Muldowney Out of Fuel

Times Staff Writer

When talk turns to great female athletes, among the names often mentioned are Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Martina Navratilova, Annika Sorenstam, Peggy Fleming, Jackie Joyner and the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus.

Worthy champions all, in beating other women.

How about a woman who beat men too?

Shirley Muldowney did that. She not only beat men, she beat them at one of the most masculine, macho events in sports -- top-fuel drag racing, riding a 300-mph missile for a quarter-mile in less than five seconds. With 6,500 horsepower right behind her.

"Yeah, one time or another I think I beat 'em all," she said with the satisfied smile of a 62-year-old champion.

After 42 years crisscrossing the country with a variety of dragsters in tow, the feisty driver from Armada, Mich., is calling it a career. Thirty of those years were spent in the dangerous nitro-burning top-fuel cars.

"I've just had enough," she said. "It's been a wonderful ride and I wouldn't want to go back and change anything, but I'm ready to call it quits, to settle back and enjoy life."

Before she sells her car, trailer, truck and racing equipment and settles down on her newly purchased farm in Michigan, though, she will race for one more weekend, starting today in the 39th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway. Qualifying will start at 2 p.m.

She last won in an NHRA final round at Phoenix in 1989, when she beat Darrell Gwynn in one of the most dramatic races in history. It earned her the United States Sports Academy's Babe Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award, presented annually to an "individual who demonstrates courageous action in overcoming adversity to excel in sport."

In 1984, during a qualifying run at the Sanair track near Montreal, a near-fatal crash left her legs and feet so mangled that she needed 18 months of rehabilitation. The Phoenix race, which she won with a lightning-fast reaction time against the younger Gwynn, was her only victory after the accident.

Her resume, though, includes National Hot Rod Assn. world championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982; 18 national events, among them the 1982 U.S. Nationals, where she defeated Connie Kalitta, her former crew chief, confidant and paramour, in the finals, and the 1980 and 1983 Winternationals at Pomona; and the No. 5 ranking on the NHRA's list of top 50 drivers.

She beat the best in the sport -- Don Garlits, named the No. 1 all-time drag racer, Joe Amato, five-time world champion, Dick LaHaie, Gary Beck, Richard Tharp, Kelly Brown and Jeb Allen, all national champions.

"I always seemed to have good luck against Garlits, but the toughest guy to beat was Dick LaHaie," Muldowney said. "I don't know why. He was a fine driver, but so were most of them. LaHaie just seemed to have my number."

LaHaie now works for Don Prudhomme's Snake Racing as crew chief for Larry Dixon's championship top-fuel car. And LaHaie's daughter, Kim, works on Kenny Bernstein's top fueler.

Muldowney's record in national top-fuel rounds is 181-136.

Win or lose this week, there will be a "For Sale" sign on her pink dragster. Asking price: $350,000.

"Rahn [Tobler, her husband and crew chief] will have it in race-ready condition," she said. "And there aren't many cars around that have gone 327 [mph]."

That was her speed during qualifying for the Route 66 Nationals in Chicago in May, when she also set a personal-best elapsed time of 4.579 seconds.

"That made me the fastest woman in drag racing again," she said defiantly.

Melanie Troxel had been fastest with a 326.08 run at Dallas in 2000.

After her Chicago qualifying run, Muldowney lost in the semifinal round to eventual winner Bernstein, 4.511 to 4.612.

It was one of six NHRA national events she is running this year in what she calls "The Last Pass -- 30 Years in Top Fuel -- 1973-2003." She lost in the first round four times and failed to qualify for the U.S. Nationals.

"I won some match races, I beat Garlits again in Cordova, Ill., and what made it so great was that it was the biggest payday of my life," she recalled. "Remember back when we had match races all over the place? It's too bad we don't have more of them again."

Muldowney says she has no plans to be associated with drag racing in retirement, other than assisting her husband, who will continue as a crew chief. Tobler will be going full circle when he reports for work as tuner for Doug Kalitta, whose uncle Connie runs the team. Doug's cousin, Scott, will have Jim Oberhofer as his crewman. Connie will oversee the family team operation.

"It's funny now, but I don't think I ever got as much satisfaction as I did in beating Connie after our falling-out at the end of the '77 season," Muldowney said. "I beat him at Pomona [in the Winternationals] for my first win with Rahn, and then I got him again in '82 at Indianapolis in the Nationals."

It was while Tobler was working with Kalitta as a crewman in the 1970s that he met Muldowney, whom he later married.

"Rahn is the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me," Muldowney said. "He and drag racing. I don't know what might have happened to me if I hadn't discovered racing. I was going nowhere, I had no direction, I didn't like anyone telling me what to do. I know I was a handful for my mother.

"Here I am, still racing and looking ahead to working to help Rahn. Not on the car, but just doing what I can to help. I'll probably be sort of a gofer, but that's OK. I'm going to love not having to haul our rig down the road for a race somewhere with Garlits on some little old track in the sticks. I loved every minute of it, but I've had enough."

Muldowney will be reminded of her success in April, when she will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala. The 2004 class also includes former CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, former NASCAR president Bill France Jr., veteran NASCAR driver Red Farmer, and former hydroplane champion Bill Muncey.



Muldowney Milestones

* Firsts: On June 13, 1976, Shirley Muldowney won the Springnationals and became the first woman to win a Pro class at an NHRA national event.

* NHRA world championships: 1977, 1980 and 1982.

* Other accolades: In 1992, she received the United States Sports Academy's Babe Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award, presented to an athlete who demonstrates courageous action in overcoming adversity to excel in sport; honored by the New York Senate as one of Thirty Women of Distinction, alongside Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt; named one of Sports Illustrated for Women's top 100 athletes.

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