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Shirley Muldowney is recognized as one of the top professional car racers in the world, having earned the moniker "First Lady of Drag Racing."
Shirley Muldowney - Respect (2:09)
Shirley suffered an accident that threatened to end her career.
Even early on, Shirley Muldowney didn't play by the rules.
The National Hot Rod Association tried to prevent Shirley Muldowney from competing because she's a woman.
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Shirley Muldowney was born on June 19, 1940 in Burlington, Vermont. She took to drag racing after wedding racer Jack Muldowney. Despite rampant sexism, she went on to win titles both domestically and internationally in the 1970s and '80s, winning the World Fuel Championships an unprecedented three times. She suffered a debilitating accident in 1984 and made a comeback two years later.
"I always got the mechanics that nobody else wanted, because it was 'degrading to work for the broad.'"
Shirley Muldowney was born Shirley Roque on June 19, 1940 in Burlington, Vermont to Belgium Benedict and Mae Roque. The family moved to Schenectady, New York where Shirley grew up with her older sister. Their mother worked as a laundress and father as a cab driver. Belgium was also a boxer, and is credited as instilling a sense of toughness in his petite daughter.
Shirley fell for avid car racer Jack Muldowney and married him at age 16, dropping out of high school; after two years, they had a son, John. Shirley soon found herself taking to the racing scene as well, learning to drive from her husband and then entering matches in her area. With Jack working on car upgrades that would allow for higher speed, Shirley honed her skills as a competitor in a male-dominated field.
In 1965, Shirley Muldowney became the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association to drag race professionally, after forming a coalition with other women racers that included Judi Boertman and Della Woods. By the early 1970s, Muldowney was a no-nonsense contender in "funny car" races (so named because the vehicles are designed radically different from conventional cars for racing purposes), and was able to reach speeds of more than 200 mph, making the finals of the NHRA Nationals in 1971. She and Jack divorced, and she moved to Michigan to be more in the mix of the sport.
By the mid-'70s, Muldowney had won the NHRA Spring Nationals, becoming the first woman to do so, and went on to become the first person ever to win the association's World Fuel Championships on three separate occasions—in 1977, 1980 and 1982. She would go on to win 18 NHRA titles in total, dominating world championships and setting various records. Muldowney had become a multi-pronged trailblazer.
Muldowney's success was all the more poignant considering the sexism found in racing culture, with Muldowney having more difficulty than male drivers attracting sponsors and finding a crew. Her success also defied traditional gender stereotypes, as she was a top racer who loved high heels and would paint her cars hot pink, both as something she enjoyed to do and to get under the skin of hecklers. She became a fan favorite of both women and men alike.
Muldowney's son eventually came to work as part of his mother's crew during his adolescence, and she entered into a personal and professional relationship during the '70s with racer and car-builder Connie Kalitta. The two would sometimes race together, and Muldowney was given the nickname "Cha Cha." (She would later state that she never cared for the moniker.)
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