because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Shirley Muldowney

It's unlikely many people would guess that the first person to win two and then three National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel dragster championships was a woman, but that's the case. In fact, over her career as a race car driver, Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney won a total of eighteen NHRA national championships.

As a teenager in the 1950's, Muldowney -- already an in-your-face woman -- preferred to run the streets than go school, so she hooked up with a mechanic who taught her how to drive and, by the time she was twenty-five, she had her pro race car driver's license. Nobody connected to Top Fuel (a combination of nitromethane and methanol) wanted Muldowney on the track -- not the Association, not the owners, not even the other racers. But Muldowney wouldn't quit and was shortly beating all comers. Repeatedly.

Even after a crash in 1984 that left much of her body crushed, Muldowney kept racing until she was nearly sixty years old. Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame (1990) and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (2004), ESPN had no choice but to place her on their list of the Top 25 Drivers of All Time (2008).

When the feature-length movie "Heart Like a Wheel" was released in 1983 to tell Muldowney's story, she was unimpressed. "[Bonnie Bedelia] got out of a race car like she was getting up from the dinner table," she flipped. The star who played Muldowney in the film was obviously not in-your-face enough for "Cha Cha" Muldowney. But then how would that have been possible?

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