In 1973, Shirley Muldowney became the first woman licensed to drive a Top Fuel dragster. She won the NHRA World Championship three times, the IHRA Championship once, and earned 18 career NHRA victories.
Born Shirley Roque on June 19, 1940 in Burlington, Vermont, she grew up in Schenectady, New York. Muldowney began street racing in the 1950s in Schenectady. “School had no appeal to me. All I wanted was to race up and down the streets in a hot rod,” she said. In 1956, when she was 16, she married 19-year-old Jack Muldowney, who would build her first dragster.
In 1958, the then 18-year-old made her debut on the dragstrip of the Fonda Speedway. Muldowney obtained her NHRA pro license in 1965. She competed in the 1969 and 1970 U.S. Nationals in a twin-engine dragster in Top Gas. With Top Gas losing popularity, Muldowney switched to Funny Car, buying her first car from Connie Kalitta.
Around this time, she and Jack drifted apart. “He didn’t want to go nitro racing and we parted, but we stayed friends all those years until he passed away [in 2007].” Muldowney won her first major event, the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Southern Nationals, in 1971. From 1972 to 1977, she teamed up with Kalitta, competing in match races as the “Bounty Hunter” and “Bounty Huntress.”
In 1973, she stepped up to Top Fuel. An unprecedented three NHRA Top Fuel world championships followed, in 1977, 1980, and 1982.
Muldowney’s success always came in the face of enormous opposition from those who felt drag racing (or any form of motorsport, for that matter) was no place for women. Don Garlits has said about her: “Now, if you ask who do I have the most respect for, I’d say Shirley Muldowney. She went against all odds. They didn’t want her to race Top Fuel, the association, the racers, nobody … just Shirley.” Muldowney said, “NHRA fought me every inch of the way, but when they saw how a girl could fill the stands; they saw I was good for the sport.”
A crash in 1984 crushed her hands, pelvis, and legs, necessitating half a dozen operations and 18 months of therapy. Muldowney was sidelined for a long period, but returned to the circuit in the late 1980s. She continued to race, mostly without major sponsorship, throughout the 1990s in IHRA competition as well as match-racing events. She returned to the NHRA towards the end of her career, running select events until her retirement at the end of 2003. Muldowney was described by longtime drag racer Fred Farndon as the “best natural driver, no question.”