Female Drag Racer, Shirley Muldowney.
Shirley Muldowney, One of a Kind
When I was a kid there was almost always a radio on in the house, or on in the car while motoring down the road. I remember hearing commercials about drag racing, "come see Shirley Cha, Cha Muldowney race". I knew then that it was a sport dominated men and thought she must be one tough cookie to put up with the onslaught on crap being slung at her for not “knowing” her place. On a much lesser level I knew what it was like to be in a sport that was male dominated and hearing such things myself I knew she had her work cut out for her. What Shirley Muldowney did for the sport is very obvious today as you watch someone like Ashley Force or Danica Patrick race in motor sports that are male dominated. Muldowney had a feisty and strong determination to do what she loved which was to race cars. At the age of eighteen and her first trip down a dragstrip at Fonda Speedway in New York would be the start of a great career. Seven years later in 1965 she earned her dragster license and raced in the East and Midwest.
Muldowney's Racing Career
Shirley Roque was born in born June 19, 1940 in Schenectady, New York and would later marry former street racer, Jack Muldowney, who built her first dragster. Early on in her racing no one took the “little” lady seriously and she had only earned a few trophies in the late 60’s. Soon thought the racing world and her male competition would have a racer that would take no for an answer and never backed down. With Top Gas cars losing their popularity in the early 70’s Muldowney took on her next challenge Funny Cars. Connie Kalitta had an old Mustang Funny Car that the Muldowney’s bought and ran it on the match race trail. That year Muldowney won her first major meet the IHRA Southern Nationals. Soon after, the marriage was over and Shirley moved to Michigan to be closer the Midwest match racing scene. In 1972 she paired up with Kalitta and the pair had nearly identical Mustangs the “Bounty Hunter” and the “Bounty Huntress”
Shirley Muldowney would experience a horrendous fire that ultimately causes her to switch from Funny Car to Top Fuel. Shirley would go on to win the NHRA Top Fuel championship in 1977, 1980 and 1982. During 1977 a young man named Rahn Tobler joined the crew and was a key element in that first championship. Tobler would later become crew chief and, 11 years later, Muldowney's husband. Muldowney and Tobler would later divorce in 2006.
After a crash in 1984 were she was hurt severely Shirley would not return to the circuit until the late 1980s. In 1987, she was back in a race car and back to racing. It would be two more years, until the NHRA Fall Nationals in Phoenix in late 1989 when she would win her 18th NHRA national event. She continued to race, mostly without major sponsorship, throughout the 1990s in IHRA competition as well as match-racing events. In 1990 she was inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame of America. Shirley retired in 2003 and one of the most celebrated racers of all time. In 2004, she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and ranked 5th on the National Hot Rob Association Top 50 Drivers.
Garlits once said of her "the greatest woman race car driver on the planet".
A Racing Legacy
For me, she is a woman that led the way for others. Though not many have followed, she did blaze a trail for other females that wanted to race cars. I imagine that when a woman sits in a race car whether at Indy or on a dragstrip she is well aware of those that have gone before her and the sacrifices they made for love of the sport. Even today if Shirley Muldowney is at the track and you want her autograph, be prepared to wait in line. After all these years she is still popular with race fans across the nation.
Shirley hated the nickname “Cha, Cha” stating that "there is no room for bimboism in drag racing."
"What Shirley Muldowney did for female racers can't be measured." - Erica Enders, Drag Racer
Shirley Muldowney 1971 - 2003
#1 Qualifiers 13
Shirley Muldowney Website