Bunny Burkett never dreamed she would enjoy another race weekend after her life flashed before her eyes on Labor Day, 1995. That day, Burkett was in an accident during a race in Beaver Springs, Pa., and for nearly a week afterward doctors gave her little chance to live.
But Burkett did live, and she returned to racing. Last weekend, at the President's Cup Nationals at Maryland International Raceway in Budds Creek, she had her best showing since the accident, advancing to the Alcohol Funny Car semifinals.
Not bad for a 55-year-old grandmother who, four years ago, was bumped off the track and into a wooded area while driving faster than 200 mph.
"I could tell you what wasn't broken easier than I could tell you what was," said Burkett, who has been racing since 1965. "They gave me no chance of ever walking again, and I wasn't going to be too smart again from a head injury. They didn't give me any indication that I would ever be able to drive anything else again, much less a race car. But 18 months later to the day, I was behind the wheel again."
Burkett stunned Jimmy Rector in the quarterfinals. Rector had posted the weekend's best run of 5.876 seconds and 238.51 mph in the previous round. In the semifinals, Burkett was defeated by five-hundredths of a second by Mark Thomas of Louisville, Ohio.
"I just didn't have enough horsepower to overcome his good run," Burkett said. "But I'm still practically speechless. [The weekend] was something special."
The three-day event, which drew a crowd of about 20,000, featured five professional divisions and eight amateur sportsman divisions. Von Smith of Oak Ridge, Tenn., defeated Thomas in the Alcohol Funny Car championship with a time of 5.929 seconds and a top speed of 238.01 mph. Other pro winners included Jay Turner of Whitset, N.C., in Harley Nitro; Chris Holbrook of Redford, Mich., in Pro Stock; Laurie Cannister of Clinton, Penn., in Super Eliminator; and Ed Hoover of Gilbert, S.C., in Pro Modified.
Burkett began racing at age 19 and won her first race the day after she purchased a 1964 Ford Mustang.
"That didn't go over too well at my local drag strip in Manassas, so I thought, 'Before I start a war, I'm going to play this the right way,' " she said. She decided to alternate races with her husband, and took care of her children while building a career. "I wheedled my way into [the racing community's] hearts as a mom with two kids at the racetrack who was also very efficient behind the wheel."
Burkett picked up the nickname "Bunny" more than 30 years ago, when she worked at a Playboy Bunny club to earn extra money to buy a 1967 Ford Mustang.
Burkett's weekend feat is more impressive considering the toll the accident took on her. Her accelerating ankle is held together by screws and a metal plate, making it difficult to pivot or arch, and most of the nerves in her back have been destroyed.
"She's a very gutsy person," Thomas said. "A lot of people wouldn't [have come back]. Most people would have just stayed home and laid on the couch. When you look at the crash and the nasty things that happened to her, it's been phenomenal."
Note: Charles County's Richard Smith advanced to the quarterfinals of the Top Dragster sportsman division.