Shirley Muldowney – Drag Racer
There have been a number of women who have made their mark on the world of Motorsport but few could ever achieve as much as Shirley Muldowney, also known as Cha Cha or the First Lady of Drag Racing. A winner in the male-dominated field of drag racing, she was a true ground breaker and finished her career as a multiple champion.
Muldowney led the way for others to follow but just why is she held in such high regard, not just by women but by anyone who has ever sat behind the wheel of a professional racing car? Read more in this Shirley Muldowney biography article.
Rapid Rise for the First Lady of Drag Racing
Unlike a number of other drivers who we have profiled on this site, the Shirley Muldowney bio doesn’t show that she was born into the world of motor racing. There are no brothers, fathers or female members of the family who guided her on her way - just a love of the sport that manifested itself from a very early age.
Born in 1940, it’s said that Shirley Muldowney was racing street cars in her native New York as a young girl in the 1950s. By her own admission, she had no interest in school at this point in her life and all she wanted to do was race.
This enthusiasm continued and it wouldn’t be long before Shirley's racing story took a significant turn which would quickly lead to a professional career. When she was 16, she married Jack Muldowney who, as a skilled mechanic, shared her love of cars. It was, therefore, a perfect partnership in many ways as Jack would work on the cars that she would race.
The Shirley Muldowney story was about to truly take off and it’s from this point that she started to make history.
Dragster Racing was always the focus for Shirley Muldowney and she first competed at the international class Florida Speedway in 1958. In seven years, she continued to make her mark in a global sport that was almost exclusively male and then, in 1965, Muldowney was granted a professional license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). She was the first woman to have ever been granted the license and from this point, the professional drags racer Shirley Muldowney went from strength to strength. The three signatures necessary for her license were given by Don Garlits, Tommy Ivo and Connie Kallitta.
Muldowney changed cars and classes over time and while she remained competitive on the strip, her first major success would have to wait. Finally, in 1971, she broke through by claiming the International Hot Rod Association Southern Nationals.
Conquering the World
Shirley Muldowney had made steady progress since that first ride on the Florida Speedway in 1958 but a career decision 14 years later was to change everything. 1972 saw Muldowney step from NHRA to Top Fuel which are the fastest accelerating dragster cars in the world. This was a major move up the motorsport ladder but it was one that should ultimately define the Shirley Muldowney story.
Once again, Shirley Muldowney had made history as the first woman to ever be granted a Top Fuel license but that was just the beginning. In time, Muldowney would start to dominate the class and it was inevitable that she would eventually win her first Top Fuel Championship. 1977 was the year that she made history but that first championship wouldn’t be her last. Muldowney would claim the ultimate Top Fuel crown again in 1980 and 1982, thereby proving that her success on the strip was no mere fluke. She was one of the most consistent drivers in the class at this time and in those three winning years, she was the best, there was no one to match her.
Those three won championships from 1977 until 1982 were undoubtedly the pinnacle of the Shirley's drag racing story but she continued to compete at a high level. However, motorsport is a dangerous profession and Muldowney would suffer an accident in 1984 which came with serious consequences.
The incident resulted in Muldowney suffering crushed hands, legs and pelvis and, not surprisingly, it would result in a long period away from the track. Six operations and 18 months of therapy were required in order to get her mobile again and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that she was ready to get behind the wheel and drive.
The comeback itself was a remarkable one and while Shirley couldn’t quite get back to her championship winning level, she remained a competitive force on the drag strip. She was, however, largely unsponsored as she continued through the 1990s and would be up against better performing cars and teams. Ultimately, before she finally retired in 2003, Muldowney returned to the NHRA before finally pulling the curtain down on a remarkable career.
Life After Racing
We’ve showcased a glittering career but what about Shirley Muldowney today - what did life hold after she finally vacated the drag racer’s seat? Firstly, she was showered with a number of honours that confirmed just how important her career had been. Her first major accolade came in 1990 when she was still competing, as Muldowney was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
Later, when she had finally given up on the track, the Shirley Muldowney story received the ultimate accolade when she was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame for drivers between 1951 and 2000. That award was handed over in 2004 and it’s a fitting way in which to mark her achievements but that isn’t the end of things.
To this day, Shirley runs a charity known as Shirley’s Kids which helps out children in need where drag racing is already a part of the community.
That fact brings an end to our own Shirley Downey biography but there are ways to find out more about this incredible driver. Along with her many successes on the track, she was one of the first drivers to ever have a film produced about her life. The 1983 biopic, Shirley Muldowney movie "Heart Like a Wheel" featured Beau Bridges and also Bonnie Bedelia who took the starring role. Muldowney herself had mixed feelings about the film but acknowledged that it was good for the sport. Among the crop of new racing films such as Rush and Ford vs Ferrari, Heart Like a Wheel may be harder to track down but it’s worth seeking out another testament to the remarkable drag racing career of Shirley Muldowney.