Shirley Muldowney, the first lady of the drag strips, the National Hot Rod Association's only three-time World Champion in Top Fuel, is back—and what a journey it has been.
At a race at Sanair Speedway outside Montreal on June 29, 1984, as Muldowney, then 44 years old, sped through the timing lights at about 250 mph, she saw the inner tube of her left front tire squirm out of the casing and, like a deadly black snake, coil around the axle. The motorcycle-sized wheel locked up and threw her spindly 26-foot-long car sideways into a ditch beside the strip, which in turn triggered a horrifying high-velocity tumble. The dragster disintegrated as it rolled 600 feet, with Muldowney strapped in her seat inside the roll cage. Her legs were shattered, and her pelvis, hands and three fingers were broken. Her right thumb was nearly severed. Her wounds were full of dirt, debris and grease. "It took them six hours to clean me with wire brushes before they could operate that night," she says. "I was not awake, of course."
The next morning a friend came into the hospital room. Muldowney looked up with crimson eyeballs through the tubes and slings attached to her and said, "Not doin' too bad for a little s—-, huh?"
For the next 7½ weeks, doctors at Montreal General Hospital did their best to put Muldowney back together. "I owe the paramedics at the track and the doctors in Montreal my life, I owe them everything," she says. The specter of infection and amputation hung like an evil spirit over her bed, and to compound her agony, morphine had little effect—it would be months before doctors found an effective painkiller she could take. In August she returned to her home in Mt. Clemens, Mich., with Rahn Tobler, her crew chief, fiancé and nurse-to-be. There were 17 pins in her legs—structural supports and anchors for the stainless steel braces that held the limbs together.
February 10, 1986
That's when the real pain began—the misery and frustration of therapy and rehabilitation—and the depression of facing the future. "When I looked down at my ankle and could see out the other side, I went, 'Blah, it is over,' " she says. "The whole world had fallen apart in a matter of seconds." Over the next year there would be five more operations, including a bone graft and skin graft. "They took a huge slab off my thigh. Looked like hamburger. Oh, let me tell you I cried." While her legs were in casts, a four-inch section of her right tibia shifted and healed crooked. When that was discovered, Tobler called Indy Car owner Roger Penske to inquire about the treatment his driver, Rick Mears, had gotten for his crushed feet after a crash the same year on the oval track at the same Sanair Speedway. Penske referred Tobler to Dr. Terry Trammell of Indianapolis. Tobler loaded Muldowney and her wheelchair into their van one frigid January day and drove her to Indy.
"When I saw him I fell in love," says Muldowney. "I knew I was in good hands. The first thing he said to me was he was amazed at my tiny, fragile bones."
By then, Muldowney and Tobler had come to grips with the question of whether she would return to racing. "For the longest time after the crash I was totally negative," Tobler says. "I didn't want to look at a race car ever again." But one day in December '84 he had wheeled Shirley to a shopping mall to get her hair done. "I'd already been pushing him about coming back," Muldowney recalls, "and on this day I was kind of cranky. I was hurting. We were having lunch and I wouldn't let it go. Suddenly he said, 'Well all right goddammit, if that's what you want, we'll do it.' "
"That's what made her well," Tobler says. "She was motivated from that moment on."
When Muldowney ran out of painkillers, she quit cold turkey. She clung to sleeping pills a while longer, however. "But Rahn kind of ragged me about them," she says, so she's taken the last one of those, too.
She answered 4,700 get-well letters during her rehabilitation, handwriting each reply with the pen gripped in her fist, since three fingers in her right hand had been broken by the steering yoke when it was yanked out of her hands.
"It seems like a long, long time ago, when I think about it now," she says.
Now it is Jan. 16, 1986. Walking with a cane, Muldowney presents herself to the press at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix. In 24 hours she would be driving a 3,000-hp race car again. Her left ankle is fused, and her right leg is five-eighths of an inch shorter than the left because of the misaligned tibia. She is wearing special Reeboks with built-up heels. She hobbles to a mike, and the first question they ask is "Why?"
When she answers, there isn't much doubt that it is the same old Muldowney.
"A lot of reasons," she replies. "I missed my friends, I missed my job, I missed the life-style, I needed the money, it was what I did best." The questions come fast, and her answers shoot back straight and pointed as arrows. She seems to exude a fresh excitement, a new, gentler confidence and warmth. She acknowledges that the scrape with death has made her more appreciative of life—even the way she felt at having to empty her closet of 60 pairs of high heels, which she loved but could never wear again. She considers herself lucky to have the friends to give them to.
But she never would have come back if the wheels and tires made for drag racing had not been improved. Dragsters throwing tires had been a chronic problem, but little had been done about it until Muldowney's crash. She estimates she had lost a tire and/or tube as many as 20 times in her 22-year career—once, after she beat the redoubtable Don Garlits, her car shed both front tires at 240 mph and came to a stop on bare rims. "That was a stout deal," she says. "The front-tire thing was definitely staring us in the face for some time. The big boys said, 'Yeah, well, I can hold [steer] it.' But no one could have held that car."
