Muldowney, Shirley Roque
MULDOWNEY, Shirley Roque
(b. 19 June 1940 in Burlington, Vermont), pioneering female drag racer who won an unprecedented three National Hot Rod Association Winston World Championships.
Muldowney was born Shirley Roque, the only child of Mae Roque and Belgium "Tex Rock" Benedict Roque. Her father was a professional boxer and drove a taxi, and her mother worked in a laundry service. The family moved from Burlington to Schenectady, New York, shortly after Muldowney's birth. Formal schooling held little interest for Muldowney, and by age thirteen she was skipping classes and hanging around with drag racing enthusiasts from a local car club. She kept these meetings and her passion for drag racing from her parents for fear they would disapprove. At the car club she met Jack Muldowney, her future husband, who taught her to drive and introduced her to drag racing.
Muldowney, a quick study, participated in street racing throughout the 1950s. When her father did find out about her racing, rather than punishing her, he encouraged her to continue. In 1956 she dropped out of school, married Jack, and began racing full time. A year later she gave birth to a son (who eventually became part of her racing team), but not even that slowed her down. Using various cars she competed locally in both amateur and semiprofessional races, earning the nickname "Cha Cha" (the phrase had been written in shoe polish on the side of her pink car) and making some money to help support her family.
In 1965 Muldowney became the first woman licensed by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to race dragsters in their Top Gas (T/G) category. From 1965 to 1969 she competed in one-on-one duels in small towns with other drag racers. During this period of her racing career, the drag strip establishment tried to portray Muldowney as part feminist, part temptress. She allowed herself to be filmed dressed in go-go boots, hot pants, and a halter top, before donning an asbestos suit and slipping into her car of the time, Bounty Huntress. This was supposed to show that, even though she was a determined racer, there was still a pretty girl underneath. The image bothered Muldowney and she began to subtly alter that image. Meanwhile, her racing abilities were earning her increasing fame and prestige. As Muldowney's career began to take off, her marriage began to sour, and she and Jack divorced in 1972.
During the early 1970s the NHRA introduced the Top Fuel category of cars, in which the car's engine is behind the driver, which undercut the popularity of the more dangerous T/G class of cars, in which the engine is in front. In 1971 Muldowney moved to Armada, Michigan, and began working with the drag racer Conrad "Connie" Kalitta. Muldowney and Kalitta switched to the Funny Cars, those with fiberglass bodies and the engines in front of the driver like T/G cars, and began racing against each other. The collaboration turned into a tumultuous relationship that lasted seven years. Muldowney raced Funny Cars from 1971 until 1973, winning the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) title in 1971. She suffered four engine fires during this period, including one at Indianapolis in 1973 that left her seriously burned. This injury convinced Muldowney to switch to the less dangerous Top Fuel racers in 1973, with Kalitta as her crew chief. That year she raced in a car owned by another racer, but the next year Kalitta had a dragster built for her. In her first year as a Top Fuel racer, Muldowney posted the second-best speed at the U.S. nationals, and the following year she was the first female to enter the NHRA national event finals. In spite of her successes, Muldowney suffered indignities because she was a woman, including being excluded from several races for no real reason, and she gradually stopped using the name "Cha Cha."
In 1977 Muldowney became the first driver to win three consecutive NHRA Top Fuel races and the Winston World Championship. For this accomplishment, the U.S. House of Representatives recognized her with an outstanding achievement award on 14 October 1977, and Car Craft magazine named her their person of the year. Her success, however, put additional strain on her already volatile relationship with Kalitta. In 1978 she fired him, and he returned to racing. Muldowney took over as the team manager, with Rahn Tobler as her crew chief, and the late 1970s were a time of rebuilding as she and her crew sought to make up for Kalitta's departure.
By 1980 Muldowney returned to form, winning four NHRA national events and again winning the Winston World Championship. She won the American Hot Rod Association World Championship the following year, becoming the first and only woman to do so. Her 1982 season was virtually a repeat of the previous year, making her the first person to win the Winston World Championship three times. In 1983, Heart Like a Wheel, a film biography of her life starring Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges, premiered and won critical praise, although Muldowney and Kalitta disputed the accuracy of the movie.
Muldowney's winning streak seemed unstoppable, but a crash on 29 June 1984 at the Grand Nationals at Sanair Raceway in Montreal, Canada, nearly killed her. The accident broke both her legs, her pelvis, and three fingers. She was hospitalized for almost two months and required five follow-up surgeries and eighteen months of rehabilitation. In 1986 Muldowney returned to racing, but from 1986 to 1989 did not win a single race. In 1988 she married her pit boss Rahn Tobler. In 1989, in order to help Muldowney get back into racing, Tobler asked Muldowney's longtime friendly rival and supporter "Big Daddy" Don Garlits to serve as her adviser. She reached the finals in several events that year and won the NHRA fall nationals held in Phoenix.
From 1989 until 1995 Muldowney focused her attention on match races, those where the challenger's cars are evenly matched. During this time, she achieved an elapsed time of 4.974, qualifying her for membership in the hallowed "four-second club." She also finished in the top ten in the Winston World Cup for the next several years. In 1996 she entered several IHRA competitions, earning honors as the fastest driver five times and winning three consecutive races. She set a new top speed record for the IHRA for that year, 294.98 miles per hour, and placed second in the IHRA nationals in both 1996 and 1997.
Muldowney continued to receive awards and honors throughout the 1990s, including being voted to the U.S. Sports Academy's distinguished list of Top Twenty-five Professional Female Athletes and being awarded the Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award for her comeback to racing. In 1998 the New York Senate named Muldowney as one of thirty women of distinction during that state's women's history month exhibit. Although she continued to race in her signature pink dragster, Muldowney mostly participated in friendly match-racing duels with Don Garlits. She was one of the few drag racers to finance her own racing when she could not find sponsorship, but that handicap never slowed her down. At the end of the twentieth century, Muldowney continued to break records and maintained her position as the queen of drag racing.
For details about Muldowney's life and career see Tony Sakkis, Drag Racing Legends (1996). Useful articles include Al Harvin, "People in Sports," New York Times (1 Apr. 1976); Bruce Newman, "Cha Cha Waltzed Home," Sports Illustrated (18 July 1977); Sam Moses, "The Best Man for the Job Is a Woman," Sports Illustrated (22 June 1981); Sam Moses, "Fiery Return of a Leadfoot Lady," Sports Illustrated (10 Feb. 1986); "A Champion Comes Back," Newsweek (17 Feb. 1986); and J. E. Vader, "Two Foes Bury the Hatchet, But Not the Competition," Sports Illustrated (4 Sep. 1989). Muldowney's official website is at http://www.muldowney.com.
Brian B. Carpenter