A Friend For Life: Linda Sharp


Story By Steven Cole Smith • Photos By Kurt T. Eslick

You know how some people look better in a fire suit than others? I don’t mean hotter or more stylish, just more natural–like Nomex simply suits them.

Linda Sharp had that ability, which is fortunate because she spent a lot of her life zipping up her one-piece.

I noticed it when I met her more than 20 years ago at Talladega: She looked a lot more comfortable than most of the journalists there wearing new white Saab ensembles, many of whom had spent a lot of time inspecting their suited-up reflections in the mirror and taking what passed then for selfies.

Saab had gathered some 900s–turbos, non-turbos and V6s–and invited said journalists (among them a much younger David S. Wallens) to set some world speed and endurance records in the cars.

Linda had a lot of experience behind the wheel of race cars: with the SCCA, in various other club racing series, and in some pro series, like the IMSA Kelly American Challenge. She had been introduced to racing by her then-boyfriend, Jim Fitzgerald. Yes, the same Jim Fitzgerald who won the SCCA Runoffs, drove in the NASCAR Winston Cup, and helped Paul Newman get started in racing, eventually becoming the actor’s teammate.

Linda and I gravitated to each other. I was amazed at the breadth and width of her motorsports and production car knowledge, and being from Tennessee, I thought her Georgia-bred accent sounded like home. On track, we paired up as often as we could get away with it. We were told not to draft, but we did anyway, running nose to tail as we tried to get as much speed as possible out of the Saabs.

At one wonderful point, for an hour, we had identical cars and were running right at 160 mph. Drafting, we could hit 162.

I led for a while and kept trying different lines–high, low, high then low–looking at the speedometer for feedback. This line got us 163 on the back straight; that line got us 161. It might sound daring, but Talladega is such a nice track, and the Michelin-shod Saabs handled the 33-degree banking with aplomb.

Occasionally Linda and I would hear over the radio, in an invariably polite Swedish accent, “Cars4 and 5, kindly separate,” and we would, until we hit the back straight again, front and rear bumpers drawn together like magnets.

That’s when I knew I had a friend for life: Linda and her husband, Bob, who built engines for NASCAR teams, moved up to that list of people you can count on two hands that you know are kindred spirits. Their place on the list was bolstered when I learned that Bob and Linda, like me and my wife, couldn’t turn away a stray animal.

A few years later, Linda and I–along with a third journalist who never really got comfortable–were invited to run a two-race weekend at Lime Rock in the Neon Challenge series. Our Neons were painfully slow. We had one of the regular drivers test Linda’s car, and the driver came back and said, “Huh. Apparently there’s stock, which are our cars, and really stock, which are your cars.”

It was good to hear that we weren’t to blame. If we were right on the tail of Chrysler hotshoe Erich Heuschele’s Neon coming down the hill onto the front straight of Lime Rock, and then Erich ended up 150 feet ahead at the first turn–well, Linda and I were pretty confident in our ability to shift and floor the accelerator, so it had to be the cars.

So basically we raced against each other, seldom more than a few yards apart. At the end of the first race, Linda finished a car length ahead. For the first time in my life, I was beaten by a girl. Not that there weren’t millions of girls who could outdrive me, but it had never happened before. And as enlightened as I thought I was, it was a blow.

So onto the next race: Halfway through, Linda and I were side by side, and here came the lead pack to pass us. I gave them room on the left, and Linda gave them room on the right, but somebody still body-slammed Linda’s car, giving me about a hundred-foot lead on her.

I won that race, and she very generously told everyone then and since that we split the races. But if I was present, I corrected her: “You won the first race and got crashed out in the second one. Slow-talking, Southern-drawlin’ Linda Sharp is a better driver than me. Can kick my ass at will.”

Soon after that, Linda, who worked as a driving instructor and a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, started a dirt track magazine called Muddslinger. I wrote for it, and she and Bob paid me more than the stories were worth.

But not long after, Linda and Bob semi-retired to a farm outside Mount Airy, North Carolina, the town that Andy Griffith’s Mayberry was modeled after, where they took in even more stray animals. Linda and I emailed several times a weekend about racing, about politics, about dogs and cats.

One of her longest emails was uncharacteristically angry. It came after she watched “Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman,” the Adam Carolla-produced documentary. With Fitzgerald–who, of course, was killed in an awful crash in a Trans-Am race at St. Petersburg in 1987, a race that Paul Newman was also in–Linda was there for Newman’s racing career. She was upset about how many people in Carolla’s documentary talked about how close they were to the action when, as Linda wrote, “Paul never knew they existed.”

The last week of December, Linda went into the hospital for minor surgery. Something went wrong. On December 30, 2016, she died. That left Bob, the nicest guy in the world, a widower; a couple dozen dogs and cats and horses nobody else wanted without a benefactor; and hundreds of friends like me stunned and saddened and ready as hell to get 2016 over with.

You didn’t know Linda, but if you’re reading this magazine, you kind of did: She was somebody who, like you, fell under the spell of motorsports, never able to shake it. Rest in peace, Linda Sharp.

–Steven Cole Smith

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Comments
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Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
4/1/18 11:19 a.m.

She was a neat lady.

jburnash
jburnash New Reader
4/2/18 5:57 p.m.

She sounds really cool - I wish I had met her during my brief and inglorious seasons in SCCA Showroom stock.

 

I remember watching Paul Newman run from timing and scoring when I wasn't racing, so it must have been around that time.

 

Nicely written - thanks

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