The History of Women Fuel Funny Car Drivers
By Danny White
The times were the rebellious sixties. It was a time of social upheaval around the world. There was a changing of the guard to the way of more politically correct social thinking. This wave of both forced and accepted social revolution worked its way into drag racing, too. It was well needed in drag racing as ladies had only been allowed limited roles in drag racing. They were forced to race in stock classes and powder puff eliminators. But the time had come after years of discrimination that ladies had their chance to drive in the “hot classes” as they were called at the time. Racers like Barb Hamilton, Shirley Muldowney, Della Woods, and Paula Murphy became famous and some say infamous for their drag racing abilities and achievements.
The first fuel funny car driver is a matter of dispute, but the first female funny car driver is not in question. In 1966, Paula Murphy, AKA “Mrs. STP,” became that female star. She had shown she could drive NASCAR Grand National cars, Indy Cars, and finally a blown fuel funny car. The first "Mrs. STP" 66 Mustang was a scary sight to behold, much less drive. The car was tuned by "Fat Jack" Bynum as were the rest of her funny cars.
Paula drove funny cars from 1966 to 1972, a stint that ended after a tour of England in her Duster. She sold the Duster to the British Hounddog team, but not before running a best time of 6.67, 218. Paula was never a major national event threat, but was a very popular match race attraction. She broke her back in a rocket car accident in 1973. Paula returned to drag race in a Z/Stock Eliminator in 1974. Her tour of the world with Johnny Parsons also cemented her fame in the minds of the non-drag racing community.
Carol Yenter is a forgotten name in most drag racing circles. She mainly raced with her husband in the northwest. The first funny car Carol drove was a converted AA/MSP ‘62 Corvette. The team raced with a little fuel added in 1966. The beautiful car was a little too stock to be a success in funny car racing. A new car had to be built in order for Carol to stay competitive with the changing times in funny car racing. A new Mustang was built in 1967. It was an all fiberglass beauty complete with a 426 Chrysler for power. The Yenters lost interest in racing and they retired before the car could be broken in. They sold the car to Kenney Goodell, who became a ‘70s funny car hero.
Bonnie Anderson was a Midwest match racer who drove two early style funny car cars in 1966, the "Tension" Chevy II and the "That Girl" Chevelle. Bonnie was only around in 1966 racing the wild converted "Match Bash" door cars. She showed that she could run low-nines in both cars while match racing mainly in the Illinois area. Bonnie stopped drag racing altogether by 1967.
Della Woods could be called the grand matriarch of female funny car drivers because she was the only one to drive in four decades, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, and the early ‘90s. Della started out in a converted Chrysler Super Stock Polara with her brother Bernie Woods to form the "Bernellla" team. A new Charger was built to replace the siblings’ Polara in 1968. The new car became Della’s most famous funny car. The full size Charger, dubbed "The Funny Honey," was a match racing sensation.
Della was successful at match racing throughout the early seventies, and then she retired from drag racing the first time. She married and came back to racing in 1981. Della took a couple of years to get her feet wet in the old "Fighting Irish" Trans Am, the only non-Mopar of her career, and in an ‘82 Charger. Della became a success on the national event level when she ran 5.80s in 1986. She suffered a serious wreck at the end of the year, however. A new car was built and became her final AA/FC. Della made infrequent appearances until the early nineties in the beautiful Dodge Daytona, running a 5.79 best.
The recently retired Queen of Drag Racing, Shirley Muldowney, started her fuel career in funny cars. She stepped up to fuel funny cars from a Top Gas dragster in 1971. Shirley was teamed with her first husband Jack Muldowney. The team bought a car from Connie Kalitta and began her funny car career. The Muldowneys split and Shirley moved to Michigan. A new modern Mustang funny car was built in 1972. In this car she became the first female to reach a national event final in any fuel class.
The Mustang was lost and Shirley was badly burned in a fire at Dragway 42 in Ohio. A Satellite soon replaced the second Mustang. It also was lost to fire, this time at Indy. The team finished her match race dates in loaned car from Don Schumacher. Shirley retired from funny cars after three short but well documented years where she ran a 6.63, 219 best. Tired of fires, Shirley moved to Top Fuel dragsters and became the sport’s first three-time Top Fuel world champion.
By the late seventies, all of the early female nitro drivers had retired or moved to other classes. There were a few females that raced in the late seventies. The "Baby Imp" team of Roberta Schultz was one of them. The team usually ran their car as a BB/FC funny car, but made extra money by tipping the can a little with nitromethane. The Schultz family owned Mustang usually never ran over 25% nitro when they hit the occasional IHRA National Event, NHRA Divisional Event, or match race. The attractive Roberta was more successful in BB/FC, racing as a popular match race and divisional competitor well into the 1980s. Roberta married promoter and fellow racer Tod Mack and the couple became part owners of the International Hot Rod Association for a time.
