Leading Ladies: Shirley Muldowney

March 4, 2021

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Introducing our new series “Leading Ladies”; a month-long feature on the women who have helped shape automotive history. Our first installment features Shirley Muldowney, the “First Lady of drag racing”

Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney was born fast. A notorious street racer in her teenage years, she was the first woman ever to earn a Top Fuel dragster license and the first to win an NHRA World Championship. “School had no appeal to me. All I wanted was to race up and down the streets in a hot rod”, Muldonwey said of her early years.

At 16, she married Jack Muldowney, who would build her first dragster. She made her drag racing debut in 1958 at the age of 18 and obtained her NHRA pro license in 1965. Despite her impressive abilities as a driver, many felt that drag racing was not a sport for women. Muldonwey recalled that “(The) 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”.

In spite of the pressure, Muldowney forged ahead and began to break records. She won her first major event in 1971 and, after the 1973 season, decided that she wanted to move up to the “top fuel” class. Her first Top Fuel championship came in 1977. She would win the top fuel championship and again in 1980 and 1982. She became the first woman to break the five-second barrier and would later become part of the exclusive “Four-Second Club” in 1989 with a run of 4.974 at 284 mph.

Though Muldowney enjoyed a very successful career, the speed didn’t come easy. In addition to the pressures that came with trying to succeed in a sport dominated by men, she endured numerous fires and crashes. One incident in 1984 crushed her hands, pelvis, and legs, necessitating half a dozen operations and 18 months of therapy. Despite her injuries, Muldowney continued to race until 2003. Drag racing legend Don Garlits said of Muldowney “…She went against all odds. They didn’t want her to race Top Fuel, the association, the racers, nobody…” Muldowney not only paved her own path through motorsports, but also blazed a trail for every female racer who came after her.

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