Burlington, Vermont-born Shirley Muldowney (June 9, 1940) went from street racing during the late 1950s in Schenectady, New York, to become an internationally-renowned Drag Racing superstar and the first woman in the world to win a major motorsports title.
With that being said, the attractive lady racer with a winning smile and curly black hair reached a position in motorsports that a woman had never before attained. And she is the first female competitor to be elected into the Eastern Motorsport Press Association Hall of Fame.
The former Shirley Ann Roque – along with then-husband Jack Muldowney (1937-2007) – began her organized racing career in 1958 on Wednesday nights at the old eighth-mile-asphalt Fonda Speedway Drag Strip (1958-1968) in the infield of the famed half-mile dirt track.
At first, the 18-year-old wife and mother – son John (1958-2017) was as a crewman on her Top Fuel cars – drove a red 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne A/Stock entry with a “Tri-Power” 315-horsepower/348-cubic-inch engine, three 2-barrel carbs and 4-speed transmission (1958-1962). Then she handled a red 1962 Chevrolet Corvette C/Sports Car with a 300-horsepower/327-cubic-inch engine and 4-speed stick (1962-1963).
Shirley continued “beating the boys” at Fonda’s now-quarter-mile layout, Lebanon Valley (N.Y.) Drag Strip and other regional tracks with her black 1963 split-window Chevrolet Corvette equipped with a 300-horsepower/327-cubic-inch engine, 4-speed transmission, 4:56 gears and Posi-Traction rear end. And she did the same with a factory-backed 1963 Plymouth Fury Super/Stock Automatic that had a 426-cubic-inch/415-horsepower Max-Wedge engine and push-button Torqueflite automatic transmission (1963-1964).
How good a racer was Shirley? Well, in 1963 she sold back to Fonda 100 of the trophies she won that year for $2 a piece so she could buy a new set of gears. But even in those days she wanted to do more than just be a top NHRA Northeast Division 1 Stock Class racer.
In 1965, Shirley became the first woman licensed by the National Hot Rod Association to drive front-engined Top Gas Dragsters and through 1971 she competed in the East and Midwest – often in highly-publicized match races – with fuel-injected and supercharged/single- and twin-engined 327-Chevy-powered machines that Jack built for her. And she has always credited him with teaching her how to drive and providing her with the first cars that allowed her to find a sport which made a great difference in her life.
However, due to Shirley’s desire to go “nitro racing,” the couple drifted apart and their marriage ended in divorce in 1972, although she and Jack remained friends until his passing.
In the early 1970s the now-billed Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney brought a new level of color, excitement and glamour to the extremely-popular Funny Cars. But four spectacular fires during her time in Connie Kalitta’s supercharged and Hemi-powered Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda & Satellite “floppers” was enough of that.
Funny Car’s loss, though, was Top Fuel’s gain as in 1973 Shirley overcame the NHRA’s negative stance on allowing women to compete in this headline category and she became the first of her gender to be granted a Top Fuel Dragster License. And after showing her abilities in the required on-track tests, her “ticket” was endorsed by a trio of the biggest names in Top Fuel – Kalitta, “TV Tommy” Ivo and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.
Now Shirley was at her sport’s highest level and in her traditional-pink rear-engined cars she quickly became one of Top Fuel’s toughest competitors, especially in the head-to-head match races that took place at drag strips across the United States and Canada, and also in Japan.
In those crowd-pleasing contests versus Ivo and Garlits, Shirley gave as good as she got – or even better. And Garlits said of his arch rival, “She’s the greatest woman race car driver on the planet. She changed the sport. She brought fans to the sport. She brought women out of the kitchen to watch her run. There were a lot of women who had aspirations of driving race cars, but they didn't even mention it because it wasn’t politically correct. And they came to see Shirley.”
Highlights of Shirley’s impressive résumé finds her the first woman to win an NHRA race in a professional class (Top Fuel on June 13, 1976, at the Spring Nationals in Columbus, Ohio) and also the first professional racer to win three-consecutive NHRA National Events – the 1977 Top Fuel titles at Columbus, Ohio, Englishtown, N.J. and Montreal, Canada. And by the time her extraordinary career in a Top Fuel Dragster was through (1973-2003) she won 18 major NHRA races during a period when they were not held that frequently.
She also won the 1981 American Hot Rod Association Top Fuel Championship – the first and only female to do so. Then, on Sept. 6, 1982, she became the first female to win the highly-coveted NHRA U.S. Nationals Top Fuel title in her supercharged and nitro-fuel-injected/Hemi-powered Pioneer Electronics-sponsored entry at what was then Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Shirley’s efforts on and off the drag strip drew lots of attention and in 1983 her exploits as a woman and a racer were depicted in a well-received Twentieth Century-Fox movie, Heart Like A Wheel. She was also a popular guest on NBC-TV’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1986) and in 2005 she wrote her autobiography, Tales From A Top Fuel Dragster.
And when the NHRA celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2001, Shirley Muldowney was No. 5 on its list of Top 50 Racers; a position only surpassed by Garlits, Funny Car’s John Force, Top Fuel and Funny Car racer Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Pro Stock’s Bob Glidden.
As with anyone in motorsports, Shirley – whose AHRA and International Hot Rod Association triumphs bring her career-total of National Event Victories to 31 – has experienced the ups and downs of high-energy competition. And that includes a violent 1984 Top Fuel accident in Montreal that: snapped her race car in two; crushed her hands, pelvis and legs; and, required about a dozen operations, including one for the reattachment of her right thumb.
But the fan-favorite came back to the sport she loved in 1986 with the same hard work, dedication and determination that has long been the hallmark of her persona. And on Sept. 28, 2003, in one of the final races on her “Last Pass Tour” as she was about to end her career, she posted her best-ever full-quarter-mile Top Fuel run at the Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Illinois.
At that time a Top Fuel Dragster was a 2,250-pound/25-foot-long handful with an 8-foot-high rear-aerodynamic wing and it was powered by a supercharged and fuel-injected 500-cubic-inch/6,000-horsepower engine that burned an alcohol fuel mixture which contained as much as 90 percent nitro methane.
These machines were then – and still are – the fastest accelerating racing cars in the world and with all that power under her control the then-63-year-old competitor got a time slip in her Mac Tools-sponsored/Hemi-powered racer of 4.579 seconds at 327.66 mph.
In retrospect, though, of all that Shirley has accomplished in her long and illustrious career, four things stand out above the rest.
The first is her three (1977, 1980 and 1982) NHRA Top Fuel Championships for when she claimed that initial trophy for season-long success it made her the first woman in the world to win a major motorsports title. (She was also the first Top Fuel racer to win two and then three NHRA Championships.)
While the second is “Shirley’s Kids,” her non-profit charity that provides funds to select children struggling with medical issues or financial hardships brought on by a personal or family tragedy.
The third point is “The First Lady of Drag Racing” has always been a fighter and her pioneering efforts truly made a difference with regard to motorsports in particular and gender equality as a whole. So, with these personality traits and her many accomplishments, she has been an inspiration and role model to countless girls and young women around the world.
Finally, upon her January 2018 EMPA Hall of Fame induction, Shirley – who won the first 12 – and 16 other professional female contestants won nearly 150 National Events in NHRA Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle competition. Plus, Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle (2000-2002); Erica Enders, Pro Stock (2014-2015); and, Brittany Force, Top Fuel (2017) had also won NHRA titles.
And all of these things came about due to the major impact that Shirley Muldowney had on the growth of Drag Racing and all forms of motorsports.