Shirley Muldowney: Diva of Drag Racing
An Appreciation Essay by Billy Anderson
Some people have called her headstrong. Fiercely competitive. Bitchy. No-nonsense. For all her success and popularity, Shirley Muldowney has had to endure what other strong-minded women have had to deal with. The name-calling that goes with fame and success. But she's not looking back at that.
From Cleopatra to Eva Peron, and Bette Midler to Madonna, women who have an opinion and are not afraid to share it have been labeled as cold bitches who care nothing more than for their own success. Why? Why is it society must continue to have the whore complex. It's as if a woman cannot be a human being with a range of emotions. They can only be one thing. Angel or devil; no in-between.
For Shirley Muldowney, she has had to fight tooth and nail for everything she has achieved in drag racing. From her humble beginnings in New York, to her national championships, to her skyrocketing popularity today, it has been her drive to succeed and her competitive nature that has allowed her to break down the glass ceiling of drag racing and allow competitors from Lucille Lee to Danielle DePorter to reigning NHRA Winston Pro Stock Bike champion Angelle Seeling achieve the accomplishments they have. But as they all attest, they thank Shirley.
Muldowney's return to the NHRA tour last year was one of the biggest stories of the season. This from a team that had barely made a dent in a decade that saw the average age of professional driver's drop sharply, along with an increase in hired guns who fit the "correct marketing image." And while Muldowney was bringing in the fans at small tracks all over the United States on the match race scene, there was something magical missing on the NHRA Winston tour.
Despite Al Hofmann's musings on John Force, what NHRA drag racing was missing the barbs that we had all grown accustomed to. From one small women who was never afraid to speak her mind and the personality to go with it: Shirley Muldowney.
What will never make sense is why this woman has been unable to find the type of sponsorship that will allow her to run full-time for another go-round. Approaching 61, and arguably still the best current driver ever to sit behind the wheel of a dragster, fans have to know that her last blast will be coming eventually. However, for now, she's outlasting her former competitors. Former boss Connie Kalitta has hung up the driving gloves to crew chief for his nephew [AUTHOR'S NOTE: "Although I doubt he will ever say he is retired"]. One of the greatest drivers of all time, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, has been retired since 1992. Although he did return briefly to face old rival Muldowney on New Year's Eve, the impending return of "Big Daddy" never materialized. She has even outlasted Joe Amato, who debuted in Top Fuel during her last championship year in 1982. With Kenny Bernstein's pending retirement, she could outlast even her successors.
While John Force has arguably helped made drag racing more mainstream with his speedy humor and even speedier interviews, it was Muldowney who brought the ladies into the stands and help transform it into the genderless sport it is today. And as Muldowney has said herself, drag racing should be able to stand on its own. It doesn't need all that pomp and circumstance. And for Muldowney, drag racing is for the competition. When Michelle Kwan attended the 1998 Olympic games, she did not stay in the Olympic Village in order to focus on her competition in the Ladies' Figure Skating event. While she may have lost that title to fellow American Tara Lipinski, it was Kwan's decision afterwards to compete for the gold medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics. For Lipinski, she packed it in to go to the more lucrative and less demanding professional tour. She didn't maintain the competitive spirit. Michelle Kwan did. Had she won the gold in 1998, she probably still would have competed again in 2002. Kwan is like Muldowney; she does it for the love of the sport.
Shirley Muldowney could have quit years ago and still garnered the fame she has so rightly achieved. But what makes her special isn't her fame; it's her competitive nature, a fire that still burns inside of her to be the best on any particular day at the drag strip.
It will be a great disappoint if a sponsor does not pick her up for one more go-round of the NHRA events, even a shortened tour at that. If she schedules a match race near you, it is extremely recommended that you attend. And as much fun as she is watching on the track, some of the best moments are watching her warm up the car, looking at the glow in her eyes.
Muldowney may sometimes get bad press, but only for the reason other strong-minded females like Madonna get bad press. It's from the type of journalists that prefer their ladies pretty and quiet. These "divas" aren't afraid to look at society's rules and norms and throw them out the window. Maybe people are afraid of that amount of truthfulness and complexity. And just when you think you've figured them out, they add another layer to their complex personality. Long live the divas!
Writer's notes: I wrote this article because I am a Shirley-addict. To me, she is the best drag racer ever to go down a drag strip. To me, she is the best personality ever to be involved in drag racing. She gives me goosebumps just watching her. And she has always opened up her trailer to sign and sign autographs for her legions of fans. It is my hope that the 2000 NHRA Finals will not be her last NHRA national event and that she will be racing for years to come. However, at some point she will be hanging it up. PLEASE, do yourself a favor and see this incredible woman at a drag strip near you. Go to
www.muldowney.com to see where she will be racing and do yourself a favor before drag racing's most incredibly blessed talent, most incredible personality, decides to hang it up. And don't expect her to announce her farewell tour. As much as I want to know when her last ride will be, I just don't see her as the type to market that (although Shirley - please feel free to do). So, it could be next year, it could be in five years, a decade or two decades, who knows, but you owe to yourself to see her as often as possible.
I love you Shirley Muldowney! See you at Lebanon Valley! -- BA