In the World of Motor Sports, results are often all that matter. For Shirley Muldowney the dual desire to compete and win gave her the impetus to break through barriers – barriers of gender, barriers of pain and barriers of time itself – in the quest for successful results. For the better part of forty years, Shirley Muldowney has been an icon in the field of Motor Sports, and even in her 60’s she continues to hold her own against the best racers on the planet.
Growing up and living through her teen years in New York, Shirley discovered early she had a penchant for speed and competition. In fact she became somewhat of a notorious local street racer in the early days, but was quickly drawn to a growing form of auto competition called Drag Racing. Reportedly, it was so-named because competitors would “drag” out through each gearshift. Drag racing is done on a straight course (normally one quarter-mile) in pairs with the lower elapsed time from start to end measured in seconds determining the winner.
After marrying former husband Jack Muldowney, she continued to pursue what was still considered a “men’s game”. Shirley began racing (and winning) in a variety of sportsman entries through 1964, including a brief stint in a factory experimental car during 1963. Indeed, she discovered there were a few things in life more satisfying than winning, and soon gained a reputation as someone who had no intention of backing down especially in gender-related issues.
Her willingness to buck the system would change the sport forever in 1965, as she was successfully licensed that year to compete in the supercharged gasoline dragster category by drag racing’s largest organization the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). The upper Gas divisions were professional categories, and no other women had ever been permitted this qualification up to that time. She proved it was no passing thing by match racing (exhibitions for a guaranteed fee) throughout the East and Midwest for the next four years, as well as making selected national event appearances on both NHRA and rival AHRA (American Hot Rod Association) sanctioning bodies.
However, in 1971, NHRA decided to eliminate the Top Gas category due to the introduction of new divisions, and Shirley chose to move into the popular new “funny car” category. There is nothing funny about funny cars. The car makes several thousand violent horsepower running on nitro methane fuel, and can be very difficult to drive. Undaunted, Muldowney stepped right up to the plate, posting a win on her first time out at a match race in Lebanon Valley, New York.
She also entered the record books for the first time when the upstart International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) held it’s first season ever.
Muldowney would post her first national event win at the sanction’s Southern Nationals in Rockingham, North Carolina in 1971, and a runner-up finish at the same race a year later.