Classic American People: Shirley Muldowney

Motorsport legends don’t come any bigger than Shirley Muldowney, but success didn’t always come easy in the man’s world of top performance drag racing, as Steve Havelock discovered when he spoke to her.

Posing for sponsor Chrysler in 1973. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

Shirley Muldowney, now 78, is a drag racing legend, and I don’t use the word lightly. She is one very determined lady who rose to the pinnacle of a sport which was dominated by men, many of whom resented her racing.

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In her early days even the crowd threw soda cans at her, but through hard work, grit, determination, and by winning, she won the hearts of the fans and the respect of her fellow racers.

She broke records galore, became a four-time American drag racing champion in the premier Top Fuel class and an inductee of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. 

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Another trophy for Shirley’s ’63 Corvette at Fonda Speedway. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

Born in 1940, Shirley Roque, as she was back then, grew up in the small town of Schenectady, New York. She left school young, became a waitress, and starting hanging out with the local hot rodders and street racers. One of these was Jack Muldowney, whom she married when she was just 16.

Shirley soon got behind the wheel of his car and proved faster than the boys. Having picked up way too many speeding tickets from the local police, the couple started racing at the local dragstrip, Shirley driving and Jack spannering, first in a ’58 Chevy and then in a ’63 Corvette. They amassed a cupboard full of trophies and Shirley knew that this was what she wanted to do.

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She says: “Back in those days I was basically a teenager with no direction. I came from a poor family and I didn’t really have anything going for me. There was nothing much available to me to go out and make anything of myself.

Shirley’s first dragster outside Jack’s garage. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

“Street racing was, first of all, against the law, and when I started in the sport, if you could call it a sport back then, there was no prize at the end of the day. We did it because we liked racing, we liked cars, and I was along for the ride. Little did we know how the sport was going to evolve and how it would grow like it did, but I’m thankful for the early days, that I was there.”

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When she wanted to move up from local club racing into proper dragsters in ’65, she hit trouble. Jack had built a front-engined B/Gas dragster with an unblown Chevy motor, but in order to get an NHRA licence to race it, Shirley had to pass a test to prove she could handle it.

She recalls: “I had my work cut out for me to get approval to go out and race. They gave me a licence when I went through the test (at Connecticut Dragway) and showed that I could drive the car. This was what was required, but I got a letter from California saying that my licence would not be honoured because women just didn’t drive dragsters.

Keeping the sponsors happy. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

“It was so stupid, but back then they thought they could get away with that. They were chauvinistic and thought that women shouldn’t be a part of the sport other than to make sandwiches at weekends, run for parts and do all the odd jobs. It was a fight when the sport was young.”

A local newspaper shamed the NHRA, who gave in and granted Shirley her licence, but whenever she applied to run in a National event, her entry was denied, forcing her for the next two years to run local events only.

When she did eventually get to run in National events she was right up at the sharp end, but accepted National entries were still few and far between.

Shirley progressed to a twin-engined dragster. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

Shirley says: “Drag racing was California-based. That’s where all the excitement was, where all the decisions were made, that’s where if there was anything to give away in terms of sponsorship, favours, parts, money, anything you can think of, it was all happening out there on the West Coast.

“On the East coast, we were only a small part of it and they laughed at us. All the magazine articles were based around the West Coast racers. They had an advantage over us in terms of location. All the officials and the NHRA were all based on the West Coast.” 

Shirley became known as ‘Cha-Cha’, a name that has stuck with her to this day. I asked her where it came from and she told me: “It appeared on my car (her ’58 Chevy) after I went through an inspection line at an event. In the early days you would line up to have your car inspected and they would write your race number on the car.

Cha-Cha’s Bounty Huntress funny car. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

“The inspection guy wrote ‘Cha-Cha’ on my car in shoe polish. That’s where it came from and I kept it. Cha-Cha has been synonymous with the sport, like The Mongoose or Big Daddy. It was all part of establishing yourself in the sport and doing something that people would remember.”

Shirley was determined to make drag racing her career and her life. In 1970 she parted company with Jack and partnered up with well-known racer Connie Kalitta.

For the next three years the pair raced fast, ferocious, immensely powerful and highly dangerous nitro methane-fuelled, front-engined funny cars. Connie’s car was The Bounty Hunter and Shirley’s The Bounty Huntress.

In 1973 Shirley was granted her Top Fuel licence. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

She says: “That was a major step up. It was a way of getting into the professional ranks. I did it as a stepping stone to Top Fuel, which was the totally unlimited class. Funny cars were more dangerous than Top Fuel cars and at that time not as fast, but almost as fast.

“There wasn’t 10mph in it. At that time funny cars began to show their strength in terms of fan appeal and sponsor appeal because the side of the car was much larger than a Top Fuel car so you had a rolling billboard; a lot more room to put on sponsors’ names.” 

In the early Seventies drag racers were pushing the limits ever onwards. Engine and supercharger blow-ups and component failures were commonplace, resulting in many deaths and serious injuries.

 Shirley winning the 1982 US Nationals at Indy. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

One of the major safety steps forward in Top Fuel was putting the engine behind the driver. At least if it blew up, the driver wasn’t hit by shrapnel or engulfed in flames. Funny cars still had the engines up front and, furthermore, the driver was enclosed by flimsy fibreglass bodywork. 

Shirley was seriously burnt in a couple of fires and says: “Fires went along with the funny cars. A lot of the tune-ups weren’t perfected; there were a lot of people out there tuning these cars that didn’t know what they were doing.

