The Lightning Lady

The Lightning Lady

Photo credit: Tim Marrs – Car and Driver

Ford is looking to the future by reviving the Lightning name for its new electric pick-up. For me, the moniker brings up memories of the past, of a truck now two decades old, that I only ever saw from the back.

The little old lady from Pasadena didn’t drive a brand-new shiny super-stock Dodge, she drove a brand-new shiny Ford SVT Lightning. Also, she wasn’t from Pasadena. I think she was from Palmdale, or maybe Santa Clarita. Somewhere close enough that she could head out to the Los Angeles County Raceway (LACR) every Friday night and beat me in the bracket race.

I couldn’t even be mad. She was so nice about it. She’d walk down the staging lanes, smiling at everyone. I think she might have brought cookies on occasion. I was about 23 at the time, new to drag racing and running wholly on adrenaline and youthful feminism. Every Friday night I’d head out to (now defunct) LACR in my Dodge Challenger, and try to pick a fight. Line me up against a big man with a lopey Chevelle and a patronizing attitude and I was unbeatable. I had no defenses against a 60-year-old grandmother in a stock red pick-up.

Her name was Marie and beat me every time. She’d finish her friendly greetings of the racers, pull her helmet on over her tight-curled grey perm, and proceed to whip me. Me, and everyone else going for that night’s glossy gold sticker and six-inch tall trophy. Last time I checked, Marie had 11 of those plastic prizes.

I can’t remember exactly what year Marie’s Ford was, but it was a second-generation Lightning, made after the horsepower bump. So, 2001 or newer. She consistently ran a high 13-second quarter-mile, which at LACR was smoking-fast for a street car. That track was high in the mountains, and surrounded by sand, not all of which stayed off the racing surface. Hooking up and laying down any number quicker than a 14-second run on street tires was impressive.

“She used to beat James too,” Bernie Longjohn, former track manager for LACR, said. James was Marie’s husband. He also drove a Lightning, a white one. James and Marie were at the track almost every weekend in their matching pickups—except when it overlapped with a bingo tournament. I bet Marie was a killer there too. I could beat James, but never Marie. I’m not sure anyone could beat Marie. It wasn’t just that the Lightning was fast. She had a secret weapon. She stunned us with kindness, then flattened us with the supercharged V-8.

The Squires used to meet up at the track, James coming from work and Marie coming from home. She’d bring dinner, and they’d eat on their tailgates before getting in line to race. Any leftover desert found its way to other racers in the pits. How are you supposed to beat someone who just gave you a lemon bar? It’s Mark Donohue’s Unfair Advantage in action.

Playing mind games is a big part of any competitive sport. In drag racing, where a fraction of a second’s distraction can be the difference between going rounds and going home, drivers will fiddle around at the starting line, or talk a big game in the staging lanes to psych out their opponents. In the early days of racing, teams would fake a dead cylinder with a splash of oil in the header just before staging, hoping their opponent would let down their guard.

Marie never had to fake a wounded engine or brag about reaction times. All she had to do was walk by and pat my shoulder as I sat in the car—game face set, ready to kill—and say, “Hi honey, good luck tonight!” Then we’d line up, and I’d jump the start, or break out of my dial-in time, refusing to lift while the red truck was in view. I’d miss a shift, or spin the tires, or daydream right through the green light. She was a witch, and her Lightning was wicked, and I hope when I’m 60, I’m exactly like her.

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