Since Muldowney's crash, a tire-retaining groove is required on dragster front wheels, and Goodyear has designed a special tubeless front tire for these cars, which can cover a quarter-mile in just over five seconds. "Goodyear has spent mega-megabucks to develop this tire. What happened to me won't happen again," says Muldowney.
It was a glittering new car that her crew unveiled at Firebird the next day. They had finished it the previous midnight, and had driven all night from Los Angeles, where Muldowney has a house in Northridge that also serves as a race shop. The car's creators were the 31-year-old Tobler and Shirley's son, John. Twenty-eight-year-old John has been her mechanic since he was 14. He was present at Sanair on that terrible June day, and he had witnessed other narrow escapes; for example, when her car caught fire in 1973 and her scorched goggles left burns around her eyes. They are barely visible scars now, but she always wears sunglasses to hide them nonetheless.
The new car was even longer than its predecessor—12 inches longer—and its supercharged 500-cubic-inch engine bulged with innovations and Tobler tricks. The gunmetal gray chassis had been reinforced with thicker-than-usual roll-cage tubes, and there were more of them. Most radical were the front and rear wings, resembling those of an Indy car—Rick Mears's Indy car, to be exact. Tobler had hung out with the Penske crew at the '85 Indy 500 and had picked brains for aerodynamics hints. The rear wing was relatively tiny and mounted way up and way back, out in the clean air. Muldowney called it the Kareem Wing because it would take an Abdul-Jabbar to dust it off. (She's a Lakers fan, and the autographed photo Abdul-Jabbar sent her when she was recovering from the Sanair accident made her day.)
She had worried that the skimpy wings would not provide enough down force. "It won't fly, will it?" she asked. "No, it won't fly," Tobler reassured her.
The car had an oversized clutch pedal to accommodate an ankle that no longer bends. The paint scheme was new, too—a deep pearlescent violet, a subtle departure from Muldowney's trademark hot pink, a symbolic fresh start. All her equipment was new, in fact: new trailer, new sponsor (Performance Automotive Wholesale, a mail-order parts outfit), even new tools. The new toolbox is big and black and weighs more than 300 pounds; they call it The Fridge.
Other drivers came to Muldowney's pit area to welcome her back and admire, compliment and envy the car. They included Gary Beck, the Top Fuel champion for '83, and Connie Kalitta, a character with a roguish past and stormy history as Muldowney's live-in crew chief who was played by Beau Bridges in Heart Like a Wheel, the movie of Shirley's life through 1977. Bonnie Bedelia had received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Shirley.
It was time to fire up the engine—for the first time, ever. The car was on jack stands, about two feet off the ground. Muldowney stepped up on a kitchen stool and carefully climbed in. She had rehearsed this part many times. "I've been in that car for eight hours already," she said. "Just sitting."
The engine started, and bystanders put their fingers to their ears. With the roar, a wave of bliss flowed over Muldowney's face. Tobler leaned over the engine and blipped the throttle, and the torque from each blip sent a jolt through the car and Shirley's eyes lit up.
"I needed it," Muldowney said afterward. "That thing is stout."
When it was time for the run, she retired to the trailer and came back out in her quilted fire-retardant suit, her left foot encased by a specially made boot that splits open for her unbending foot. She gathered her dark hair into a pony-tail and yanked off both earrings at once—no messing around now. Her fire-retardant fabric hood and full-face helmet were drawn on, and Tobler strapped her in. "All set, Babe?" he asked. "Yeah," she said.
Without further ado Muldowney did her burnout—a false start on a hosed-down patch of pavement. The wheels are spun to heat the rear tires and thus give them more traction. It's also a spectacular maneuver that's literally ground-shaking and hair-raising, and it gets the grandstands screaming. "Woo! Burly!" came shouts from Muldowney's own crew, on the edge of their seats in the van behind the starting line, ready to chase down the strip after the run. "As soon as she did the burnout I knew she hadn't lost a thing," said Tobler. "It was perfect. Like she'd never been gone."
As Tobler had ordered, Muldowney shut off the engine after half the run; it was merely a shakedown. "Let me tell you, I was tempted to keep going," she said, beaming, when the van caught up to her. "And it felt pretty wonderful to make the turn at the end. I thought about the last time.
"Look how perfect I'm walking with no lifts!" she said suddenly. "No stupid heels." Indeed, there was a spring in her step—without the cane, which would be forgotten for the rest of the weekend. I don't know how to tell you how nice that car is to drive. Let me tell you, I can punch the clutch with the best of 'em. That pedal is perfect.
"It was a cakewalk. I knew that's what it would be."
