"I know I've been forgiven, but the price of love is high" - Loretta Lynn
Words Elana Scherr Images Courtesy Shirley Muldowney & NHRA
People have strong feelings about strong women. I’d been told that Shirley Muldowney, the first-ever woman to win a professional motorsports championship, was difficult, mean, and crazy. She’s none of those things. Well, maybe crazy, but anyone willing to strap themselves into a nitro-burning Top Fuel dragster has to be a little bit crazy. Muldowney fought her way to the top in an era when most women who participated in motorsports stalled out in the lower ranks. If Muldowney seemed mean, it was because you were in her way. If she was difficult, it was because what she was doing wasn’t easy.
Muldowney started drag racing in the late 1950s, a teenage girl living in upstate New York with her husband and a new baby. Now 78, she lives in a cute corner house in a gated community near Charlotte, North Carolina, with a chihuahua named Midnight. Her garden is full of bird feeders and huge rose bushes, and the front sidewalk is spotless because she pressure-washes it regularly. She does her neighbor’s sidewalk as well because it would be rude not to. But she’s none too fond of her other neighbor, the loud guy with his power tools and air compressor. “Shirley,” I ask, “Didn’t you used to be that guy?” When Muldowney ran her team out of Northridge, California, in the 1980s, she had a shop in her back yard and tested Top Fuel dragsters along Sepulveda Boulevard. “Yeah,” she answers, “I lived for 40 years with the sound of a compressor. I want some quiet.”
When she speaks, she keeps eye contact and gets right to the point. She starts by telling me about her family. “My dad was bully and not a nice person. He hit my mom. He had girlfriends. He spent all our money. I didn’t tell the truth when they were writing my story for the movie (Heart Like a Wheel, 1983). I didn’t want to embarrass my mother. She did all the work of raising us.”
"I’d never been good at anything, but I knew I was good at racing," she says. "I wanted that win. It was, ‘Get out of my way or I’ll kill you.’ I just happened to be a girl.”
\When Shirley and her sister, Linda, were barely toddling, their father, Belgium “Tex” Roque, abandoned their mother, Mae, in their hometown of Burlington, Vermont, and headed off to upstate New York where he was a small-time boxer, musician, and all-around shady character. He then brought the family out to Schenectady, New York, although to hear Muldowney tell it, they would’ve been better off without him. “That’s the way the mop flops,” she said with a shrug. It did put her in the right place to meet Jack Muldowney, and Jack Muldowney had a really nice car.
“A 1951 Mercury,” she tells me. “It had a nice rumble to it.” Jack was a senior, almost done with school. Shirley was only 16, but she was done with school, too. “I had no place to go. No direction. No horizon. I had nothing going for me.” She dropped out and married Jack, and together they terrorized local street racers. “Jack taught me to drive. I went 100 mph around a curve the first time I got behind the wheel. Later we’d race and I’d work the steering and shift, and Jack would do the pedals. He’d lean out the window and pop the clutch, and we’d race with him hanging both his hands out the driver’s side window.”
Shirley remembers the ‘60s fondly, racing with Jack on the streets and at the local dragstrip, just two kids raising a kid; their son, John, was born in 1958, the same year Shirley made her first dragstrip pass. She gained a reputation as the girl who kicked all the boy’s asses and even earned a nickname: Cha-Cha. All the best drivers had nicknames: Snake, Mongoose, Big Daddy, The Farmer, The Madman, The Snowman. Cha-Cha raced showroom-stock “door slammers” before moving to dragsters, a stripped-down chassis with an elongated frame stuffed with as much engine as could fit. She couldn’t race a dragster without an NHRA license, which she earned in 1965 — the first woman to do so. License or not, many race officials didn’t like the idea of a woman piloting a dragster, and Shirley and Jack spent the next five years traveling to races, unsure if they’d be allowed to run.
The Muldowneys started with comparatively mild, gas-burning, small-block-Chevy-powered, front-engine dragsters, and when they did well — despite the frustrations with petty track officials — they moved up to an expensive, professionally built car designed by chassis builder Don Long. “That was my favorite car,” says Muldowney. “The twin-engine car.” The dragster ran two Chevy engines at once and performed so well that Top Fuel dragster driver Don “The Snake” Prudhomme took notice. He remembers thinking, “That girl in the dual-engine car is pretty ballsy.”
