Shirley Muldowney - Race Car Driver

by candy47

Shirley 'Cha Cha' Muldowney, the first lady of drag racing and the first woman licensed by National Hot Rod Assn. to drive a dragster.

When I was a teenager in the 1960's, my friends and I would spend Sunday afternoons at the drag races. We always went to Island Dragway in Great Meadows, New Jersey. It was a straight quarter-mile track, two cars side by side and the one with the lowest time is the winner. Anyone with a driver's license and a car could race. The cars were categorized by performance, then matched with equal opponents. My high school boyfriend at the time raced his 4-cylinder 1963 (or 64) Pontiac Tempest. Like I said, all you needed was a car, any car.

But then for the grand finale came the dragsters, they're called dragsters because the drivers 'drag' each gear to the limit. These were the professional racers who traveled the country. Some of the people I saw race at Island Dragway were 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits, Conrad 'Connie' Kalitta, Chris Karamesines and Shirley 'Cha Cha' Muldowney. I remember the announcer introducing her as 'Shiftin' Shirley'.

Above photo credit:  Wikimedia Commons

Shirley Muldowney


Born 1940, Shirley began racing in 1958 with her first car a 1940 Ford with a Cadillac V-8 engine. She never won a race with that car but she was ready to move up, so she had a Chevy-powered dragster built for her and that put her in the running.


In 1965 Shirley became the first woman licensed to drive a dragster by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). From then on she set records for not only the 'first woman', but for all drivers.

In 1977 Ms. Muldowney became the first Top Fuel driver to win three NHRA national events back-to-back.

1977 she was the first woman to win the Winston World Championship, in 1980 she won it again being the first person to win it twice. In 1982 she won it again, making her the first person in history to claim the Winston World Championship title three times.


In 1989 she drove her best time, so far, for a quarter-mile in 4.97 seconds at the face-melting speed of 284 mph. As if that wasn't good enough, in 1997 she set a new International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) speed record at 303.71 mph.


Her career best speed came in 2001 finishing the quarter-mile in 4.64 seconds at 320.20 mph.


Shirley Muldowney videos

Because dragsters travel at such high speeds in a short distance, they have parachutes to stop them. There is also a net at the end of the quarter-mile just in case the parachute fails.

In the 1970's Shirley began driving 'funny cars', they aren't funny at all except for the odd design and proportions.  Her funny car was a 1972 Ford Mustang.

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Updated: 05/25/2017, candy47
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candy47 on 01/24/2016

I've never heard that saying Tolovaj, thank you too for introducing it to me!

Tolovaj on 01/24/2016

Ladies are rare gems among race car drivers. We have a saying about people who race - they are bearing their heads in the bags. But - where would our world be without courageous people? Thank you for introducing Shirley Muldowney!

candy47 on 01/20/2016

Good question. I don't know what she drove off the track, but I know she liked her Mustang funny car.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/19/2016

candy47, Mustangs are quite a car, and it shows in the way it handles the "funny" design. Chevy, Ford, Mustang: do you know which one was her favorite on and off the track?

candy47 on 01/07/2016

sandyspider, I enjoyed doing the research on Shirley Muldowney, especially since I saw her race when I was a teenager.

sandyspider on 01/07/2016

Shirley is an amazing woman. Not often you read about a women race car driver.

candy47 on 12/31/2015

Thanks CruiseReady. She gave new meaning to 'leader of the pack'!

CruiseReady on 12/31/2015

I have long followed the careers of women at the Indy 500, and was glad to read about a notable female driver in another field of auto racing. Nice article!

candy47 on 12/30/2015

Muldowney certainly was a trailblazer in the 1960's for sure.

RuthCox on 12/29/2015

While not a Winston Cup follower, I am a Nascar fan, and appreciate the racing sport in general. Interesting that Muldowney also drove funny cars and drove a Ford Mustang, sweet!

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