Muldowney No. 5 on NHRA list, perhaps No. 1 female athlete

By Jeff Birchfield
STAF Staff


   Women have been competing in professional sporting events for decades; from Babe Didrikson Zaharias to Jackie Joyner-Kersee to Billie Jean King to Venus Williams. They have excelled against one another, but none have experienced the level of success against men that Shirley Muldowney has in her career.
   Winner of three NHRA Winston Top Fuel championships and 18 NHRA national events, Muldowney helped break the gender barrier in drag racing.
   Eighteen-year-old Shirley Roque's first trip down a dragstrip came in 1958, at Fonda Speedway in New York, at the wheel of a 348-hp '58 Chevy. After campaigning doorslammers for several years, she married another former street racer, Jack Muldowney, who built her first dragster.
   She earned her dragster license in 1965, and the couple match raced in the East and Midwest. Six years later, Muldowney won her first major meet, the IHRA Southern Nationals.
   After racing Funny Cars, Muldowney moved to Top Fuel dragsters in 1974. Her speed of 241.28-mph at the '74 U.S. Nationals was the second-fastest of the event.
   The next year, she was the first woman named to the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association All American Team.
   On June 13, 1976, Muldowney won the Springnationals, becoming the first woman to win a pro category at an NHRA national event. She also won the World Finals that year and finished 15th in points.
   Muldowney wasted no time reaching the next pinnacle, the Winston championship. When Muldowney won the 1977 NHRA Winston Top Fuel championship, the U.S. House of Representatives bestowed upon her an Outstanding Achievement Award and she was named Person of the Year on the Car Craft Magazine All-star Drag Racing Team.
   Three years later, she became the first person to win two NHRA Top Fuel titles and added a third in 1982.
   Muldowney's career to that point, was chronicled in the 1983 film Heart Like A Wheel, the first such feature on any drag racer.
   The worst accident of her career occurred the next season when an apparent front-tire failure caused her dragster to veer off into a ditch during qualifying at the 1984 Le Grandnational in Quebec. The high-speed wreck shattered Muldowney's body.
   Three years later, she was back in a race car. It would be two more years, the 1989 NHRA Fallnationals in Phoenix, before Muldowney would win her 18th - and, so far, final - NHRA national event.
   Shirley has been honored by the New York State Senate as one of Thirty Women of Distinction, alongside Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt, and also was named one of Sports Illustrated for Women's top 100 athletes.
   Muldowney has competed at the last two U.S. Nationals, as feisty and determined as ever, the lines of fans waiting to meet her just as long as ever, and her championship attitude intact, as ever.
   Thanks to Anthony Vestal of the NHRA for the Muldowney profile.