ALMOST FOUR DECADES LATER, HEART LIKE A WHEEL STILL SPINS IN SHIRLEY'S LIFE
If Shirley has heard it once, she's heard it a million times.
The four-time drag racing world champion, Shirley Muldowney, largely known inside the sport as just Shirley, was about to undergo a minor medical procedure when the nurse double-checked her identity per hospital protocols.
"Shirley Muldowney?" The nurse confirmed. "Like, Shirley Muldowney, the race car driver?"
And Muldowney did as she has so many times, smiled and responded, "Yes, I'm that Shirley Muldowney."
The nurse erupted in emotion as she realized she was talking with the most famous female driver in the straight-line sport.
The nurse's drag racing acumen was casual and certainly wasn't a diehard drag racing fan but rather someone who had heard about the long, skinny cars with parachutes to stop them. She also heard that there was a lady driver who had earned her keep while racing against the men.
Maybe she had heard about the feisty drag racer they called "Cha Cha" through the hundreds of news reports on her over the decades? Or maybe she watched the movie Heart Like A Wheel, a biopic on Muldowney's life that began filming in 1981 and wrapped filming some 40 years ago?
Having a movie made on one's life can leave a lasting impression; just ask Muldowney. One can only imagine what comes along with having your life portrayed on the silver screen.
"People have asked me that before, and I never really slowed down long enough to really think about it," Muldowney said. "It makes you feel quite conspicuous. Everybody's watching everywhere, even when you go to the restroom; I don't know, everybody looks at your shoes, what you're wearing, and whatever habits you might have; the public seems to pick up on everything. And I was trying to be cautious about what I did back then and how I reacted, and just my manner pretty much tried to keep a clean act.
"I had to, all of a sudden, watch everything I did, and it wasn't hard to do. I was in the spotlight because in my industry, because of what I did for a living, and it was basically my life; I was on the chopping block all of the time. So I just had to work at it. And there were a lot of opportunities for me to lose my temper."
Such is the price one pays for Hollywood fane, and it certainly wasn't a bad thing for her.
Watching her p's and q's was only a sliver of the pressure; keeping her opinions on the movie was overwhelming at times. Many times she had to toe the company line. Now that over four decades have passed since Heart Like A Wheel began filming, she can let some thoughts flow with a measure of freedom.
One of the most important things Muldowney objected to was the person who portrayed her. Bonnie Bedelia was not her first choice, and all these years later, a choice at all.
"I didn't think she was really Shirley," Muldowney admitted. "She was a pushover. Every guy she came in contact with, she was always throwing her arms around every guy in the movie, and she wasn't my bag, I'll tell you."
Muldowney's first choice was... Jamie Lee Curtis, an actress who stood toe to toe with a relentless slasher and won, something figuratively the storied drag racer had done throughout her storied career when it came to confronting chauvinism.
"She was the first choice, but she couldn't pull off the 16 years old and the 40 years old [look]," Muldowney admitted. "She attempted it, but she couldn't pull it off, and that's how she didn't get the part; plus I think Bonnie was playing up to the director somewhat. That's just my opinion. And somehow, she walked off with it,"
As Muldowney believed back then and now, Curtis had a lot going for her.
"She was very beautiful to look at and really smart up upstairs in the head, really smart," Muldowney added. "I had breakfast with her and it wasn't hard to form an opinion right then and there. She's lovely."
Muldowney admits she doesn't necessarily watch the movie on DVD or BluRay, but if she's channel surfing and happens across it, she'll stop and watch it again.
"I have at times," Muldowney said. "I've done that, yes. Every time I watch the movie, I see something that I missed, like there's one shot where Bonnie's sitting in the car at Englishtown, and the car's running at the dragster, and Jack and John move away from the car and they zero in on it, and the pulley's not turning. It's just things like that we picked up on, but we tried everything we could to keep it as authentic as possible."
