Muldowney, Shirley

views updated May 17 2018

Shirley Muldowney


American race car driver

Professional drag racing driver Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney is not just "good for a girl." Though she was the first woman to accomplish many feats in the sport, many of her records and claims are for the sport as a whole, regardless of gendershe is one of the most successful drag racers in history. She is second all-time in National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) history winner with seventeen titles, including three Top Fuel world championships. In her prime, she was a threat to many of the greatest names in drag racing, including Conrad "Connie" Karlitta, Don Garlits, and Tommy Ivo. In her sixties, she continues to race, though not competitively. As a fan favorite and history maker, she is popular at exhibition races.

Muldowney was born Shirley Roque on June 19, 1940, in Burlington, Vermont. She grew up in Schenectady, New York, with her father, Belgium Benedict, a taxicab driver and professional boxer, and mother, Mae, who worked in a laundry. As a girl, she showed no indication for her penchant for racing. Though she was agile and well coordinated, Muldowney was more interested in dancing, dating, and wearing pretty clothes than she was in any sport, let alone car racing. In fact, she dropped out of high school at age sixteen and married Jack Muldowney, a drag racer and mechanic, in 1956. When she married, Shirley Muldowney did not even know how to drive a car.

Like Husband, Like Wife

Jack Muldowney's longtime interest in high-performance cars began to wear off on his young bride. She began by attending races with her husband, and cheering him on when he raced. He taught her to drive after they were married, and Shirley became intrigued with the world of drag racing, and very familiar with all aspects of the sport, from the technical requirements of driving to the particulars involved with getting a car on the track. Drag races usually run on a quarter-mile track, and are paired head-to-head; the faster of two racers wins the race, which is over in less than fifteen seconds. The cars come to a stop with the aid of a parachute that ejects from behind to slow them down. Drag racing is so-named because drivers "drag" out through each gear shift.

Muldowney soon asked her husband to let her race, and he gave her her first car, a 1940 Ford running on a Cadillac V-8 engine. She entered local competitions in the regular stock car category and, though she did not win, she occasionally made it to the finals. She became more competitive in the early 1960s with her next two cars, a 348 tri-powered Chevrolet and then a 1963 Super Stock Plymouth. She hit just over 100 mph when racing, while drivers who raced low slung, specially-outfitted drag cars were reaching speeds of 170-180 mph. Her husband built her a Chevy-powered dragster and she soon caught up.

Muldowney had no problem proving herself on the track in amateur races. But drag racing's sanctioning bodies, including the NHRA and American Hot Rod Association (AHRA), had reservations about granting professional status to a woman. Muldowney and fellow female racers Judi Boertman, Paula Murphy, and Della Woods launched a campaign to be allowed to race professionally. In 1965, Muldowney was the first woman to receive her license to drive dragsters. There were naysayers who predicted one serious crash or fire would spook Muldowney off the track, but after several, she was always ready to get back in the car. She escaped what could have been a very serious crash in 1967 at the Orange County International Raceway without a scratch, and with a great deal of respect in the sport.


1958Begins racing
1965Becomes first woman licensed by National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to drive a dragster
1975Becomes first woman to advance to the finals of an NHRA national event in a professional category
1975Becomes first woman to break the 6.00 second barrier
1976Qualifies in top spot with quickest time (6.03) and speed (249.30 MPH), becomes the first women to win a professional title in national event competition
1976Qualifies first and wins NHRA Winston World Finals
1976Posts best elapsed time (5.77) and top speed (249.30 MPH) for the entire NHRA Season.
1977Becomes first woman to claim Winston World Championship, drag racing's most prestigious title
1977Becomes first Top Fuel driver to win three NHRA national events back-to-back
1980Wins Winston World Championship, becoming the first person in history to claim title twice
1981Becomes first woman to win AHRA World Championship; and first woman to win March Meet
1982Wins Winston World Championship, becoming the first person in history to claim title three times
1983Heart Like a Wheel is released
1989Drives all-time best time of 4.97 at 284 MPH
1993Sets track record at Fuji International Speedway, Fuji, Japan (5.30 sec. at 285 MPH); sets new IHRA speed record at 294.98 MPH
1997Sets new IHRA speed record at 303.71 MPH
1999Drives full race schedule with no sponsorship; advances to the semi-final round at IHRA Northern Nationals.
2000Qualifies in third place with time of 4.78; sets new track and IHRA national speed record at 310 MPH; qualifies first at IHRA Nationals with time of 4.74 and a career best speed of 319.22 (Both were track records); qualifies in NHRA U.S. Nationals and World Finals
2001Qualified 12th at the NHRA Mac Tools U.S. Nationals; runs career best of 4.64 \ time at 320.20 MPH
2002Drives five national events with sponsorship from Action Performance Companies and MAC Tools

Funny CarsNot So Funny

Toward the late 1960s, cars were being designed from scratch specifically for drag racing. Because of their odd proportionsa long, skinny front end and a jacked-up behindthe cars are called "funny cars." In the driver's seat of her own Plymouth, Muldowney was finishing at the front of the pack in funny car races in the early 1970s, reaching speeds over 200 mph and finishing the quarter-mile track in seven or eight seconds.

