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VOL. 131 | NO. 171 | Friday, August 26, 2016

Trailblazer on the Track

‘First Lady of Drag Racing’ Shirley Muldowney set a path for women race car drivers

By Don Wade

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Two or three times a week, the dream returns. No matter that it has been 13 years since she was behind the wheel of a top fuel dragster. No matter that she is now 76 years old.

Shirley Muldowney won 18 NHRA national events during her career and paved the way for other women to enter the sport. She will visit Memphis International Raceway Aug. 26-27 for the World Series of Drag Racing.  


Shirley Muldowney was, is, and will always be the “first lady of drag racing.” And the lady dreams. Still.

Not about the three NHRA Top Fuel championships she won. Not about the 18 NHRA national event titles where she crossed the finish line first. Not even about the fires from her funny car days – the cars were dubbed fiberglass infernos – or even the horrific crash of more than 30 years ago when a tire failed and she could have lost her career and her life.

No, the dream is all prelude and nervous anticipation, the old butterflies that every serious competitor knows as a returning friend arriving right before the moment of engagement.

“I can’t find my other fire boot,” Muldowney said. “I can’t find my other glove.”

And that’s where the dream ends. The engine never turns over and roars. She never takes off down the track.

Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that at the World Series of Drag Racing this Friday and Saturday, Aug. 26-27, at Memphis International Raceway in Millington, Muldowney will not just be signing autographs but acting as the official starter for Car Chix – an all-female category of different driving classes.

“She set the path,” said MIR president Pam Kendrick, referring to all the female race car drivers, be they anonymous or accomplished, to come after Muldowney. “Folks whose parents grew up in that era of racing, they’re excited about meeting her.”

Muldowney was known for her pink car, but also her absolute toughness. She was 13 when she began street racing in Schenectady, N.Y., and she says that after she made a name for herself as a top NHRA driver she used to exchange Christmas cards with one of the cops that chased her.

Similarly, the once nitro-hot rivalry that burned between Muldowney, aka “Cha Cha,” and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits has cooled over the decades. Garlits once told her that the men were out there racing to get away from their women. And the men surely didn’t accept that a woman could actually compete with and beat them.

“The boys didn’t like it,” Muldowney said. “And Garlits was at the top of heap. He couldn’t have been uglier than he was, but that was 40 years ago and we’ve become friends.”

And just to be clear: The resistance she faced was widespread. Not all fans were accepting. She tells of being at a track in Gainesville, Fla., and as usual her little dog, Skippy, was with her.

“She was at the end of the racetrack and two wise guys picked her up,” Muldowney said. “They were going to feed her to the alligator (in this pond). Steve Evans (the track announcer) stopped them. Good thing, because somebody would have got shot. It was mean back then.”

Today, she has two Chihuahuas that are her constant companions and the racing game is not nearly so mean.

“The sport’s diversified – race and gender,” Kendrick said.

Sponsorship always was a major battle for Muldowney and she left NHRA for years to run invitational races where she packed the stands and made more money. Sponsorship is still a challenge for dragsters today, Muldowney says, even as the sport has become more corporate and there are many more events to race, more opportunities to earn a living.

“NASCAR has just picked our pocket. All the money goes over there.”

Muldowney only returned to making appearances a few weeks ago after a health scare earlier this year; she had some lung tumors removed that doctors feared were cancerous, but turned out not to be.

She gets short of breath now and then, but it’s nothing she can’t handle. And she does still drive – on the street in the aptly named 2004 Chevy TrailBlazer given to her by General Motors upon her retirement.

“It’s got 107,000 miles and it’s in impeccable condition,” she said.

Last year, some friends also gave her a 2015 Chrysler 300.

“Dynamite car. Snazzy, jazzy. Very fast.”

Still, she does not dream of searching for her fire boots so she can climb into the Chrysler 300 or the TrailBlazer and race to the supermarket.

She knows she’ll have a good time this weekend – she enjoys seeing old friends (yes, even Big Daddy), signing her posters and talking with fans, and reminiscing about the glory days – but when the races actually start?

“I’m the worst spectator in the world,” she said. “It hurts. I loved driving the car.”

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