Today, it’s normal to see women winning in NHRA drag racing. In the hairy-chested 1970s, Shirley Muldowney battled prejudice and adversity to become a true Top Fuel legend.
Nobody had it harder than Shirley Muldowney did, and nobody ever will.
Not just a winner, but a champion, and not just a champion but a three-time champ in the fastest class of them all, Top Fuel, she was – and is – tough. She had to be. As the first successful female driver in drag racing and by far the most prolific female in motorsports history, Muldowney withstood abuse today’s drivers could never comprehend. Taunts, boos, jeers, and countless crude, hateful remarks rained down on her for years – and that was just the fans. You should have heard the drivers.
“They were horrible to me,” Muldowney says with the intensity that’s defined her for decades. “It was ugly. Professional jealousy, if you ask me. They couldn’t handle it. It never stopped me, though. I’d just put my head down and keep pushing forward, and if you got in my way, you’d get a bump on your head.”
Voted the fifth-greatest driver in drag racing history, behind only “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, John Force, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Bob Glidden, Muldowney won three NHRA Top Fuel titles, and from 1977 to ’82, her career was one landmark achievement after another: first NHRA final (Columbus, ’75), first win (Columbus, ’76), first championship (’77), first repeat title (’80), first U.S. Nationals win (’82), and first three-time Top Fuel champ, also in ’82.
By then, other drivers had no choice but to accept her. She wasn’t just racing men, she was whupping them on a regular basis. “They made me the way I am,” she says. “It must have been in there somewhere the whole time, but those guys really brought it out of this little 100lb female. They created a monster, but it helped me in the end. It made me better.”
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