The racing scene has had lots of memorable champions, such as Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. But they aren’t the only people who’ve made a name in the sport. Women have established themselves as accomplished drivers. They’ve been tearing up the track for a long time, dating back to the 1950s, with drivers like Denise McCluggage and Pat Moss paving the way.
Women Racers is a series that looks at the most successful women drivers of all time. Shirley Muldowney has a legendary reputation in the racing world. Known as the ‘First Lady of Drag Racing,’ Muldowney is the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association to drive a Top Fuel dragster.
Born in Schenectady, New York, Shirley Ann Roque began street racing from an early age. She married 19-year-old mechanic Jack Muldowney when she was 16. Her husband built Muldowney her first dragster, a 1940 Ford with a Cadillac V8 engine.
Muldowney made her debut in 1958 on the Fonda Speedway. Her competitiveness increased in the 1960s, when she raced a 348 tri-powered Chevrolet and a 1983 Super Stock Plymouth. During this time, the NHRA and American Hot Rod Association were hesitant to give professional driving status to women. So, Muldowney and fellow racers Judi Boertman, Della Woods and Paula Murphy campaigned to race professionally.
In 1965, Muldowney became the first woman to receive a dragster license. This spurred her on to compete in more races, where she earned a slew of accomplishments. These include becoming the first woman to break the 6.00 second barrier, becoming the first woman to win the Winston World Championship in 1977 and won it again in 1980.
In 1977, Muldowney proved herself again by switching from the Top Gas car category to the funny car variety. These motors ran on nitro methane fuel, making them very difficult to drive. Muldowney stepped up to the challenge and won a race in Lebanon Valley, New York.
She faced great opposition throughout her career, as many people thought motorsports wasn’t a place for women. Muldowney has said that “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.”
Muldowney suffered a crash in 1984 that crushed her hands and legs, which put her out of action for 18 months. She returned to racing in the late 1980s and competed throughout the ‘90s. Her life was also the subject of the movie Heart Like A Wheel, made in 1983. Muldowney was played by Bonnie Bedelia, and the racer has stated she wasn’t a fan of the film.
Muldowney retired from professional racing in 2003, after being in the sport for forty years. Even in her 60s she continued to race for the feeling of being out on the road. Muldowney’s tenacity has made her one of the most accomplished women racers in history, and she’s an asset to the sport.