Dolly Parton. No doubt about it. If you were going to cast someone to play Bunny Burkett in a Hollywood movie about her life, Dolly would be your only choice.* Two legendary women, one that you’ve heard of, one that you probably haven’t.
Bunny and Dolly both grew up poor but proud in the mountains of Appalachia. Being smart, tough, hard-working, and ambitious, they both accomplished great things. And they share good looks, big hair, and, umm, certain other substantial assets.
You already know Dolly. Carol "Bunny" Burkett is one of the pioneering figures and most successful drivers in the history of drag racing. Last Wednesday, motor sports writer Jon Paulette and I interviewed her for an entry about her in the Encyclopedia of Virginia. (The article will appear late this year or in early 2010.)
Bunny Burkett, speaking to Jon Paulette and me, on Wednesday, 15 July 2009, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Photo by John Edwin Mason
When Bunny ran her first race--in 1964, at Old Dominion Dragstrip, in Manassas, Virginia--women drag racers were few and far between. Bunny told us that she and her husband Mo Burkett bought a bright red ‘64 1/2 Mustang on a Thursday and raced it on Friday. She won her very first race and never looked back, quickly emerging as the first truly competitive female drag racer on the east coast. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she established herself as one of the most popular drag racers in the country, traveling thousands of miles a year, from Canada to the Carolinas and from Nashville to Maine.
Bunny poses beside her second bright red Mustang, in the late '60s. Publicity photo courtesy of Bunny Burkett. (Click directly on any of the photos to see larger versions.)
Part of Bunny’s popularity stemmed from her participation in Tom "Smoker" Smith’s Miss Universe of Drag Racing tour. During the interview, Bunny remembered the tour with affection, calling it "a traveling circus." It was a hit with the fans, who liked the quality of the racing almost as much as the hot pants contests that the Miss Universe drivers participated in. "We would strut our stuff," Bunny said, and the crowds "would yell and clap and carry on...." Sounds exploitative, and it probably was. But drag racing is an expensive sport, and playing by Smith’s rules was one way that Bunny and the other women could stay in the game.
Bunny with the car that she raced in the Miss Universe of Drag Racing tour, in the late '60s and early '70s. It's the same car that's in the photo above. Publicity photo courtesy of Bunny Burkett.
By the mid-‘70s, Bunny was successful enough to move up to Funny Cars. In 1986, she was the International Hot Rod Association’s [IHRA] Alcohol Funny Car world champion, making her the first (and until 2008 she was the only) woman to win a championship in a Funny Car.
Bunny's championship-winning Plymouth Laser Funny Car, seen doing a burnout in '87. Publicity photo by Steve Bell, courtesy of Bunny Burkett.
Bunny blazed a trail that many women racers have since followed. The Ashley Force Hoods of the world owe her and other female pioneers, such as Shirley Muldowney, Shirley Shahan, and Paula Murphy a tremendous debt. Bunny said that male racers never tried to prevent her from racing because she was a woman. "I must have sneaked under the radar," she told us. "For whatever reason, I was just totally accepted." That doesn’t mean that the men were happy to lose to her, something that they’ve always done on a regular basis. They "fussed when they lost," kicking their cars and throwing their helmets for having been beaten by a "girl."
The sanctioning bodies, such as the National Hot Rod Association [NHRA], were less welcoming than the male racers. As late as 1972, the NHRA was still issuing a "Ladies Driver Permit" to female racers. There was no such thing, of course, as a "Gentlemens Driver Permit."
Jon Paulette holdinga copy of Bunny's NHRA Ladies Driver Permit. Photo by John Edwin Mason.
Bunny is certainly "the first lady of Funny Cars," but she won’t call herself the first lady of drag racing. That honor, she insists, belongs to Muldowney. By the time Bunny won her championship, in 1986, she said, Muldowney had "already opened the door. The door was not necessarily wide open, but I could slip through it."
In 1995, Bunny almost lost her life, during a race in Pennsylvania, when her opponent crossed into her lane, hit her car, and caused it to rocket off the track and into the woods at over 200 mph. Doctors told her that she’d never walk again, but, after 18 months of recovery and rehabilitation, she was back to racing her Funny Car. Since then she’s treated other setbacks, including two separate bouts of cancer, the same way she treated her injuries after the crash--with courage and determination.
Bunny and her Funny Car in action at Eastside Speedway, in Waynesboro, Virginia, on Easter Sunday, 2009. Photo by John Edwin Mason.
Bunny said that the crash "made me the person that I am today. That’s what made me strong." It’s an experience that she tries to share with her many fans, who still come to see her race, collect her autograph, and buy a souvenir or two. "It’s like I pass along power and encouragement and inspiration. That’s what all of this is about now."
Bunny Burkett, a legend on and off the track.
[* I’m by no means the first person to suggest that Dolly’s perfect for the part. That distinction probably goes to Christine Montgomery of the Washington Times.]