In the World of Motor Sports, results are often all that matter. For Shirley Muldowney the dual desire to compete and win gave her the impetus to break through barriers – barriers of gender, barriers of pain and barriers of time itself – in the quest for successful results. For the better part of forty years, Shirley Muldowney has been an icon in the field of Motor Sports, and even in her 60’s she continues to hold her own against the best racers on the planet.
Growing up and living through her teen years in New York, Shirley discovered early she had a penchant for speed and competition. In fact she became somewhat of a notorious local street racer in the early days, but was quickly drawn to a growing form of auto competition called Drag Racing. Reportedly, it was so-named because competitors would “drag” out through each gearshift. Drag racing is done on a straight course (normally one quarter-mile) in pairs with the lower elapsed time from start to end measured in seconds determining the winner.
After marrying former husband Jack Muldowney, she continued to pursue what was still considered a “men’s game”. Shirley began racing (and winning) in a variety of sportsman entries through 1964, including a brief stint in a factory experimental car during 1963. Indeed, she discovered there were a few things in life more satisfying than winning, and soon gained a reputation as someone who had no intention of backing down especially in gender-related issues.
Her willingness to buck the system would change the sport forever in 1965, as she was successfully licensed that year to compete in the supercharged gasoline dragster category by drag racing’s largest organization the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). The upper Gas divisions were professional categories, and no other women had ever been permitted this qualification up to that time. She proved it was no passing thing by match racing (exhibitions for a guaranteed fee) throughout the East and Midwest for the next four years, as well as making selected national event appearances on both NHRA and rival AHRA (American Hot Rod Association) sanctioning bodies.
However, in 1971, NHRA decided to eliminate the Top Gas category due to the introduction of new divisions, and Shirley chose to move into the popular new “funny car” category. There is nothing funny about funny cars. The car makes several thousand violent horsepower running on nitro methane fuel, and can be very difficult to drive. Undaunted, Muldowney stepped right up to the plate, posting a win on her first time out at a match race in Lebanon Valley, New York.
She also entered the record books for the first time when the upstart International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) held it’s first season ever.
Muldowney would post her first national event win at the sanction’s Southern Nationals in Rockingham, North Carolina in 1971, and a runner-up finish at the same race a year later.
However, while the popularity of the funny cars is unquestioned, unlike the cars competing today, they were very dangerous in those days. Fire was the worst enemy, and Muldowney would be involved in at least four bad fires during her three years in the machines irreverently referred to as “fiberglass infernos.” In a funny car, the driver basically straddles the motor, with the seat mounted only three feet behind the rear of the engine. Should the engine explode, as the nitromethane was prone to detonation, the engine’s oil and fuel would spill down on to the red-hot exhaust headers, instantly setting a car ablaze at speeds over two hundred miles per hour. The net effect: a blowtorch to the drivers face while traveling the equivalent of a football field every second. The safety equipment of that era was not enough. After a particularly nasty fire at the 1973 NHRA U.S. Nationals (the sport’s biggest event), it nearly destroyed her race car and Shirley required serious burn recovery. At that point, she had had enough of them.
There is only one category above funny cars, Top Fuel. These are the kings of the sport, machines created with only one purpose in mind –go from point A to point B in the least possible time. Though also fueled by “nitro,” in top fuel dragsters, the engine is mounted behind the driver. In 1973 only men drove them, but once again Shirley was not going to let that stand in her way. She had already made the required licensing qualifications, driving a dragster owned by Pancho Rendon of Detroit, with several other veteran drivers co-signing, including the like’s of ‘’Big Daddy” Don Garlits and T.V. Tommy Ivo, thus becoming the first woman ever to license in the NHRA top fuel category.
Shirley Muldowney returned to the U.S. Nationals the following year in 1974, posting the top speed of the meet at 241.58 mph using her own car and race team. She also scored a Semi-final finish at the PRO-backed National event in Long Island, N.Y., posting elapsed time as quick as 6.09 seconds.
On June 15, 1975, she added more to her accolades when she became the first woman to advance to the finals in Top Fuel, posting a runner-up to Marvin Graham at the NHRA Spring Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. Two months later, on August 24 at the Popular Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Michigan, she blasted a 5.98 second elapsed time to become the first woman to break the 5-second barrier. Then, back at NHRA U.S. Nationals, she again went to the final round only to come up short against Don Garlits. These season long accomplishments earned her a place on the prestigious ten members “All America Team” by the AARWBA.
