Shirley Muldowney: Heart Like an Icon
She’s been feted by Congress, immortalized by Hollywood, and awarded slot number five on NHRA’s 50 Greatest Drivers List. She blew open racing’s gender barrier, survived life-threatening injuries, and landed in the same honorary society as Eleanor Roosevelt. She won nearly 20 NHRA events and was once the Grand Marshall of the Goodguys Indy Nationals. Welcome to the world of Shirley Muldowney.
Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1940, Muldowney grew up in upstate New York, where she was known simply as Shirley. An interest in cars didn’t take root until she met her future husband, one Jack Muldowney, who gave his date a very inspirational ride home in his ’51 Mercury. She was 15 at the time. From that point on her affection for speed blossomed. Starting off as a street racer in the 1950s, she quickly fell in love with drag racing. Her first trip down a drag strip came in 1958 at Fonda Speedway in New York at the wheel of a 348-powered ’58 Chevy.
From 1958 to 1964 she competed in a variety of race cars. She was intensely competitive and had no intention of backing down from anybody – man or woman. Her determination to succeed would soon change the sport forever.
In 1965, Muldowney earned her license to drive NHRA Top Gas dragsters, becoming the first woman to do so in an NHRA professional category. For the next four years, she was a regular on the match-race scene in the East and Midwest.
When NHRA’s Top Gas class collapsed in 1971, she stepped up to nitro-burning Funny Cars. She won her first race at Lebanon Valley, New York. Next, she moved up to national events, capturing her first title at the International Hot Rod Association’s Southern Nationals race in Rockingham, North Carolina.
Muldowney’s Funny Car career, though, was fraught with peril. She was involved in four major car fires, the worst coming during the 1973 NHRA U.S. Nationals held at Indy. Afterward she vowed never to drive a Funny Car again. Which left the most violent and spectacular class of all – Top Fuel. She made her Top Fuel debut at Cayuga Dragway Park in Ontario, Canada, by taking licensing runs in the presence of Connie Kalitta, Don Garlits, and Tommy Ivo. When the famed trio signed off on her license, she was the first woman ever certified to compete in Top Fuel.
Her success – and her impact on the sport – was immediate. At the 1974 U.S. Nationals at Indy, she posted the meet’s top speed – 241.58 mph, with her own car and race team. Later that year, she scored a semifinal finish at the National Challenge in New York, running ETs as quick as 6.09 seconds.
On June 15, 1975, she became the first woman to advance to the finals in Top Fuel. Two months later, she became the first woman to break the 6-second barrier, blasting a 5.98 at the Popular Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Michigan.
Her breakthrough season came in 1976. At the Spring Nationals in June she qualified number one (6.09), posted low elapsed time (5.96) and top speed (243.90mph), and won the finals – becoming the first woman to win an NHRA national event.
Muldowney’s career continued to accelerate throughout 1977, a season that re-wrote the record books. She became only the second driver to run over 250mph at a race in Arizona. More importantly, she won races – the NHRA Spring Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, NHRA Summer Nationals in Englishtown, and the NHRA Molson Grand Nationals in Canada. Shirley’s history-making season reached its apex when she clinched the NHRA World Top Fuel title – the first and only woman ever to do so.
At this point, even the U.S. Government noticed. The House of Representatives on October 14, 1977, bestowed Muldowney with an Outstanding Achievement Award. More kudos followed: Drag News Top Fuel Driver of the Year, and Car Craft Person of the Year.
Muldowney became a regular on the Top Fuel circuit and a force to be reckoned with year after year. She won her second NHRA Top Fuel points championship in 1980 and added a third in 1982. Then Hollywood came calling. A high-quality feature film on Muldowney’s life in 1983, “Heart Like a Wheel,” starred Bonnie Bedelia as Shirley and Beau Bridges as Connie Kalitta.
On June 29, 1984, Muldowney’s storybook career almost came to a premature end. During a race in Montreal a front tire failure triggered a 250mph crash that nearly ended her life. Her legs were badly broken and required repeated surgeries. While some speculated if Muldowney would drive again, she never doubted herself; 18 months later she was back in a race car. Two years later she captured the NHRA Fall Nationals in Phoenix, her 18th NHRA national event title.
Muldowney concentrated on match races during the 1990s, drawing packed houses and long autograph lines everywhere she tripped the lights. The recognition just kept coming – the United States Sports Academy’s Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award, Top 25 professional female athletes from 1972-1997, and New York State’s Thirty Women of Distinction, alongside Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Shirley Muldowney hung up her helmet in 2003, with a “Last Pass Tour” that concluded at the NHRA World Finals in Pomona. The following year she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Noted drag racing journalist Jon Asher closely followed the career of Shirley Muldowney for many years. His remembrance says it all:
“In 53 years of covering drag racing I only openly cried once at the track – as Muldowney’s Top Fuel car coasted slowly to the finish line at Pomona in 2003 with the parachute gently wafting behind it. It was the last run she would make as a driver. When I got to her pit area moments later I wasn’t even surprised to see that every tough, hardened veteran of the quarter mile who was working with her that weekend was also wiping away tears. She had simply meant that much to not only all of us, but to drag racing itself. That she was as tough as nails and unwilling to take guff from anyone has been well-reported over the decades, but under the right circumstances she was gentle, thoughtful, a mentor and thoroughly a lady. She broke records and barriers, paving the way for every female competitor who’s come after her. We will never see another like her.”
Photos courtesy of Shirley Muldowney