in the semi's, putting Gapp up against surprise finalist Richie Zul and his big-block Camaro.
Zul had been solidly in the 8.90s throughout eliminations, but his final-round 8.95 was no match for Gapp's steady 8.85.
Pro Comp featured the quickest field in history, and the title went to the class kingpin of the era, Dale Armstrong, who wheeled his tough Alcoholic Satellite BB/Funny Car through the 32-car field that sported a 7.09 bump. Armstrong successfully defended his 1974 Indy title by turning back Jeg Coughlin Sr. (2001 Pro Stock champ Jeg Jr. was a mere five years old) and his AA/DA blown-alcohol dragster in the final, 6.75 to 6.88.
The late great Don Carlton won the Comp shootout in his Pro Stock-style B/A Dodge Sport, and Division 3 standout Rick Barrett took Modified honors with his C/Gas Pinto. Veteran Jack Mullins scored in Super Stock with his SS/U Pontiac wagon, turning back the event's second female finalist, Judy Lilly, and Don McElroy scored his first major win in Stock.