Rodalyn Knox, AKA "The Country Girl," was a successful ‘70s funny car driver. She first had success in an injected nitro A/FC Duster on the East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit. The team built several cars that gathered many wins throughout the years. When Rodalyn and her husband John decided to step up to AA/FC in 1978, they bought the low slung Chevy Monza from Bill Leavitt and renamed it the "Country Girl." Using the rare Milodon Hemi, the team had a mediocre year in 1979 and decided to quit funny car racing. Rodalyn and John decided to become tractor pullers instead and became very successful at that endeavor.
Bonnie Philson is a Northern California drag racing hero. The team of Bonnie and her husband, the late Leroy Philson, has been around for 30 plus years and counting. In the late 1970s, Bonnie got a chance to drive the "Warlock III" Dodge Aspen AA/FC of Franks Pitts. It is reported that she ran a 7.08 in testing but never raced the car in competition. Philson later raced a TA/FC and now races a one of a kind ‘58 Chevy Pro Mod.
Jo Ann Reynolds is more famous for being a Top Fuel driver and wife of T/F driver Mike Reynolds. The Utah racer began her fuel career in an AA/Funny Car. The car was the forgotten "Pink Chablis" Vega of Rick McMicheals. The team raced mainly at western state match races in less than ideal conditions on sub-par tracks. Jo Ann later gained a measure of success in the Top Fuel car.
The ‘80s were a bleak time for female fuel funny drivers. The best was Della Woods. The others mostly were part timers and “one race only” drivers. An example of this was Leslie Prior of Great Britain. She was the daughter of Dave Prior, a respected tuner and owner. Leslie took rides in the family's outdated "Solarport Sunroof's" Pup. The car, running on low doses of nitro, ran mid-sevens. Leslie also drove the car as an AA/Fuel Altered, making her the first female AA/FA driver. The car was later sold and Leslie retired from racing.
Liv Berstad was more famous as one of Europe’s' best T/F racers of the late ‘80s, running low fives on many occasions. AA/FC racer Rune Fjeld owned the Mobil 1 funny car and the fueler that Liv drove. Liv got her one shot to pilot the Mobil 1 Trans Am funny car, running a shut off 6.67. Live then concentrated on her T/F career and left the funny car driving to her boss.
Paula Martin worked her way up the funny car ladder. She began her funny car career in a Monza that raced in the bracket wars. The car was sold to buy a Regal from Tommy Johnson, Jr. The husband and wife team used the new car as a trainer, running an uneventful year on alcohol in 1987. They stepped up to nitro in ‘88. The team's debut was spectacular; an explosion destroyed the car. The team regrouped and rebuilt. They teamed with super-tuner Johnny West on Paula’s most successful funny car, eventually running a competitive 5.31. The team was a regular qualifier on the NHRA tour in 1990. The Martin’s split with West and bought a Ford Probe from the defunct Trapper Racing team. Paula drove this car until the late ‘90s.
Vicky Fanning has become a successful funny car and top fuel driver. She had no previous drag racing experience outside of helping her husband with the "Udder Nonsense" car. Brent convinced her that she could do it and she has. Vicky has raced the "Udder Nonsense" AA/FC, the "American Dream" AA/Funny Truck, the "Bench Racing" AA/FC, the team's TF car, and the funny car with a nostalgia Charger body named the "Nitro Cow". The team has been more of a match race operation than a national event team. Do not count the Fannings out, though… in the "Udder Nonsense" Daytona, Vicky ran a very respectable 5.35, 286.
Cristen Powell made the biggest splash of any female in AA/FC driver in the past 15 years. She has driven four top-flight cars -- national event winning machines owned by Chuck Worsham, John Constanza, Whit Bazemore, and Helen Hoffman. Cristen earned her crossover license in the Worsham's CSK car running a 5.35 clocking. She took over the driving of Constanza's JCIT Firebird, driving it to the fastest ever times by female in a funny car at 4.91. When management problems sidelined the JCIT team, Cristen drove for Helen Hoffman. She took that car into the four-second zone, too, running a 4.95. After a less than amicable split, Cristen finished the year driving for Whit Bazemore in the "Nitro Fish" Camaro. She also ran 4.98 in that low buck car. Cristen Powell has retired from drag racing for the time being.
Two Texas ladies have also taken passes in fuel funny cars in the new decade. Lana Sosenka has driven the family's Pontiac Trans Am called "Mr. Magoo" in testing. Lana, who suffers from Dystonia, has been using the teams Top Fueler and AA/Funny Car to promote awareness of the debilitating disease. Donna Chalk bought the American Dream funny truck from J.R. Wade and has been doing shake down runs in Houston at this point. The Chalks also mounted a 23T body on the car, making Donna the first woman AA/FA pilot in the United States.
From the days of the altered wheelbase A/FX factory cars to the modern carbon fiber fuel coupes, females have been racing them. They have left their mark on the minds of drag racing fans worldwide as they bravely strapped themselves into very dangerous vehicles capable of meltdown at any moment. These pioneers and their exploits will continue to impact the future of drag racing.