Gearhead Talk: Shirley Muldowney Was My First Superhero


photos from: The Official Website of Shirley Muldowney/

In the wake of the news that Shirley Muldowney, the First Lady of Drag Racing, is undergoing surgery for lung cancer, I have to take a step back and reflect. While I am certainly nowhere near being a professional drag racer, she has shaped who I am as a person, and a professional. My dad, who had a short stint in professional drag racing himself, was my bridge to meeting the first person I was ever star struck by.

It was many moons ago when I was a little girl running around in the pits of dragstrips in California. I met so many drivers that my dad knew personally, and of course being a cute little kid, they all thought it was precious that I was there with my dad. I actually met Shirley Muldowney once during a qualifying day before a race in Florida; she took me out of my dad’s arms, gave me a big hug, and she carried me around to show me off to her pit crew.

shirley-3My parents said she was very impressed with me as a little kid because I was sweet, but totally fearless. She told them I was going to be racing next to her one day. Sitting in her dragster (and a few others over the years) is admittedly the closest I’ve come to piloting one myself. I heard this story daily as a kid, although admittingly, I’m not sure how much of it I actually remember or how much is just second hand recollection pretending to be a memory.

Sure, I spent every weekend of the first adult decade of my life racing my street car, but she gave me more than the dreams of being a professional race car driver, she believed that I was tough enough to do it to begin with. Drag racing, especially on that level, is not for the faint of heart.

It’s not for the easily scared either, and my hero, Shirley Muldowney, didn’t look at me and see some blonde-haired little girl with a doll face and think, ‘Oh she’s so cute — she should be in the Sears catalog,’ she saw a little girl who was taken by the sport, and who was trying to uncover her ears to hear the engines more clearly as they roared down the track.

Following my brief interaction with her, I talked about her every chance I got to my friends who didn’t have the faintest idea who in the world I was talking about. When you grow up in California, your standard goal was to be an actress, a singer, or a model, so that’s who my friends looked up to. Not me, it was ‘Cha-Cha,’ — she was my idol. Every class project, every time someone asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up, I would unload all of the information I knew about Shirley Muldowney.

“There’s no room for egos in my camp. We work together as a team, and that’s how we go to the winner’s circle.” -Shirley Muldowney

shirley-2See, Shirley isn’t just some professional driver, she is the driver, she always has been. She began street racing when she was very young, and that’s all she wanted to do. When she married Jack Muldowney at the age of 16, they would build her first dragster. Jack was the one who taught her how to really drive, and also turned the wrenches on her car, making sure she had the tools to beat any guy who made the mistake of underestimating her.

At 18-years old she rolled onto the dragstrip, and got her NHRA license in 1965, making her the first woman to do so. Something I didn’t realize until somewhat recently is that Shirley wasn’t initially welcomed with open arms on the track. The association, the racers and even the spectators pushed back against her, but she showed them all — winning 18 total National NHRA events!

I never felt the discrimination as a woman on the track or in the racing industry, and that’s thanks to her — she faced the odds and turned skeptics into fans. It didn’t take her long to become one of the most respected people in the sport, and not because she’s a woman, but because she’s an incredible driver and fighter.

Check out this race interview against another one of my heroes and fellow Muldowney fan, Don Garlits. While she certainly has every right to have an ego about her, she’s remained humbled, explaining to the reporter in this video:

While I’m searching for the handful of old photos of yours truly with Ms. Muldowney, I’m reminded by how much I keep this memory close to my heart. I hope you feel inspired by this incredible person and pioneer in our sport, as much as I do.

Share this post