REWIND : From a N.Y. Waitress to Drag-Racing Queen : ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ traces Shirley Muldowney’s love for fast cars and the toll it took on the pro racer’s personal life.


In the opening scene of the film “Heart Like a Wheel,” a good-natured man barrels wildly down a rural highway in a ‘40s sedan. On his lap is his young daughter, wearing an expression of daredevil excitement.

Even as a child, Shirley Muldowney had a love for fast cars.

Based on Muldowney’s true-life story, “Heart Like a Wheel” chronicles this iconoclastic woman’s rise from a waitress-housewife in Schenectady, N.Y., in the ‘50s and ‘60s to one of the country’s top drag racers of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Muldowney’s immense will to become a top pro racer ends up exacting a significant toll on her personal life. Initially, her husband, Jack (Leo Rossi), who was also her first mechanic, supports her desire to race as a “hobby.” But as Muldowney’s ambitions and stature escalate, Jack becomes increasingly jealous and bitter. The marriage ends in divorce after Muldowney heads to Southern California to compete against drag racing’s elite drivers.


In California, Muldowney falls into another rocky relationship with an old friend and colleague, star racer Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges). It is the womanizing Kalitta who lends her moral support, and after he is temporarily suspended from the racing circuit he even becomes her crew chief.

“Heart Like a Wheel” doesn’t flinch from showing the sexism that exists in the good old boy world of drag racing. And in light of what she has to overcome as a female driver, it’s perhaps natural to view Muldowney as a feminist heroine. But in the film she never really champions herself as a symbol for women’s rights. And while she may not view matters within the context of their social or political importance, she has a laudable and immovable sense of right and wrong.

Bonnie Bedelia is marvelous as the tough but loving drag-race queen who manages to balance career and single motherhood. Bridges brings out the kindness as well as the manipulative tendencies of the charming and hot-headed Kalitta.

A film of great human drama and emotion, “Heart Like a Wheel” never fails to inspire.

“Heart Like a Wheel” (1983), directed by Jonathan Kaplan. 113 minutes. Rated PG.