Golden Shifter, Golden Era & Golden Heart

Anyone who witnessed Vaughn in her heyday as Miss Hurst Golden Shifter might not have appreciated how willing she was to place herself in harm’s way. She stood seemingly effortlessly, usually in heels, on a custom-built platform mounted on the back of a convertible. She smiled, waved at the crowds and blew kisses to fans all from the rather small stand as she clung to a massively tall replica of the Hurst shifter that towered above her twice her height.

And around a race track she would glide on the back of the car, as if she were on a parade float —only one sailing along much faster and trickier. If this marketer/product promoter were frightened, she never looked it. She was the epitome of grace and poise, not to mention the fashion hit of any racing weekend in outfits she described once as “sexy but not sexual.”

More times than she probably can remember, Vaughn had to convince idle talkers that she and some racer didn’t have, as she put it, “something going” or that she truly loved motorsports and people. But those who knew Vaughn never wondered. Her love for her colleagues was as legendary as her outward appearance.

For example, in March 1970, she hustled about 150 miles to Los Angeles Int’l Airport at 3:40 a.m. to wait with Tom Lemmons, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ crew chief, at a passenger gate. Set to arrive was Pat Garlits, who had flown overnight from Florida to be beside her husband in the intensive-care unit of a Southern California hospital.

Garlits had suffered a broken leg and had a portion of his foot sliced away in a nasty accident at Lions Drag Strip, near Long Beach. She was there to support her friends in their times of deepest need.

That personality shone through in her ready smile — and a manner about her that’s sweet Dolly Parton, playful Goldie Hawn and captivating Farrah Fawcett rolled into one. It’s why she was almost as popular with the U.S. troops as Bob Hope. She represented Hurst’s Armed Forces Club during  two trips to Vietnam and  visits to military hospitals in Okinawa, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

From those appearances, Vaughn received as many as 1,000 fan letters per week. It’s why she got a 10-page spread in Sports Illustrated magazine in 1984, something racing immortal A.J. Foyt never got — and noticed. “I won Indy four times and I didn’t get a 10-page story in Sports Illustrated! I don’t know what you’ve got, but you’ve got it,” Foyt told her.

Hollywood loved her, too, casting her in the movies “Stroker Ace” (1983) and “Gumball Rally” (1976). SEMA named her “Person of the Year” in 1979, and she received an “Ollie” at the prestigious Car Craft Magazine All-Star Drag Racing Team Awards.

Vaughn always has “had it.” Many wanted it, but she has handled herself with Southern charm: “I’ve been hit on a few times. Nothing wrong with that. I like looking sexy and I appreciate being appreciated as a woman, but I would never overstep my boundaries. It’s how you handle yourself, and I handle it with grace and finesse. I’ve very rarely had anyone who wasn’t nice when I said no, because I have a way of saying no that was taught to me by my mother.

“It’s a compliment to be hit on. I’m flattered, but if they’re not a gentleman, not classy, I can definitely hit back.” Then she laughed that pudding-soft giggle of hers that kept it a mystery whether she would slug such a cad.

As glamorous and adventurous as her life and career have been, it hasn’t been that way every moment. She spent far too many hours wrangling with lawyers and legalese to claim her pension after the Hurst company changed hands. And she had a heart attack in 2016.

But Vaughn is going strong. She did say to her mother that she can’t help but want to be like Jimmy Newberry’s ’57 Chevy.

“When I’m gone and people think about me or read about me, I want to be remembered like that ’57 Chevrolet, a real classic,” she said. “I love this industry and this sport, and love is forever. They have been my life. So I want to be remembered as a classic.”