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Female drag racers continue to build on Muldowney's legacy

By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com

"What Shirley Muldowney did for female racers can't be measured."
– Erica Enders

From Shirley Shahan and Shirley Muldowney – the first female racers to win national events in the sportsman and professional ranks, respectively – to Erica Enders and Karen Stoffer, the latest duo to pull off the same feat, Girl Power is definitely being felt all across the POWERade and Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.

It's hard to imagine the days when race organizers seriously considered not allowing women to race because the sport was too dangerous for them, especially in a time where women routinely prove to be every bit as competitive as the men they compete against. Drag racing is still a male-dominated sport, but the fairer sex is gaining ground each year, and the girls have the hardware to prove it.

Enders and Stoffer's victories at the O'Reilly Spring Nationals in Houston made them the 35th and 36th female national event winners in the 53-year history of NHRA Championship Drag Racing. Enders earned the distinction of being 35th overall as her Super Gas final against her good friend Jonathan Johnson occurred a few minutes prior to Stoffer's Pro Stock Bike victory over her buddy Antron Brown. The duo also became just the fourth pair of females to claim wins at the same national event.
Enders and Stoffer became fast friends after their history-making double win in Houston.
Photo by Darlena Campbell

Additionally, Stoffer earned the distinction of being the seventh female racer to earn a trophy in a professional category, joining Muldowney, Lucille Lee, Lori Johns, Shelly Anderson, Cristen Powell, and Angelle Savoie in one of drag racing's most exclusive clubs.

"Those are some big-time names," Stoffer said. "I think about the women that came before me and I know their experiences in the sport were probably totally different then mine. Plus, I've been married ever since I've been out here and I think that plays into it a little bit. And, realistically, it's not so unusual to see women racing any more."

Making a mark
Enders, a former Jr. Dragster racer who became the 30th woman to claim glory in a sportsman category at a national event, has her eye on the ultimate prize – competing (and winning) at the professional level. With a nod towards the history books and her place among female pioneers in drag racing, Enders actually is leaning towards Funny Car or Pro Stock simply "because no girls have ever won in those classes."
Rhonda Hartman-Smith, with daughter Megan, is the quickest female drag racer ever, with a career best elapsed time of 4.523 seconds.
Racers Edge Photography

So far, 15 women have strapped themselves into a Top Fuel car, nine have competed in Funny Car, seven have raced a Pro Stock Bike, and just three have attempted to run in Pro Stock. None have won or claimed the No. 1 qualifying position in Funny Car or Pro Stock.

"To be honest, I'll drive whatever car they want me to drive," Enders said. "As long as we can find a sponsor, I'll do whatever I have to do. I just want to race. But I do know that if I raced in Funny Car or even in Pro Stock, and we were able to find a way to win, we will have done something that hasn't been done before, which I think would be very cool. I'd say it's a goal I have, if the situation comes up down the road.

"I really didn't think much about Funny Car until February when I went to Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School and made some passes in a Top Alcohol Funny Car. It was awesome. That's kind of what got me going on Funny Cars."

Going back in time
Barbara Hamilton got the ball rolling for female racers when she became the first woman to earn an NHRA license in 1964. Two years later, Shirley Shahan became the first female to claim a "Wally" when she powered to the podium in the Stock category at the famed Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.

It was 10 years later when Muldowney punched through for the first of her 18 national event victories, beating Bob Edwards at the Bicentennial running of the Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio, to become the first female to win a professional category. Muldowney was actually the fourth female winner of all-time. She followed Shahan, Judi Boertman, who won Stock at the 1971 Summernationals, and Judy Lilly, who first won the Super Stock title at the 1972 Winternationals.
Muldowney fought for the respect of her peers, like Don Prudhomme (left) and Larry Lombardo.
Muldowney Collection at Muldowney.com

It was at the Columbus race in 1976 when Muldowney also became the first female racer to qualify No. 1 in a professional category. Her blistering fast 6.031 at 229.00 mph got the job done. Overall, there were nine races that year. Muldowney won twice. Muldowney's list of "firsts" and other various milestones consumes six pages on her website, Muldowney.com.

The following season, Muldowney kicked the discrimination door off its hinges by claiming the first NHRA championship for a female racer, winning two more national events and claiming low qualifier honors four times over the course of the 1977 season. Rather then go about her business quietly, Muldowney further endeared herself to countless supporters by constantly referring to her rivals as "the boys" while letting everyone know how much she enjoyed "kicking their asses all over the racetrack."

Paying the price
"What Shirley Muldowney did for female racers can't be measured," said Enders, a pioneer of sorts in her own right as she was one of the first successful female racers in the Jr. Dragster ranks. So much so, in fact, that Disney made a movie about her called Right On Track. "I can't imagine what she actually went through back then. I'm sure it was tough on her.