In 1971, Muldowney held her own against the best funny-car drivers, beating many of them. In September, she made the finals of the prestigious NHRA Nationals held at Indianapolis Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Any driver who could cover the track in less than seven seconds was considered elite at the time, and Muldowney did it in 6.76 seconds, reaching 215.31 mph. Her car broke down in the final round, but Muldowney was considered a threat to any driver on the track.

The Muldowneys divorced in 1972, and Shirley moved to Mt. Clemens, Michigan, to be closer to the Midwestern racing scene. Funny cars are inherently dangerous and fire prone, so Muldowney chose to switch to the top drag racing category, called Top Fuel. She won the 1974 U.S. Nationals at 241.58 mph, and was the first woman to advance to the finals in Top Fuel, coming in second place at the 1975 NHRA Spring National in Columbus, Ohio, and at the NHRA U.S. National. She was the first woman to break the five-second barrier with 5.98 seconds at the Popular Hot Rodding Championships in August. A successful season ended with her being voted to the prestigious "All-American Team" by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AARWBA).

Comeback of the Year

In 1976, Muldowney became the first woman to win a Pro class at an NHRA event when she won the Spring Nationals. She also won the World Finals that year and finished the season fifteenth in the points. The next great obstacle before Muldowney was to win the NHRA Winston Top Fuel Championship, which she did in 1977, 1980, and 1982, becoming the first person to claim more than one title. Muldowney's competitive nature and fierce determination were captured in the 1983 feature Heart Like a Wheel.

In 1984, a front-tire failure caused her car to veer off the track and into a ditch at 250 mph during qualifying at Le Grandnational in Montreal, Canada. Her legs were so badly broken they required numerous surgeries and months of grueling physical therapy before she could even walk again. She won the AARWBA's "Comeback Driver of the Year" award in 1986 after her triumphant return to the track. 1989 marked Muldowney's final NHRA win, at Fall Nationals. She also broke the four-second barrier with a time of 4.97 seconds at 294.98 mph.

Muldowney then switched her focus to the match race scene, where contestants are guaranteed a fee. She drives in events for the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA), and is swarmed by autograph-seeking fans wherever she goes. She married Rahn Toblerher former crew chiefin 1988, and lives in Armada, Michigan. She continues to set track records on racing circuits around the world.

Awards and Accomplishments

1971First place, NHRA Southern Nationals in Nitro Funny Car Class
1972Second place, NHRA Southern Nationals in Nitro Funny Car Class
1975Second place, NHRA Spring Nationals
1975Voted first woman member of Auto Racing All-America team by American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AARWBA).
1976First place, NHRA Spring Nationals and NHRA Winston World Finals; named Drag News Top Fuel Driver of the Year; voted to Auto Racing All-American Team
1977First place, Winston World Championship; Outstanding Achievement Award, U.S. House of Representatives; named Drag News Top Fuel Driver of the Year; named Person of the Year, Car Craft magazine
1978Voted to Auto Racing All-America Team
1979Voted into the 250 MPH Club
1980First place, Winston World Championship; second place, American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) World Championship
1981First place, AHRA World Championship; voted to Auto Racing All-America Team; voted to Car Craft All-Star Team, and Top Fuel Driver of the Year
1982First place, Winston World Championship; voted to Auto Racing All-America Team; voted to Car Craft All-Star Team, and Top Fuel Driver of the Year; Jerry Titus Memorial Award, AARWBA
1986Comeback Driver of the Year, AARWBA
1989Wins NHRA Fall National
1992Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award for courageous action in overcoming adversity to excel in sport, U.S. Sports Academy
1996Named to the AARWBA All-American second team; second place, International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Championship Series
1997Third place, IHRA National Championship; voted one of Top 25 Professional Female Athletes (1972-1997), U.S. Sports Academy; named to the AARWBA All-American second team
1998Named one of thirty Women of Distinction, New York State Senate
2000First place, Autofest 2000 New Year's Eve race against rival Don Garlits; Second place, IHRA Performance Parts Nationals


Email: [email protected]



Stambler, Irwin. Women in Sports. New York: Doubleday, 1975.


Kovac, Maria. "Women of Detroit." Hour Detroit. (November 1999).


"No. Five, Shirley Muldowney." National Hot Rod Association Web site. (January 15, 2003).

Offical Shirley Muldowney Web site. (January 15, 2003).

"Shirley Muldowney: A Lifetime of Devotion." (January 15, 2003).

Sketch by Brenna Sanchez

Shirley Muldowney

views updated May 18 2018

Shirley Muldowney

Drag racer Shirley Muldowney (born ca. 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 Evil Knievel.

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. 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. Undaunted, she returned to the sport two years later.

Diminutive But Determined

Muldowney inherited her challenging nature from her father, a former prizefighter. She was born around 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 sixteen—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."

Began Winning Top Fuel Heats

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."

Hollywood Interested in Life Story

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 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 life-style, 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 Garlits offered sympathy as well as financial help.

Excited as a New Era Entered

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 may be I made it too easy, because now they license people who simply did not earn it."

Further Reading

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; September 4, 1989, p. 22. □