14 AND COUNTING FOR MULDOWNEY
Two decades after she last drove a Top Fuel dragster, accolades continue to roll in for Shirley Muldowney.
The first woman to win a nitro championship, Muldowney on Sunday night (Jan. 22, 2023) was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame during the group’s annual convention in Concord, North Carolina. The inclusion of Muldowney, 10-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel, multi-time road-racing titlist Scott Pruett, and racer/journalist Dick Berggren brings the total number of members in that Hall to 121. Muldowney is the second woman inducted by the NMPA following IndyCar/NASCAR driver Janet Guthrie in 2020.
The NMPA’s Hall is the 14th such honor for Muldowney, and she’s slated to bump that number to 15 next month by the North Carolina Drag Racing Hall of Fame. That induction is part of the 20th anniversary Shriners Drag Racing and Hot Rod Expo in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 17-18. The others to be inducted into the N.C. Drag Racing Hall include Jay Turner, Quain Stott and Todd Tutterow.
“I started a career never knowing what this whole thing would turn into,” Muldowney told reporters Sunday afternoon. “I was racing up and down the streets of Schenectady, New York. This kid from the back streets and back roads wound up (racing) in Japan.
“Street racing is what tempted me, and what I was doing initially was against the law.”
That street racing in 1956-57 finally was harnessed in 1958 when she participated in her first legal drag race at Fonda (N.Y.) Speedway. The track’s dragstrip was the pit road used by the speedway’s dirt-track stock car racers. By 1971, she was racing nitro-burning Funny Cars, and she and then husband Jack Muldowney teamed to win the IHRA Southern Nationals at Rockingham (N.C.) Dragway that summer.
A serious Funny Car fire prompted her move to become the first woman licensed to compete in Top Fuel, and drivers Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, “T.V.” Tommy Ivo, and Connie Kalitta signed her license upgrade. Muldowney said Sunday that Garlits “bragged that ‘it’s not going anywhere’” – meaning that she wasn’t a threat – but added that two weeks later she “was dusting him off” at Union Grove, Wis.
“He was wild mad,” she said, “and that was where it all began in terms of the rivalry that filled our pockets.”
‘Not going anywhere’ resulted in a career that saw Muldowney win 18 NHRA national events, an AHRA (1981) and three NHRA (1977, 1981-82) Top Fuel championships, and a chance to represent drag racing around the world.
One of her most-cherished memories, she told the NMPA banquet crowd during her induction speech, came in 1993, when she was chosen by NHRA to race for America at Fuji International Speedway in Tokyo, Japan. It was, she told reporters Sunday afternoon, the run of a lifetime.
“I made a pass at night at 5:30 – dead dark, not a light in the facility because they raced in the daytime,” she related. “Officials were mad. I said, ‘Calm down, guys, let us do what we do best.’ I had them put up a spotlight in the traps – 1,320 feet, not a thousand feet; we ran a real race track back then.”
Her then-crew chief/husband Rahn Tobler told her he would “just put a lot of power in it, and we’ll go out and do a massive burnout and they’ll be happy with that,” she said. And that’s what she expected to occur – only when the dragster launched, it “picked the front end up about a foot and a half and carried ’em for 300 feet, set them down and here we go.
“All I did was point my car for those headlights that were centered on the ground (at the finish line). It ran 285 (mph), a five-something (5.30), but this was a skating rink. I have footage that was taken by Diamond P, and all you could see was header flames and thousands of flash bulbs going off in the stands. It was one of the most exciting races I ever ran.”
Muldowney continues to be peppered with questions about the 1983 motion picture of her life story, “Heart Like a Wheel.” Bonnie Bedalia was hired to portray Muldowney, who wanted Jamie Lee Curtis cast for the role, and her performance earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama.
Muldowney wasn’t pleased with parts of the film – “I thought they were a little unkind to Jack Muldowney, who was a wonderful guy,” she said – but added that she’s partly responsible for the parts that she didn’t like.
“They had in Hollywood something called a ‘red-line script.’ That’s (the version that’s) carved in stone – that’s going on the screen for everyone to see – and I did not read it. I was chasing a world championship in 1982 … and I didn’t pay attention and it slipped by me.”
Muldowney still retains a noticeable limp that resulted from a horrific racing crash near Montreal in 1983. She said drag racing “cost me two marriages,” and also mentioned that she misses her son, John, who died in 2017 at age 59 of a blood clot, “every single day of my life.”
But even at age 82, she yearns to compete again, and she told the NMPA audience that opportunity may come behind the wheel of a vehicle being built for the Bonneville Salt Flats.
“I think that would be a nice way to go out,” she said. “‘OK, 450? Go ahead, match that, guys.’ I think I stole the ride from somebody. Not going to tell you who that is, just watch the media.”
She remains a fixture at many NHRA events, and she said the fans she meets there have a special bond with her.
“My biggest fans will come to the race track, and they will stand in line for an autograph. I can hear the fuel cars are running – that’s what people pay to see … I’ll say, ‘They’re running,’ and they’ll say, ‘We don’t care, we came to see you.’
“That is the biggest compliment any fan could ever pay someone like me because for years and year I knew that someday this is going to be over.”
But as her recent Hall of Fame induction and the one coming next month prove, she may be gone from the drag racing scene as a driver, but definitely not forgotten.