Shirley Muldowney, a fighter for life, left her drag-racing competitors in the dust

Shirley Muldowney, photographed at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., won 18 national events in the National Hot Rod Assn.’s premier top-fuel class.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)
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Shirley Muldowney is known as “the first lady of drag racing,” and with good reason. For more than four decades, she was a skilled, brash and thick-skinned trailblazer for women competing in the ultra-fast sport.

Muldowney won 18 national events in the National Hot Rod Assn.’s premier top-fuel class and NHRA championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982, often piloting a pink dragster that became her trademark.

She was the first woman to win a national pro NHRA event, the first woman to win the series’ top-fuel title and the first woman to repeat as top-fuel champion. In 1990, she was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

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Muldowney she was inducted in 1990 into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. Photographed at the zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina.
Muldowney she was inducted in 1990 into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. Photographed at the zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Muldowney, 79, often faced discrimination and hostility for being a woman in a dangerous, male-dominated sport, which was chronicled in the 1983 movie “Heart Like a Wheel.” She also was called “Cha Cha” and, while a myth developed that she despised the name, Muldowney says that’s not true.

“I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it,” she says.

Muldowney was badly injured in 1984 when her dragster crashed during qualifying in Canada. But after several operations and months of rehabilitation, she recovered, although she was still using a cane in 1986 when she appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and told him: “I’m lucky to be alive.”

Muldowney eventually got back into her dragster, won in 1989 and kept racing for another 14 years.
“I’m just glad I had the nerve that I had, or I would not have lasted,” she said. “They would have run me out of town.”

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Did she consider herself a role model for other women? Early on, “I didn’t, to be very honest,” she says. “It was just selfishness; I was out there for Shirley.”

But once she was an established star, Muldowney said she embraced the fact that women appreciated what she accomplished and looked up to her.

“The older I got is when things started to change, and the more respect I got,” she says. “Now people will come up to talk to me and they’ll start crying. They’re just thankful.”

Nearly 50 years after Congress passed Title IX, female athletes are still scrambling for a fair shot in the male-dominated world of sport. In hockey, top Americans and Canadians train with their national teams part-time; the rest of the season, they have only a small pro league that offers twice-a-week practices, weekend games and thin salaries.