"I know even now there are guys who don't like us being out here. They look at our racecars and say we shouldn't be driving a car like that because we're girls. Or they'll ignore you and not shake your hand or whatever. But I'm sure Shirley had it 100 times worse then we ever did."
Stoffer's Houston win made her just the seventh woman to win an NHRA professional catagory.
Racers Edge Photography

A couple of years after Muldowney won the first of three NHRA titles, Amy Faulk became the first, and to date the only female national champion in a sportsman category, claiming the Super Stock title outright in 1979. Faulk, who still competes in Division 4, went on to become the first female racer to win national event titles in multiple categories, claiming victories in Stock, Comp, and Top Alcohol Dragster.

"I don't think any of us would be doing this if not for Shirley and those other girls that raced early on," Stoffer said. "Certainly, if Shirley hadn't broken the ice the way she did, things would be very different.

"In many ways, I think of Angelle [Savoie] in the same light. She did for the Pro Stock Bike class what Shirley did in Top Fuel. The critiques she endured, the nasty rumors people would float out there to try and distract her; it was terrible. That's why I like her so much and respect the way she handles herself."
Up next: Despite being winless so far, Ashley Force leads the Top Alcohol Dragster national rankings.
Racers Edge Photography

The most prolific female racer in drag racing history is still very much a part of each season's title chase as well as the fight for individual race victories. Angelle Savoie, who burst onto the scene in 1996, is currently tied with Muldowney with three NHRA championships, and her 31 national event wins paces female racers. (Muldowney has the next highest total with 18; it then drops to Shelly Anderson's five.)

"I look up to Angelle like no other racer," said Enders, a 20-year-old college student. "To me, she's the best. I never really got to see Shirley race until the end of her career when she was running part time, but I've watched Angelle win three championships in a row when she was the only girl out there. When I set goals for myself, they are usually set against what Angelle has accomplished."

Is the female onus still there?
For Savoie, who has 34 Low Qualifier plaques to go with her collection of "Wallys," gender has never been a big part of her motivation. Sure, she has had to endure numerous slights from her male rivals, but she's convinced the barbs were directed more at her as a person, rather than as a female racer.

"Whenever someone talks trash about me I take it personally," Savoie said. "I've always thought that when someone says something nasty they have a problem with me, not because I'm a girl, but because of who I am as a person.

"I get asked about what it's like being a girl racing against the boys more than any other question. The media asks it all the time and the fans always ask about it. To be honest, I couldn't care less about the girl/boy thing. Racing is all I've ever known, and racing against guys is just a part of the deal.
Savoie's 31 wins is the most by a female and her three NHRA titles ties her with Muldowney.
Racers Edge Photography

"When I started racing dirt bikes at 6 years old, I was the only girl, and it's pretty much been that way ever since. I've heard all the things people say: I should be playing with dolls, I should have stuck with nursing, I should be at the beauty pageant, whatever. My motivation is to win. I'm not about the media attention, or having fans lined up at my trailer, I just want to win. I'm like Warren Johnson because when I'm at the track, I'm there to work and to win and that's about it. I know I've aggravated people, like the fans, who want me to be something more, but it's truly how I think. It's how my brain works."

Even so, the race weekend in Houston was a bit of an epiphany for Savoie. While sitting in the staging lanes waiting her turn to run, Savoie heard NHRA announcer Bob Frey talk about Muldowney's upcoming induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame.

"I have never, ever thought about what I've done in those terms before," Savoie said. "But when I heard them talking about Shirley going into the Hall of Fame I stopped for a minute and wondered if I'd ever have that much of an effect on the sport. Is it how long you race? Is it how much you win? Does being a girl have anything to do with it? I don't know. I do know that everyone knows who Shirley is. Even people that don't know what a drag race is know Shirley's name. Will I ever get to that point? As far as this class has come, could a Pro Stock Bike rider ever be considered for those kinds of things? I don't know those answers."

Perhaps Savoie's lifelong mindset sums up the thoughts of every female racer to have ever donned a helmet, especially the modern-day quarter-mile warriors.

"I never looked at Shirley's records and said, 'Okay, I need to win at least one more race and one more championship then she did. Then I'll be the best female racer ever.' I was always looking at Dave's records," Savoie said of the late Dave Schultz, whose 45 wins and six NHRA championships lead the Pro Stock Bike class. "I never wanted to be the best female racer ever. I want to be the best racer, period."

This story is copyright 2004 National Hot Rod Association. It may not be reprinted or retransmitted in any form without the express written permission of NHRA.com.

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