No. 5, Shirley Muldowney
No. 5, Shirley Muldowney

 

Shirley Muldowney was not the first, second, or even third woman to "beat the boys at their own game" by winning a major NHRA drag racing event, but she clearly was the most successful and, more important, did it at the highest levels of the sport, in drag racing's fastest Professional category, Top Fuel.

Women have been competing in professional sporting events for decades; from Babe Didrikson Zaharias to Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Billie Jean King to Venus Williams, they have excelled against one another, but none have experienced the level of success against men that Muldowney has in her career.

Muldowney not only has raced equally against the men for more than 40 years, but, as one Top 50 panelist succinctly noted, often "kicked their collective asses all over the track." Winner of three NHRA Winston Top Fuel championships and 18 NHRA national events, Muldowney helped break the gender barrier in drag racing, laying the path for hundreds of women who followed admiringly in her footsteps.

What makes Muldowney's accomplishments even more incredible is that she forged her path in an era when many considered a woman's place in the pits indeed, if she was welcome at all was at the barbecue, cooking lunch for the team.

For Muldowney, who cut her racing teeth on the streets of Schenectady, N.Y., there was never any doubt that she could take the heat of drag racing's "kitchen," and once she had proved she could do it successfully, there was no way she was getting out.

Eighteen-year-old Shirley Roque's first trip down a dragstrip came in 1958, at Fonda Speedway in New York, at the wheel of a 348-powered '58 Chevy. After campaigning doorslammers for several years, she married another former street racer, Jack Muldowney, who built her first dragster. She earned her dragster license in 1965, and the couple match raced in the East and Midwest. That injected car was followed by a pair of blown gas dragsters, the second being a twin-engine monster with which she competed at the 1969 and 1970 U.S. Nationals and at Division 1 events. Although Muldowney's driving prowess had earned her several trophies, the racing world had yet to take her seriously. It soon would have no choice.

With Top Gas dying in 1971 and Funny Cars on the rise, it didn't take Muldowney long to find her next challenge. The Muldowneys bought an old Mustang Funny Car from Connie Kalitta and ran it on the match race trail. Muldowney won her first major meet, the IHRA Southern Nationals, that year, and there was no turning back.

After the Muldowneys divorced, she moved to Mount Clemens, Mich., to be closer to the Midwest match racing scene, and kept her car at Kalitta's shop. In 1972, the pair teamed up with nearly identical new Mustangs as a match race duo, the "Bounty Hunter" and the "Bounty Huntress."

Three-time NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion Shirley Muldowney has made a drag racing career of "beating the boys," winning races and championships in a fashion that transcends the gender difference. Her races with fellow Top Fuel icon Don Garlits are the stuff of which legends are made.

That August, Muldowney experienced the first of four nasty fires that ultimately would cause her to switch from Funny Car to Top Fuel. The following year, she suffered an even worse fire during qualifying at the U.S. Nationals, then vowed to never drive a Funny Car again. Top Fuel has never been the same since.

Earlier that season, Muldowney had earned her Top Fuel license in the entry of Detroit-based Pancho Rendon. Among those in attendance at the Cayuga, Ont., track were Don Garlits, "T.V. Tommy" Ivo, and, of course, Kalitta, all of whom signed off on her license.

Muldowney spent 1974 getting her feet wet in a fuel dragster, match racing almost exclusively, though she did attend the U.S. Nationals, where her 241.28-mph speed was the second-fastest of the event. Her successes and determination caught the eye of cologne manufacturer English Leather, which came aboard as a sponsor for the 1975 campaign, yet another turning point for Muldowney.

She made it to two final rounds that season, at the Springnationals, where she lost to Marvin Graham, and the U.S. Nationals, where Garlits defeated her. She also became the first woman to record a five-second elapsed time, at the Popular Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Mich. For her accomplishments, she was the first woman named to the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association All American Team.

On June 13, 1976, Muldowney won the Springnationals and became the first woman to win a Pro class at an NHRA national event. She also won the World Finals that year and finished 15th in points. (Muldowney was preceded to the winner's circle by Shirley Shahan, who won Stock at the 1966 Winternationals; Judi Boertman, who won in Stock at the 1971 Summernationals; and Judy Lilly, Super Stock winner at the '72 Winternationals and three others races.)

After becoming the first woman to win a Pro eliminator, Muldowney wasted no time reaching for the next pinnacle, the Winston championship. Like many challenges in her life, this one also came into her grasp.

When Muldowney won the 1977 NHRA Winston Top Fuel championship, her accomplishment was so outstanding that the U.S. House of Representatives bestowed upon her an Outstanding Achievement Award and she was named Person of the Year on the Car Craft Magazine All-star Drag Racing Team.

Three years later, she became the first person to win two NHRA Top Fuel titles and added a third in 1982.