The following year, the racing world knew she was on her way to the top when she returned to the Spring Nationals and blistered the field by qualifying number one (6.03), posting the lowest elapsed time of the race (5.96), running the top speed (243.90) and then becoming the first woman to win an NHRA Professional event on June 13, 1976, beating the late Bob Evans in the final round.
She won her second race of the season at the NHRA World Finals in Ontario, California on October 10, 1976, posting low elapsed time (5.77) and top speed (249mph) of the event (these were also the fastest runs of the entire season). Despite only racing in four of the eight NHRA National Events, she finished 15th in the year-end publication standings. She was also voted Top Fuel Driver of the year by industry publication Drag News and was again chosen to be on the All American Team by the AAWRBA.
The team picked up just where it had left off when the 1977 racing season began at a PRO-backed event in Phoenix, Arizona where Muldowney became only the second driver to top 250 mph with a 250.69 speed on January 17, running 252 mph before the event concluded. This was going to be her year.
During the first Winston World Series event (a points race) on May 7 in Irvine, California, she recorded the sports quickest–ever numbers, a 5.77 time at a thundering 253 mph speed. She then moved on to Spring Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, winning the race for the second straight year on June 12. At the following race, she qualified number one, a feat she repeated three times that year, and garnered wins at the NHRA Summer Nationals in Englishtown, New Jersey on July 19, and the NHRA Molson Grand Nationals in Canada on August 7. Two weeks later, she beat rival Don Garlits on her way to a runner-up finish at the Popular Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Michigan on August 14.
These accomplishments in the National Event and Winston World Series levels clinched the season long 1977 Winston World Championship in the Top Fuel Division for the now respected driver. In the course of that points-gathering effort, she became the first-ever driver to win three consecutive NHRA National event titles. Desiring no special treatment but a level playing field, Shirley Muldowney became the first woman (in any fuel class category) to take home an NHRA professional Series Crown. So monumental were these achievements, the United States House of Representatives honored Muldowney with an “Outstanding Achievement Award” bestowed on October 14, 1977. Drag News again proclaimed her Top Fuel Driver of the Year, while Car Craft, a leading automotive magazine, honored her as Person of the Year on the prestigious Car Craft All-Star Racing Team.
After Kalitta was given his walking papers at the end of the year, jealous rumors were rampant that he was the only reason she could have won the title. Now with John Muldowney calling the shots with the cars tune-up, she proved her ability by beating the boys again in 1980 by winning the NHRA TOP FUEL Point’s Crown. Her trademark pink dragster thundered to victory in the Winter Nationals, Spring Nationals, Fall Nationals and the World Finals, thus making her the first driver, male or female, to win two NHRA Top Fuel World Championships. Moreover she also competed in Top Fuel on the AHRA circuit and finished second in points there in 1980, nearly clinching two titles simultaneously! During the next season (1981), Shirley concentrated on the AHRA title chase and succeeded in taking home that crown (giving her two Top Fuel titles in two seasons) while finishing in the top five for NHRA that same year.
Then, in 1982, she again set her sights back on the full NHRA circuit and scored big. The result-Shirley Muldowney became the first professional driver in Top Fuel to earn Three NHRA World Championships, winning four events in seven final round appearances. This included her first ever U.S. Nationals crown, beating Connie Kalitta in the final round to the great satisfaction of her fans. She was voted to be on the Car Craft All-Star Team as Top Fuel Driver of the Year for the second consecutive season and named to the AARWBA top ten for the fifth time, receiving the greatest number of votes ever by a driver.
In 1983, Shirley finished fourth in the NHRA points with landmark wins at the Winter Nationals and the World Finals, while at Columbus, Ohio, one of her favorite tracks, she went to the finals for a record six times in eight years. After devoting twenty-five years of her life to drag racing, Shirley had for the most part seen and done it all, yet her toughest battle of all lie ahead.
On June 29th, 1984 tragedy struck during qualifying at an NHRA event in Montreal, Canada. A front tire failure on her nitro-fueled dragster caused a high speed crash at over 250 mph that nearly ended her life. In addition to other injuries, her legs were so badly broken they required extensive and repeated surgeries simply to enable her to walk again. After many months of grueling physical therapy and recovery, not to mention moral support from close friends and fans, Muldowney was strapping herself back into a race car.