Keeping it authentic also meant Muldowney couldn't cave to the pressure of being girly-girly in an arena dominated by men.
The primary one was the original name. If anything, the original name for the movie would have opened up Muldowney for more ridicule than she already faced competing as a woman in a man's world. With today's gender inclusion racing world, Muldowney believes the name would have been just fine.
"I have a gift that they made the cast and crew presented me with, and the title was already embroidered on this gift, American Beauty. That was the original title for the movie, and John had a fit. 'Oh my God, they'll laugh us out of the pits."
"So Chuck Roven changed it to "Heart Like a Wheel." That's the truth there. And I think American Beauty would've been the perfect title. Just looking at the whole thing and looking at it now, I think it fit perfectly."
The movie, Muldowney admits, didn't fully portray her feistiness, and at times lacking in historical accuracy. Case in point when facing a chauvinistic driver, Muldowney slips a middle finger up out of the cockpit like a shark's dorsal fin out of the ocean.
"I thought it was funny, but if you go back and maybe do a little research and look at some pictures, in those days, I never wore the gloves," Muldowney added. "I always wore the mitten because I felt it was safer, and I had a better chance if I had a fire. But the mittens were a part of my safety gear for years. So it was a little hard to give the finger wearing a mitten."
That's not to say when he lifted her mittens; she wasn't giving the bird in seclusion.
"They had it coming," Muldowney said.
There were some things that didn't jibe up with reality, including son John Muldowney's Doors shirt, which he preferred Van Halen, and the NHRA Awards Show scene where the team walked in with unbuttoned shirts. She was quick to point out the team was more professional than portrayed in the scene.
Despite its shortcomings in the accuracy department, Muldowney said there are some scenes that still make her smile.
"The actor in there, they called him Tiny, it was supposed to be Poncho [Rendon], but Tiny, when we pressured him to sign the license and he said, 'Well, keep it out of the stands," Muldowney said. "He said, 'Let's keep it out of the stands."
"I thought that he was hilarious."
What wasn't hilarious or at times fun, Muldowney said, was the real-life road it took to be a champion, an icon, and the subject of a movie.
"I know what it was like and it was no cakewalk," Muldowney said. "It was pretty miserable at times. I shed my tears alone over a lot of things that came my way, but I am extremely thankful for my position now with the NHRA. They certainly have made up for anything that came my way back in the '70s and '80s."
Years later, Muldowney admits she wishes the movie had not premiered in 1983 and instead included the battle she faced when fighting back from her 1984 Montreal crash
"I sure do, because there's a lot that didn't come out," Muldowney said. "There are some things that I hid because I was embarrassed, not of me, embarrassed about some people that worked with me. I kept a lot quiet. I had to because, I dealt with a tremendous amount of pain. It was the '80s then, it wasn't like now. They didn't helicopter me off the pad to the hospital.
"My deal didn't quite measure up to what [John] Force had when he got hurt. I had to bleed. I took it right on the nose. I was just in a lot of pain for a long time, months, and it took a lot out of me. And to this day, the one thing in this world, in the entire freaking world, that I'm afraid of, and I don't scare easy, I'm afraid of pain, because of that one experience."
Muldowney believes Heart Like A Wheel did a lot for drag racing.
"I just wish I had had a better handle on it," Muldowney admits. "The reason I didn't have a better handle was $125,000 [royalties from the movie] was the most money I had ever seen at one time. Well, even to this day, it's more money than I've ever seen at one time in my life. As an owner/driver, I never once ever saw six figures in my racing account at one time after the bills were paid. So I have to tell you that I think Heart Like a Wheel did wonderful things for me. It opened the door for the sport to people that would not normally go to a drag race."
The movie also benefitted Muldowney's career in that the royalties enabled her team to race up until 1991.
"The movie did a lot of good for me," Muldowney said. "I was honored to just be in that position. I hope those who see the movie to this day, understand we got to live a dream many could have only dreamed of."