Top Fuel would come calling for Shirley after she met racer Connie Kalitta and his nitro-burning Funny Car floppers. She fell in love — maybe with him, maybe with the nitromethane — either way, the end result was the same. Shirley divorced Jack in 1972, moved to Detroit, and spent the first few years of the ‘70s racing Funny Cars. If dragsters are stripped-down car skeletons, Funny Cars are puffed-up car caricatures: short, nitromethane-burning dragsters covered in cartoonish fiberglass replicas of popular production cars. Muldowney and Kalitta raced side-by-side, he as The Bounty Hunter and she as The Bounty Huntress. She won her first national event in a Funny Car but also spent a lot of time climbing out of fireballs. After the fourth time burning off her eyelashes and the skin around them, Muldowney saw the appeal of less-volatile, rear-engine Top Fuel dragsters.
She made her first Top Fuel pass in a dragster owned by friend Poncho Rendon and got the attention of promoter and racer “TV” Tommy Ivo, who spurned the piddly prize money of NHRA competition in favor of paid match races all over the country. “I think I gave her the seat time she never would have had otherwise,” Ivo says, “but she made her own greatness from there.”
In 1977, Muldowney claimed a Top Fuel championship, becoming the first woman to win a professional motorsports title. But while her career was going great, her personal life was not. She and Kalitta split up — “I left him standing in an airport and never looked back,” she says — and to this day, Muldowney doesn’t have a nice thing to say about Kalitta, and Kalitta won’t accept an interview if he thinks you’ll ask about Shirley. But there was no time to mourn, because there were races to win. In 1980, Shirley took a second Top Fuel championship, becoming the first person — male or female — to do so. In 1981 she won an AHRA championship with Rahn Tobler as her crew chief and her son, John, as a mechanic. In 1982, she scored another NHRA championship, then a win at the U.S. Nationals, drag racing’s biggest showdown, beating her ex, Connie Kalitta.
Two years later, a front tire went flat during a qualifying run. There was no guardrail at this particular track, so when Muldowney’s dragster turned hard to the left, it sped straight into a dirt ditch. The car disintegrated, and Shirley nearly did too, smashing bones in both legs, crushing her pelvis, breaking every bone in her hand and severing her thumb and foot. Nobody thought she would walk again, let alone race, but 18 months later, Muldowney was at the Pomona, California, opener. While she would go on to win more races and set more records until she retired in 2003, the wreck left her with physical and financial scars that still affect her today. “It ruined my life, the crash. I’m in pain every day. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
Muldowney knew she could keep winning, and that’s what kept her going, but it wasn’t easy, even before the crash in ‘84. Her life was not like the Hollywood movie, where everyone was mean at first and then she won, and everyone loved her and she was accepted and adored. While she had her fans — lots of them — there were plenty of men and women who felt she had no right to be behind the wheel in a man’s sport. Muldowney suffered through hurled slurs and beer cans, but even worse was the assumption that a woman who was willing to flaunt convention on the racetrack would be up for anything. There were sponsorship meetings that ended not with a check slid across the table, but with a hotel key and whispered room number. As she tried to protect her reputation and find funding for her team, she also was trying to raise a child on the road and playing “mom” to her crew and fellow racers. Few other drivers were making sandwiches in the pits before putting on their fireproof underwear and running four-second quarter-miles in front of thousands of fans. Most racers had their wives or girlfriends to help out with the “women’s work.” Muldowney had herself. “Of course I cooked at the track,” she says. “Who else would?”
Toward the end of our interview, Muldowney apologizes. “I’m sorry I told so many negative stories,” she says. “But it was hard. It didn’t have to be so hard.” She regrets some of the things she did in anger or frustration, and some of the sacrifices she had to make in her family life. When she talks about John, her whole mood changes. Her son died in 2017, at age 59. Things had not been going well between them, and Shirley is miserable with guilt. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” she says, her voice cracking and her glasses fogging. “My beautiful boy. The mistakes I made.” She doesn’t know what she could have done differently; she only knows that in chasing some dreams, she lost hold of others. Even in hindsight she’s not quite sure where it happened. Would she change things now, if she could go back? “Oh, no. I’d never been good at anything, but I knew I was good at racing," she says. "I wanted that win. It was, ‘Get out of my way or I’ll kill you.’ I just happened to be a girl.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 035 of Iron & Air Magazine.