“When the thing blows up and catches fire there is no such thing as practice. You fought to get the thing stopped and to get out of it. We only had rear brakes, not front brakes like they do today. I drove them when they were very evil and you had every little thing going against you. 

Nigh-time flame out in ‘English Leather’ Top Fueler. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

“Today they have a sealed box inside the cockpit that keeps the fire off the driver and you have top-notch safety crews that are there right on the spot if you have a problem. The cars have been perfected.”

Enough was enough, and after another serious fire at the 1973 NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis which burned off her goggles and burnt her face she decided it was time to give up on funny cars and move into Top Fuel.

Although she had been running funny cars at 220mph she still had to take a test to upgrade her licence to Top Fuel. She made two passes at 219mph in a borrowed car and her upgrade application was signed by Don Garlits, Tommy ‘TV’ Ivo and Connie Kalitta. She was granted her Top Fuel licence, the first ever woman to have one. She was now playing with the big boys. 

Shirley’s first NHRA win in 1976 with Wally Parks. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

In ’74 she formed her own team and quickly proved she could cut it. Returning to the US Nationals at Indy, this time in a Top Fueler, she posted the fastest top speed of the meeting at 241.58mph. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA) and IMDbIn ’74 she formed her own team and quickly proved she could cut it. Returning to the US Nationals at Indy, this time in a Top Fueler, she posted the fastest top speed of the meeting at 241.58mph.

In 1976 she won her first NHRA National event at Columbus, Ohio, followed by a win at the World Finals in Ontario. Victories then came thick and fast. 

The following year she became the second driver ever to go over 250mph and she was crowned NHRA Top Fuel Champion. Now, that made the boys sit up and take stock.

1971 IHRA win for Shirley’s funny car. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

Shirley and Connie Kalitta split up and Rahn Tobler took over as crew chief. A bitter rivalry started between Shirley and Connie, which seemed to spur her on even more. She claimed her second NHRA Top Fuel Championship in 1980 and in 1981 she won the AHRA Top Fuel Championship.

In 1982 she took what she considers to be the sweetest win of her career by winning the US Nationals at Indianapolis, beating Connie Kalitta in the final round. She went on that year to claim her third NHRA title, becoming the first person to do so. 

In July 1984, at Montreal, Canada, Shirley suffered a life-changing accident during a qualifying run. She vividly recalls: “The front tyre went flat. The tube came out from inside the wheel, wrapped around the spindle and took the steering away from me. It turned the front wheels completely to the left and the car went off at 90 degrees at 250mph and it impacted a bank, and the car just disintegrated.

Shirley was badly burned in this 1973 fire at Indy. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

“It broke off at the top of my hips and my legs were (dangling) out for 300 feet. The front end was gone in front of me. There was nothing left of the car. The cage stayed intact, but it took them 45 minutes to cut me out of it.

“It took me 18 months and 13 operations to survive it. I was in Montreal Hospital for two months, then I was in Detroit Hospital for a month and in Indianapolis for two months. It was a rough part of my life.”

Lesser mortals would have given up on the spot, but Shirley was determined to race again. She says: “Getting back was the light at the end of the tunnel. If there was a chance to drive again, that gave me the will to go through all the mental, the physical therapy and all the things it took for me to get back to being pretty much a normal human being.

Glamour and skill in a man’s world. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

“I have a shorter leg, I walk with somewhat of a gait and I have a fused ankle so I will never wear more than a half-inch high shoe. I can’t wear a high heel and that hurts because I’ve had a shoe fetish my entire life!

“In 1985 I sat in a wheelchair and came back in ’86. Then I drove for another 17 years. I ran the fastest and quickest in the last year I drove.”

In 2003, during her Last Pass Tour at the NHRA Nationals at Joliet, Illinois, Shirley ran a 4.578 second pass at 327.66mph. She says: “That’s quite a ride, my friend!”

Shirley and Bonnie Bedelia on Heart Like a Wheel film set. Photo: IMDb

She was clearly still enjoying herself, so why did she quit? She says: “It was the cost that drove me out of the sport. I couldn’t do it any more. I was 63 years old, I’d been in Top Fuel for 30-some-odd years, had won four world championships, and yet I couldn’t find a sponsor.

“There was always something about not sponsoring that woman. Still the same old story. It was crazy. The old regime at the NHRA were stupid in that they didn’t utilise me more than they did. I sold seats, a lot of them. I had quite a following, you know.

“There aren’t as many cars out there now. The cost has whittled them down considerably. In the Seventies I would look down the qualifying row and there would be 50 Top Fuel dragsters there. Now, they barely get 16.”

Shirley still makes regular appearances at races and shows. If you want to know more about her incredible life, it’s worth watching the 1983 film Heart Like a Wheel, which is on YouTube, with Bonnie Bedelia playing Shirley and Beau Bridges as Connie Kalitta. She also wrote a book in 2005 entitled Tales from the Track. 

Summing up, she says: “I am thankful for everything the sport did for me. It didn’t make me rich, but it made a much different person out of me than what I would have turned into on the streets of Schenectady. I wouldn’t have gone very far. I’m dead serious. 

“The sport took its toll and beat me up, but if I had to do it all over again I would. Some of the people I worked with I would change, but overall it was a great ride. I miss it every day of my life, oh yes.”

Last Pass Tour, 2003, Las Vegas. Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Muldowney, David Kennedy (NHRA)

Many thanks to Shirley Muldowney and David Kennedy of the NHRA for their help with this feature and the photos.

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