That valiant effort garnered her recognition as the AARWBA’s “Comeback Driver of the Year” for 1986, but Shirley didn’t come back just to drive, she came back to Win. Through John’s tuning expertise and some sponsorship help, the team was back in the thick of the NHRA Top fuel wars by 1989, a year that she went to three final rounds, won the Fall Nationals, finished in the top 10 in points and became the first woman to enter the exclusive 16 member Cragar Four-Second Club with a run of 4.974 at 284 mph.
In 1990, Shirley again finished in the NHRA top ten, but decided to change gears for the following season. In her desire to continue on a more profitable level, she decided to move back to the match race trail. This would not be an effort where she would simply appear and make a minor impression; track records became somewhat of a hobby for her as she set no less than twelve new records at various facilities all across America and Canada. Throughout most of the early 1990’s Shirley set out on vigorous match racing schedules across the USA and overseas. In 1993 she set a track record at the Fuji International Speedway in Japan of 5.30 at 285 mph.
By 1995, the desire for open competition brought her back to IHRA. In 1996, she reached the final round in IHRA competition five straight times, winning three national events back to back. She qualified in the top three at every race and finished the year in the number two spot for top fuel points.
In 1997, Shirley continued running IHRA and NHRA competitions when her busy match-racing schedule allowed. In open competition, she set and re-set the high mile per hour mark for the IHRA national record four times with a standing mark of 303.71 mph at seasons end. In competition, she held the number two spot in points, but by opting not to go to the final race of the year, that tally dropped her to third for the season. The highlight of 1997 was being honored by the United States Sports Academies 25th Anniversary CNN/USA Today balloting for “Top Athletes of the past 25 Years”. In four categories names were presented by ballot voting for the persons whose noted accomplishments made an impact on their respective sport. In auto racing for the men, it was Richard Petty-known as the King of NASCAR. For the women, it was Shirley Muldowney, whose forty years of dedication and devotion have carved her unmistakable mark in the annals of auto racing.
In 1998, Shirley had another successful year racing. She set track records for top speed or elapsed time at Atco, New Jersey, Milan Michigan, Epping, New Hampshire, and Stanton, Michigan where she not only engraved the new track records, but also set a new performance record for the International Hot Rod Association. Her 4.69 second elapsed time at 312.50 mph during qualifying at Stanton’s Northern Nationals was the quickest and fastest ever recorded in the history of the IHRA competition, proving once again what she was made of. Shirley also received one of the highest distinctions of her career that year; when the New York State Senate honored her as one of the “Thirty Women of Distinction,” with a historical display presented at the state capital in Albany. Her historical motor sports accomplishments were acknowledged alongside such luminaries as Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The 2000 season began only seconds after the new millennium began, when Shirley matched up with Don Garlits in a special race at Moroso Motorsports Park in West Palm Beach, Florida and won. The next highlight of the season was to return to the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, where she qualified and brought down the house with a spectacular wheel stand in the first round. The effort was through the assistance of Goosehead.com with actor and American Graffiti star Richard Dreyfuss as a guest of the team for the weekend. They finished the season by qualifying 10th at the NHRA World Finals.
With the help of Action Performance and Collectibles owner Fred Wagenhals, Shirley was able to return to the Indianapolis event in 2001 with a special paint scheme honoring her years as a funny car racer. The team qualified with their quickest and fastest time to date - 4.64 at 320.20 mph. Shirley went on to race at no less than five NHRA races in addition to her match race schedule. She qualified at each stop and went as far as the semifinals (at where else Columbus, Ohio!) She continued to beat the boys as well as other women who followed in her footsteps, with a long and distinguished career in professional motor sports as well as paving the way for women to enter the arena. Shirley Muldowney is a true champion by any standards.
After forty years of racing, due to lack of funding, Shirley decided to retire from Professional Drag Racing in 2003 with the “Last Pass Tour” that ended in Pomona California at the World Finals, where she celebrated her career with great appraise and fan recognition.
As of 2013, Shirley continues to seek the necessary funding that would allow her to go back to the sport she loves. Her accomplishments have helped build the sport to what it is today.
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