Drag racer Shirley Muldowney (born June 19, 1940) was the first woman to break through in that sport, making her virtually a household name in the 1970s on par with daredevil motorcycle jumper Evel Knievel.
Muldowney broke onto the scene in 1965 with a license to compete in the supercharged gasoline dragster category. To no surprise, a lot of people turned their noses up at a female competitor in this male-driven sport. That didn’t stop her. Not only did “Cha Cha” Muldowney go on to set a slew of world records, she also touted her femininity with a pink dragster. She endured a terrible crash in 1984 that could’ve ended her life, but not even that stopped her. After months of rehabilitation, she returned to the track to set a whole new range of world records until retiring from the sport in 2003.
Shirley Muldowney was the first woman of drag racing, a certifiably macho sport that entails placing a driver inside a specially constructed 20-plus-foot four-wheeled cage with an engine underneath. Speeds can reach 250 miles an hour. Within the National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel classification in which Muldowney achieved most of her wins, the car's engine is powered by nitromethane and is geared to burn out after a quarter-mile strip, the distance of a match. Her male competitors liked to assert the woman driver had an unfair advantage because of her weight, which hovered just above 100 pounds.
Buying and maintaining such vehicles is both expensive and risky, but more dangerous are the physical hazards that drag racing presents, and Muldowney came close to becoming a martyr for the sport in 1984 when she endured a horrible accident out on the track. When the tube in one of her front tires snapped, it sent her into a tailspin, breaking several bones throughout her body. Undaunted, she returned to the sport two years later.
Muldowney inherited her challenging nature from her father, a former prizefighter. She was born in 1940 to Belgium "Tex Rock" Benedict Roque, a cab driver; her mother Mae worked in a laundry in Schenectady, New York, where she and her older sister grew up.
When Muldowney, who was small for her age, became the victim of schoolyard bullies, her father instructed her: "Here's what you do: You pick up a board, you pick up a pipe, you pick up a brick, and you part their hair with it," Mae Muldowney recalled in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Sam Moses.
The toughness ingrained in Shirley by her father turned to rebelliousness in her teenage years; she would regularly sneak out of the house in her pajamas to attend informal drag racing heats with her boyfriend, Jack Muldowney.
At the age of 16—the year she started to drive as well—Muldowney married her boyfriend and quit school. A son, John, followed two years later. During this period, she began drag racing herself in a 1940 Ford her husband had fitted with a Cadillac engine. "I'd say the first time I ever took my life in my own hands and got away with it was when I really appreciated what I thought I was capable of," she told Moses.
She and her husband entered drag racing competitions for fun, first with stock cars and later the Funny Car, another classification in the NHRA denoting a fiber-glass body. "I went racing because I didn't dig having the cleanest wash on the block," she told Bruce Newman in Sports Illustrated. "After a few years, Jack couldn't bring himself to tour anymore. So one night, I just put my Funny Car on the trailer and left."
In 1971, Muldowney met Connie Kalitta, a racer and race-car builder. It was the start of a tempestuous seven-year relationship which culminated in Muldowney winning the 1977 National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel championship after her last competitor of the day couldn't start his car; by then she had switched over to the more risky Top Fuel division.
Muldowney and Kalitta would also race together, and she was billed as "Cha Cha" Muldowney, which she quickly dropped after the romantic and professional partnership ended, admitting later that she always hated the nickname. During this decade she became one of the most popular drivers on the circuit—with the fans. Her hot pink car, pink cowboy boots, and diminutive stature attracted mostly positive attention, but her son John (who became a member of her crew when he was in his early teens) did assault a male heckler once; the police took John and Muldowney's mechanic, Rahn Tobler, away in handcuffs.
"Shirley, crying, had to use volunteers to rebuild her motor for the semifinal," recalled Moses in Sports Illustrated. She won the race. "I do not rattle on the line," she said of that day. "I simply do not rattle."
Her son had joined her team in part because Muldowney had a difficult time putting together a crew. "I always got the mechanics that nobody else wanted because it was 'degrading to work for the broad,’” she told Moses.
Eventually, Rahn Tobler, who had been named Mechanic of the Year by one of the race-sponsoring companies, joined her crew and became her head mechanic. Chauvinistic attitudes prevailed in other areas as well. Muldowney found it nearly impossible to attract a sponsor for a time until she began taking home first-place trophies, and her fellow drivers both respected and derided her. "That's why I paint that racecar pink," she explained to Sports Illustrated in 1981. "It isn't just to rub them, but if it does, fine. That's the way I feel."
