Shirley Shahan – The Drag-On-Lady
She’s a drag racing pioneer, a winner, a champion, and her name is Shirley. Shirley Muldowney, right? No, try again. Shirley, ah…ah…ah… Geez, I don’t know? Shirley who?
Don’t feel bad if the name Shirley Shahan doesn’t leap to mind, for Shahan’s gender-bending quarter-mile heroics came long before Cha-Cha charged onto the scene. Shahan was NHRA’s first-ever female champion in 1966, winning Super Stock class at the Winternationals in her Drag-On-Lady ’65 Plymouth. Her performance opened the eyes of guy racers everywhere; suddenly drag racing was no longer the sole domain of men.
Born in the sleepy agricultural California berg of Visalia, Shirley Shahan picked up an interest in racing from her father who drove dirt circle-track cars. She first learned to drive at age 10 in her dad’s ’34 Ford pickup. “I was the oldest daughter, so I got to go to the track with dad,” she remembers. “I got to hand dad the wrenches and learn about cars. An aptitude in test in school when I was 8 or 9 said I should be a mechanic!”
Shirley preferred racing to wrenching and began competing at age 17. She even married a racer. Her husband H.L. was a drag strip regular and they formed a formidable team, terrorizing valley drag strips in Visalia, Madera, Raisin City, and Bakersfield.
In 1959, Shahan drove her ’58 Chevy to the Super Stock class win at the first “Smokers” meet at Famoso in Bakersfield. Following that victory, she took time off to parent two children, returning to competition in 1963. Things ratcheted up in 1965 when she landed factory support from Chrysler.
Shahan didn’t disappoint. In 1965 she had strong runner-up finishes at the Hot Rod Magazine Championships and the AHRA Winternationals. The next year’s NHRA Winternationals changed her life, as well as the competitive landscape at NHRA.
Behind the wheel of her Drag-On-Lady ’65 Plymouth, Shirley Shahan zipped down the Pomona quarter mile in 11.26 seconds to capture the Super Stock class crown. In those seconds, Shanan went from struggling racer to national celebrity, increasing exposure for herself and the entire sport. Super Stock & Drag Illustrated dubbed her “Mrs. Stock Eliminator.” National wire services spread the news. ABC’s Wide World of Sports aimed their cameras. Shahan earned 15 minutes of fame and more, and NHRA went along for the PR ride.
“Winning that race really turned things around for me,” she told NHRA’s National Dragster. “Right after we won, we began getting calls from back East for match-race appearances. I quit my job at the gas company and traveled back East with H.L. to race from April through October.”
Throughout the 1960s Shahan’s life was a blur of match races, NHRA and AHRA competition, and personal appearances. She set NHRA SS/AA track records in a Hemi Dodge Dart and appeared on the television game shows “To Tell the Truth” and “Hollywood Squares.” Hot Rod Magazine named her one of the Top Ten drivers of 1965.
Her credibility was so strong, Chrysler recruited her to represent them in events like the then-prestigious Mobil Economy Run. In three years of competition, she finished first, second, and fourth. “It was like driving with an egg under your gas pedal,” she remembered.
After record-setting efforts in the Hemi Darts, Shahan switched to AMC in 1969 to drive a SS/D AMX. A year later she participated in the inaugural year of NHRA Pro Stock, wheeling an AMC Hornet that ran in the 9.80s. She campaigned the Hornet in Pro Stock through 1972, but in 1973 trouble loomed as AMC focused its racing budget elsewhere. Rather than compete in a non-competitive car, Shahan hung up her racing gloves and retired.
Shirley Shahan returned to Visalia and the gas company. Shirley and L.H. parted ways in 1975 and she married Ken Bridges a year later. She retired from the gas company in 1992 and has enjoyed retired life since. Motorized pursuits these days involve traversing the links in golf carts and seeing America through an RV windshield. She stays connected to racing by visiting the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield and NHRA National events at Pomona and Phoenix.
Like many hot rodding legends, Shahan has not outraced her legacy. The older she gets, the more fans seem to appreciate her accomplishments. In 1997 Shahan was named to both the Super Stock Magazine and International Drag Racing Halls of Fame. Super Stock Collectibles even released a die-cast replica of her 1969 AMX.
Five decades after that historic pass at Pomona, Shahan is happy with her life and well aware of the ripple she caused in the racing world. “I never saw myself as some sort of female pioneer, I just loved to go racing,” she explained. “But I do remember driving the return road after I won at Pomona. The fans were cheering, and Paula Murphy came up and handed me a beer. Then it finally hit me, ‘wow, maybe I did something here.’”
Yes, Shirley, you sure did. Something big, real big. You made history, and all us race fans, men and women, are better for it.