Sign up for our free newsletter
On Labor Day, Bunny Burkett, the hottest 53-year-old grandmother the sport of drag racing has ever known, won her division at the Fall Funny Car Classic at Beaver Springs Dragway. If she never raced again, a scene of Burkett in the winner’s circle at that particular Pennsylvania track would have given her incredible career the kind of ending Hollywood loves.
But she’ll race again. And again. And again.
“Until I die, probably,” says the Sterling resident. “I can’t find a good reason why I’d quit.”
If she hasn’t found one yet, it’s not likely one will pop up anytime soon.
She was born Carolyn Ruth Hartman in 1945 in Franklin, W.Va., a Shenandoah Valley mill town about three hours from D.C. Her family was poor and dysfunctionalJerry Springer dysfunctional.
“I never knew my father. Momma, bless her, drank like a sailor and cussed like a soldier,” Burkett says. “When I was young, a big night out for me was to sit in the car in the parking lot of a bar while she was inside drinking. I just looked at the mountains and hoped that someday I’d see the other side of ’em.”
She finally got to see the other side in 1960, when the Franklin mill closed down, and Burkett’s stepfather took the family with him to Chantilly, Va., a relative boom town at the time with the coming of Dulles Airport. Young Ruthie got up each morning at 3 o’clock to cook and clean for the construction workers at a boardinghouse, and though she was a beauty, her far richer, far more carefree classmates at Leesburg High did all they could to make the transplanted mountaineer feel like an outcast.
“Before my family moved from the hills, we got all our water from the spring after the cows were done walking through it, and I’d never had an inside toilet, and all of a sudden I’m going to school with all these rich kids from the horse country of Leesburg,” she says. “If I didn’t know that I didn’t fit in, they would have told me. But I knew.”
Her schedule was too hectic even for dreaming, but her ticket out came when a boardinghouse tenant, who worked at the Chantilly stone quarry, asked her on a date to watch a drag race. Though the suitor was several years her senior, she jumped at the invitation. She’d never been to a real racetrack before. In fact, she’d never been anywhere before.
“I was only 15 when this guy takes me to Manassas to watch drag racing,” Burkett says. “It was love at first sight on two counts. I immediately fell in love with the guy, and with drag racing.”
Within months, she’d married the man who had introduced her to dragging, Mo Burkett, and quit school. He kept his job and gave her the moral and financial support to take up a racing career. Today, 37 years later, he still works at the quarry and takes her to racetracks. And she’s still crazy in love with her man and her sport. Only now, they’re much more than fans: He’s the chief mechanic of a racing team; she’s one of the biggest draws in drag racing.
Her first professional quarter-mile came in 1965 at Old Dominion Speedwaythe same track where she and Mo had their first date. A brief snag in the couple’s shared dragging dreams came shortly thereafter, when a motorist rear-ended the Mustang that served as both the fledgling Burkett family’s mode of transportation and her race car. But, as she would do again and again in her career, Burkett turned that lemon into lemonade.
“I had children, and I needed money to get a car, and I needed it fast,” she says. “And for a young girl without any education, there weren’t many options. I got a job as a bunny in the Playboy Club in Baltimore. I’d do it all again. I didn’t do anything I’m ashamed of there.”
With the cash she’d earned after a year of showing off her assets, Burkett bought a brand-new 1967 Mustang and got back into dragging. In her first trip back after the Playboy stint, a crew member familiar with her recent past graffitied the windshield with “Lead Foot Bunny.” The nickname stuck, and in a world where tough guys had always been the rule, Burkett’s looks and charm made her a legend in less time than it took other drivers to get down the track.
She wasn’t too shabby behind the wheel, either. Gradually moving up the ranks year after year, Burkett won the world alcohol funny-car championship of the International Hot Rod Association in 1986. Only one other woman has ever been awarded a world title: Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, a top fuel specialist who went on to be the protagonist of a Hollywood feature film, Heart Like a Wheel.
Not that Muldowney, whose racing team never lacked for big-bucks sponsorship, had it easy, but Burkett’s career seems packed with more melodrama. Especially when you factor in the events that transpired three years ago over the Labor Day weekend during the 1995 Fall Funny Car Classic at Beaver Springs: At the end of a preliminary heat, a wayward opponent crossed into Burkett’s lane, clipping her Dodge Avenger and sending it out of control at more than 200 mph. Because a track’s owners are legally liable for the well-being of spectators, but not drivers, the track’s guard rails didn’t extend past the finish line. So Burkett’s auto careened at full speed into a thicket of trees that adjoined the strip, taking her along for the hellish ride.
A few seconds and several trees after losing control, what was left of Burkett and her car came to rest in a ditch they’d just created. There were so many broken bonesvertebrae, arms, legs, fingers, skulland ruptured innards that doctors told Burkett’s relatives to pray for her lifeand to forget about her career. Then, as now, her midsection was paralyzed, meaning control over some basic bodily functions has been permanently lost.
But just 18 months after the injury, Burkett climbed back into the cockpit of a car paid for by fans and friends, and got back to the business of racing.
“When you see somebody who has suffered the type of spinal-cord injury she suffered, their recovery is largely dependent on their attitude,” says Dr. William Lauerman, chief of spinal surgery at Georgetown University Hospital, who performed the second of two post-crash spinal operations on Burkett. “Bunny has the perfect attitude. The day before I’d met her, I’d have said her chances of racing again were maybe 1 percent. After I met her, I knew different. She was so positive, so unique, unlike anybody I’ve ever met.”
Her medical bills, more than the injuries, will keep her from racing at a world-championship level ever again. Even so, many track owners realize what a draw she is and pay Burkett just to show up while other drivers have to earn their money quarter-mile by quarter-mile. As long as she can afford it, she’s going to keep dragging.
She is willing to admit that the crash left her skittish about the combination of speed and churning rubber for the first time in her life. But two weeks ago, in Beaver Springs, she chased away all the demons. Running over the very same lane of the very same track where she’d nearly become intimate with the grim reaper, Burkett got re-acquainted with victory. After her run was done, fans brought twisted pieces of steel they’d taken from the wreckage and saved since 1995, and asked her to autograph them. While her crew mates looked on disapprovingly, Burkett obliged with a smile.
“If a fan brought a foul ball to a baseball player, he’d sign it, wouldn’t he? That’s the way I looked at it. My car parts were special enough to these people that they held on to them, so it was the least I could do,” she says.Dave McKenna
Bunny Burkett will ride at the Seventh Annual President’s Cup Nationals at Maryland International Raceway, Budds Creek, Sept. 25-27. For more information, call (301) 449-RACE.