By 1983, Muldowney had won three National Hot Rod Association championships and 17 other national competitions. That same year, Heart Like a Wheel, a film biography of her life through 1977, debuted. Actress Bonnie Bedelia received an Academy Award nomination for her performance; Beau Bridges played Connie Kalitta. Her rivals on the Top Fuel circuit were Richard Tharp and Don "Big Daddy" Garlits, a veteran who broke the 200-mile-per-hour barrier in the 1960s.
Until that point, Muldowney's most serious brush with danger was the 1973 incident in which her car caught fire after the motor exploded, and 14-year-old John was witness to the accident. Fortunately, she was wearing protective goggles and a helmet, but when she climbed out of the car, her helmet was aflame, her eyelids singed together, and the goggles had seared circles around her eyes.
Muldowney's most terrifying brush with death came at the Sanair Speedway near Montreal, Canada, in the summer of 1984. As she completed a run, her front tire tube snapped, locked the wheels, and sent both car and driver into a spinout and tumble. The crash resulted in shattered bones in her legs, a fractured pelvis, two broken hands, and three broken fingers. She had been in a roll cage, saving her from death by ejection, but the car had rolled 600 feet and it took doctors six hours with wire brushes to clean the dirt and grease out of her skin before they could operate.
Muldowney remained in Montreal for two months, then returned home to suburban Detroit, where she was then living. Her system could not tolerate most painkillers, even morphine, and after several tries, doctors were finally able to prescribe something that could alleviate her misery. More pain and challenge came with the long process of rehabilitation, and she needed five more operations, including a skin graft. Tobler, now her boyfriend as well as her mechanic, became her round-the-clock nurse too.
Only six months after the crash, Muldowney had already come to grips with her career and what had happened in Montreal—and decided she wanted to race again. By early 1986, she was back on the Top Fuel circuit, and at a press conference before her first meet, the initial question from reporters was "Why?" Sports Illustrated reported that Muldowney answered simply, "A lot of reasons. I missed my friends, I missed my job, I missed the lifestyle, I needed the money, it was what I did best."
She admitted one of the most difficult consequences of the crash was having to give away 60 pairs of high heels, a particular passion of hers, but impractical now since one leg was slightly shorter than the other. She answered almost 5,000 get-well letters, and was touched that archrival Don Garlits offered sympathy as well as financial help.
That press conference marked the return of Muldowney to the sport at the Firebird International Speedway near Phoenix, Arizona. Her near-disaster had ushered a new, more safety-conscious era in drag racing with a new tire design. Her new car, like all dragsters, now had a retaining groove on the front wheels. This vehicle, which was designed by Tobler and John Muldowney, also had a larger-than-usual clutch pedal that Muldowney could operate even with a disabled ankle that could not bend. Finally, she also changed her trademark color, replacing the hot pink with a vivid purple.
Sadly, her career failed to take off again. Mechanical problems plagued her vehicle, and even enlisting the help of archrival Don Garlits as a consultant did not help. Losing races meant a loss of sponsorship, and without that a racer could not come up with the $1 million needed to maintain the car.
By 1989, wrote Sports Illustrated's J. E. Vader, "the most important piece of equipment on the dragster isn't the engine or the supercharger—or even the driver—but the computer." The end result was that drivers became symbolic personalities associated with "their" winning car; it also made it easier for telegenic women to break into the sport. Muldowney reflected on this change in the interview with Vader in Sports Illustrated. "I'm a bit of a toughie, and I had to be in the early days or I would not have survived. I like to think I made it easier for other ladies, but maybe I made it too easy, because now they license people who simply did not earn it."
Still, Muldowney found a way to remain in the driver’s seat. Also in 1989, she was in the thick of the NHRA, making it to three final rounds. In 1990, she achieved the same feat, finishing in the NHRA top ten. In 1990, she changed gears to compete at a more profitable level, returning to the match race trail. In this lane, she set 12 new records in the United States and Canada. She even went on to set a new track record at the Fuji International Speedway in Japan.
Muldowney continued to race in IHRA and NHRA competitions until 2003. In 1997, she was honored by the United States Sports Academy as one of the “Top Athletes of the Past 25 Years.” She set new track records the following year all across the United States as well as a new performance record for the International Hot Rod Association. In 2000, she returned to Indianapolis, qualifying 10th at the World Finals.
After over 40 years of racing, Muldowney ended her career in 2003 with a triumphant run at the World Finals in Pomona, California. She was met with waves of accolades from those in the industry as well as her fans. She was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2005.
Without question, Muldowney was a one-of-a-kind. Not only did she make something of her unique interest, but she also stared down the naysayers who tried to make her feel like she didn’t belong. Further reading on this source of inspiration:
- New York Times, April 1, 1976, p. 38
- Newsweek, February 17, 1986, p. 8
Sports Illustrated, July 18, 1977, p. 26; June 22, 1981, p. 71; February 10, 1986, p. 90
Updates by Kit Kittelstad