Muldowney's career, at least part of it, was chronicled in the 1983 film Heart Like A Wheel, the first such feature on any drag racer, yet celluloid could not capture the fierceness and determination of her competitive nature and the opinionated and often sharp tongue that endeared her to many as long as they weren't paired alongside her in a Top Fuel dragster.

As one panel member quipped, the film should have been called Heart Like A Bulldog. She was that tough.

Before beginning her tremendous Top Fuel career, Muldowney raced gas dragsters and fuel Funny Cars.

Midway through her 1977 campaign, a young Texan named Rahn Tobler joined the crew and was a key element in that first championship. After Kalitta left the team that year, Tobler became crew chief and, 11 years and two championships later, Muldowney's husband.

He was by her side at the worst moment of her racing career, when an apparent front-tire failure caused her dragster to veer off into a ditch during qualifying at the 1984 Le Grandnational in Quebec.

The high-speed wreck shattered Muldowney's body, but not her spirit. In early 1987, she was back in a race car. It would be two more years, until the NHRA Fallnationals in Phoenix in late 1989, before Muldowney would win her 18th and, so far, final NHRA national event.

After driving for Larry Minor in 1990, Muldowney and Tobler concentrated on the match race scene during the 1990s, drawing packed houses and long autograph lines everywhere they went. Tobler's skills, never in question to begin with, were showcased as he routinely tuned Muldowney to track record after track record on surfaces not nearly as well prepared as those on the national event circuit, and Muldowney equally demonstrated some of the best driving skills ever seen.

In 1992, she was awarded the United States Sports Academy's Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award, presented annually to an individual who demonstrates courageous action in overcoming adversity to excel in sport, and in 1997 was voted to the academy's distinguished list of Top 25 professional female athletes from 1972-1997. Muldowney also was honored by the New York State Senate as one of Thirty Women of Distinction, alongside Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt, and also was named one of Sports Illustrated for Women's top 100 athletes.

Throughout, Muldowney has been inexorably tied to Garlits. Both drag racing icons are three-time NHRA Winston Top Fuel champions and each has one of the sport's most recognizable names. Garlits nearly built her first dragster, and it was he who signed off on her Top Fuel license. Both made remarkable comebacks from life-threatening crashes. Their match race battles of the 1970s are legendary. Both are back in NHRA competition, albeit on a limited basis. Muldowney has competed at the last two U.S. Nationals, as feisty and determined as ever, the lines of fans waiting to meet her just as long as ever, and her championship attitude intact, as ever.

And it was Garlits who, in a national publication, recently offered some of his highest praise to his longtime adversary and friend, calling her "the greatest woman race car driver on the planet."

There are many who would say she was more, much more. -- Phil Burgess


Comments from the panel
"Possibly the last century's most significant female sports figure. Name the player -- Babe Zaharias, Cheryl Miller, Wilma Rudolph, Martina Navritolova, Nancy Lopez, you name 'em -- none competed against men, and none competed against them in a macho competition like drag racing. But more important, no female athlete ever dominated the male species in the last 100 years like Shirley. She is the sport's most important contribution to the world picture." -- Chris Martin

"Arguably one of the 20th century's most important female athletes." -- Steve Waldron

"Was a winner at the highest levels in head-to-head competition with rivals she always referred to as "the boys.' " -- Dave Densmore

"Finest pure driver." -- Bob Post

"The right person at the right time to bring women into the sport's limelight; the Billie Jean King of drag racing." -- Thomas Pope

"Probably had to overcome more adversity that anyone else on the top 50 list." -- Kevin McKenna

"Ask a non-drag racing fan to give you a name, and it's likely Shirley Muldowney." -- John Miller

"Her pioneering efforts for women could be compared to the racial barriers that Jackie Robinson broke in Major League Baseball." -- John Jodauga

"Brought a media frenzy to the sport of drag racing in the '70s." -- John Drummond

"Most visible woman in any form of motorsports, stamina and willingness to continue after severe injury; gender barrier breaker, excellent fan appeal, outspoken honesty on how she perceives issues involving the sport." -- Geoff Stunkard

"Equally feisty and very opinionated, but able to back it up at the loud pedal." -- Don Gillespie

"Sharp of tongue, outspoken and never one to back away from any description of controversy, Shirley Muldowney proved, at an early age, that girls can indeed compete and win big in the male-dominated world of professional drag racing. Her sheer willingness to compete and never-give-up attitude easily qualifies her for a spot in the Top 10." -- Jim Hill

"Feisty is as feisty does and nobody does it better!" -- John Raffa

"Longevity as a driver of serious race cars is matched by few active drivers. Shirley is the inspiration for virtually every female drag racer, in every class: Top Fuel to Jr. Dragster. As for major media attention, she has generated as much as or more than anyone." -- Dave Wallace Jr.

"The best argument for women's equality is competing against men and kicking their collective asses all over the track." -- Dan Bennett

"To this day, mention her name and people will react. Even non-racing fans know who she is. Go to a track where she's appearing and get in line and be prepared to wait. She's still that popular." -- Bob Frey