The green lights flash on. The thunder of mighty 4,500-horsepower engines obliterates the roar of the crowd. For about five supercharged seconds, the earth shakes as two high-tech cannonballs accelerate side by side down a 440-yard track at speeds approaching 300 mph. In the intense world of high-stakes drag racing, victory and defeat are measured in just hundredths of a second. And, often, in a sport dominated by good ole boys with grease 'neath their nails, the winner's check is leaving in the manicured hands of Lori Johns, 24-year-old debutante and rich kid from Corpus Christi, Texas.

Johns is in her second season on the National Hot Rod Association tour, and by the middle of last month she had taken three victories, earned over $100,000 in prize money and ranked fourth among the 35 or so "top-fuel" dragsters. Last season, driving the best car her father's money could buy—Johns's racing budget (a corporate sponsor also contributes) is around $600,000 per annum—the 5'3" blond came in sixth. Many of her fellow racers are not happy about Johns's lack of dues paying. "Lori is more hype than anything else," says one of her severest critics, drag-racing legend Shirley Muldowney, 50. "She's a 2 who thinks she's a 10." Muldowney adds that she wishes Lori "would get some highlighter and fix her roots."

Johns, whose father, Terry, 47, made his money buying and selling used cars and trucks and now manages her career, is immune to the hostility from the veterans. She makes it clear that the skinned-knuckle crowd at the tracks is strictly competition and that she prefers the country-club set back home. "[Drag racing] isn't a popularity contest," snaps Lori, who for a short while attended Texas A & M. As for anyone who asks the inevitable "What's a young woman like you doing in this sort of sport?" Lori Johns has a terse, irrefutable answer: "Winning."