Shirley Muldowney is the First Lady of Drag Racing.
The first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association [NHRA] to drive a Top Fuel dragster, Muldowney is a drag racing icon and a pioneer in the sport. In 1977, she became the first female to win the NHRA Top Fuel championship, then went on to claim titles again in 1980 and 1982.
Drag races are held on a straight course [usually a quarter-mile] in pairs. Dragsters are rocket ships on wheels, reaching speeds of more than 320 mph in seconds, with the fastest elapsed time determining the winner.
The NHRA fought me every inch of the way. But when they saw how Shirley Muldowney could fill the stands, they saw I was good for the sport.
A symbol of indomitable spirit and funk, Muldowney paved the way for women in a sport reserved for white men.
Born Shirley Ann Roque in Burlington, Vermont, June 19, 1940, Muldowney began street racing in the 1950s in Schenectady, New York.
With no interest in school, Muldowney only wanted to “race up and down the streets in a hot rod.” At 16, she married 19-year-old Jack Muldowney, a mechanic who would build her first dragster.
Two years later, Cha Cha made her debut on the dragstrip of the Fonda Speedway in upstate New York. It was Jack Muldowney who first taught me how to drive a car.
She obtained her NHRA pro license in 1965, and competed in the 1969 and 1979 U.S. Nationals driving a twin-engine dragster in Top Gas. With Top Gas losing popularity, she switched – against the wishes of husband, Jack — to Funny Car in 1971. “He didn’t want to go nitro racing and we parted,” said Muldowney, and they divorced in 1972. “But we stayed friends until he passed away [in 2007].” After switching to Funny Car, Muldowney won her first major race at the 1971 IHRA Southern Nationals.
There is nothing funny about Funny Cars. The machines generate several thousand horsepower running on nitromethane fuel and can be extremely difficult and dangerous to drive. Reaching speeds in excess of 330 mph, Funny Cars routinely achieve a 6G acceleration in less than six seconds.
After “Big Daddy” Don Garlits – who had great respect for Shirley and her courage — provided one of three signatures required to make it official, Muldowney became the first woman to obtain a Top Fuel license, in 1973.
For the next four years, she teamed with Conrad Kalitta as the Bounty Hunter and Bounty Huntress in match races throughout the country. In 1975, Cha Cha became the first woman to break the 6-second barrier when she ran 5.98 at the Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Michigan. She finished the year by being voted the first woman member of the ten-person Auto Racing All-American team.
Shirley Muldowney was a kid from upstate New York with no guidance, no direction.
In 1976, Muldowney became the first woman to win a NHRA Professional event at the Spring Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. She posted the best time [5.77] and top speed [249.30 mph] for the entire season and was named 1976 Top Fuel Driver of the Year. Muldowney’s breakout year came in 1977. She became the first Top Fuel driver to win three NHRA national events back-to-back to
clinch the Winston World Championship.
Muldowney became the first woman to win a major motorsports title anywhere in the world and was named Car Craft magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In October, the U.S. House of Representatives honored Muldowney with an “Outstanding Achievement Award” and she was again named Top Fuel Driver of the Year.
Driving her trademark hot pink dragster, Muldowney became the first female to win the prestigious March Meet in Bakersfield, California, in 1981. She concluded the year by capturing the 1981 AHRA World Championship, becoming the first and only woman to do so.
One week after her 34th birthday in June 1984, toward the end of a qualifying race in Montreal, Muldowney’s car disintegrated in a near-fatal accident that nearly ended her career. Traveling 250 mph, the car hit a culvert and came apart “like it was made of toothpicks.” Muldowney ended up
500 feet down-track, still strapped into her seat. “My God, I came out of the car but I’m still alive,” thought Muldowney. “Well, I didn’t come out of the car. That’s all that was left of it.”
Shirley’s left foot was off, connected by an artery and laying between her thighs. The collision crushed her pelvis, legs and hands, necessitating half a dozen operations and 18 months of therapy. She returned to the circuit and was voted 1986 Comeback Driver of the Year. To the delight of her fans, Cha Cha returned to the winner’s circle at the 1989 Fall Nationals in Phoenix. In 1992, Muldowney received the 1992 Babe Didrickson Zaharias Courage Award for overcoming adversity to excel in sport.
I had nothing going for me. Then I found drag racing at a very young age and was able to make something out of it.
Shirley Muldowney retired from professional drag racing in 2003 with the Last Pass Tour that ended with the World Finals at Pomona Raceway. Voted to the Auto Racing All-America Team five times, Cha Cha was listed as one of the Top 25 Drivers of All Time by ESPN. In 2004, Muldowney became just the second woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
In March 2016, Muldowney was told she had Stage II lung cancer. Two months later, she entered a North Carolina hospital to have her right lung removed. During the procedure, surgeons discovered Muldowney instead had a histoplasmosis – a fungus – that was not cancerous after all. Shirley
The First Lady of Drag Racing makes her home in Huntersville, North Carolina, where she remains cancer-free. Today, the 78-year-old Muldowney is passionate about animal rescue causes and runs a charitable organization, Shirley’s Kids, which helps children in need.
On this date in 1983, 20th Century Fox released Heart Like a Wheel. Based on the life of Shirley Muldowney, the 113-minute biopic stars Bonnie Bedelia as “The First Lady of Drag Racing.” While Muldowney did not think the film depicted her life accurately, Bedelia – whom Cha Cha called “a snot” — was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the legendary driver.