Saturday's qualifying run, however, was not so successful. After the car passed through the timing lights at 236.22 mph, the braking parachutes became tangled. They streamed and twirled behind the hurtling vehicle as Muldowney stood on the meager brakes. "Open," John was saying urgently, watching from the van at the start. "Open...open...open!" But the chutes refused to blossom, and then the long violet car was swallowed by a cloud of dust on the desert horizon. Hearts pounded in the van as it raced toward the end of the strip.
When they got to the scene, Muldowney was pacing next to the car, which was stopped about 50 yards beyond the end of the pavement. She was bursting with adrenaline. "I'm sorry," she said to Tobler. "I couldn't get it stopped. What was my time?"
"Five ninety-seven," he replied.
"Oh," she said, disappointed. "I was looking for a .40." She meant 5.40 seconds, which would have been .01 away from the world record. She had lost neither her timing nor her cockiness.
The crowd of 20,000 on Sunday, Jan. 20, was Firebird's largest ever for a drag race, and it was evident that most of the people had come to see Muldowney. WELCOME BACK SHIRLEY signs were everywhere. The promoter posted four security men at the corners of her roped-off pit area so that the crew could work. A singing welcome-back telegram from a fan was delivered, as were a dozen red roses. "I feel like a bride," said Muldowney. But it was the children who were especially drawn to her. They streamed up and shyly waited for a hug.
Muldowney rode in the van as it towed her dragster up for its first run. What does a three-time champion lead-foot driver talk about moments before the start in this ultramacho game? "I love the smell of roses," Muldowney said to her friend Cheryl Juhlin. "Rahn got me these nice bath salts for Christmas that smell-like roses. If there's one thing I like it's nice-smelling bath salts."
After the driver introductions and a standing ovation for Shirley, Tobler strapped her in once more. In the lane next to her was veteran driver Larry Minor. Commonly known as the world's biggest potato farmer, he farms something like 92,000 acres and has the girth to show for it.
Muldowney burst away first with her front wheels raised, carrying them a foot or more off the ground for half the length of the strip. The giant digital timer at the finish line flashed 5.59, 235.60 mph. She had blown Minor away.
But then, the boom. An engine explosion, inches behind Muldowney's head, scattered chunks of metal into the air. Once again John Muldowney's heart stopped.
"When it went boom, I thought, 'I know I'm past the crowd,' said Shirley. "I've never, ever, put parts in the stands. I'm proud of that. But boy, that's some concussion behind your head."
A valve keeper had broken, allowing a valve to hang open and nitromethane fuel to gush into the engine. "It's just like a big bomb," said Tobler. The supercharger was blown off the engine.
But a 5.59! That was a mere .03 slower than Muldowney's alltime best.
Minor advanced in Shirley's place and lost to Bill Mullins in the final, but her crew was hardly disappointed. Her 5.59 held up as the lowest elapsed time of the day. The new season was just beginning.
The race at Phoenix was a shakedown for last weekend's NHRA Winternationals, the first major event of the new season. It was held at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, east of L.A., the heartland of hot-rodding. It drew 48,000, and the warm focus on Shirley was more of the Firebird treatment, only this time her admirers brought her single pink roses. Among the competitors was Garlits, Big Daddy himself, now 53 and the reigning Top Fuel champ.
In her qualifying run on Saturday, Muldowney might have overdone it as she stormed to a 5.470—the quickest run of her life. Her speed through the timing lights at the end of the quarter was 252.8 mph—"It was singin'," Muldowney said. Screaming might have been more accurate. The needle on the tach had spun to 10,000 rpm, which was 1,500 above the limit Tobler had set. As a consequence the big V-8's crankshaft bearings had burned and the driveline had been damaged. But that stuff could be fixed, and Muldowney's time stood as the second fastest of 35 Top Fuelers, with the top 16 moving into the first round of Sunday's single elimination.
Garlits was 10th fastest at 5.615 and, according to the system, he would face Muldowney in the opening round the next day. It was a promoter's dream. "If we're gonna face Garlits, I'm glad we're doing it in the first round," said Muldowney. "He gets better with age."
After early morning haze, the sun broke out as Muldowney wheeled her dragster to the line with Garlits. Her gleaming violet car was in sparkling contrast to his black machine—Big Daddy is known for his shabby-looking but sleek-performing equipment. She blasted immediately into her burnout. Garlits, no slouch as a showman, planted his foot at the same time. The two burned out side-by-side, burying themselves in noise and smoke, and the fans loved it.
When the starting lights flashed green, they exploded toward the end of the strip together. After the first 60 feet, Muldowney had him—a readout from the clocks would reveal what the human eye could miss. But then an oil line on her engine burst. The rear tires broke traction and smoked, and the engine revved to 10,000 rpm again. This time it exploded, sending chunks of shrapnel cartwheeling into the sky. And she still turned 5.718 in losing to Big Daddy's 5.59. (Darrell Gwynn beat Garlits in the semifinals and Kalitta in the finals to win the Top Fuel crown.)
"Babe, it was blazing so much you couldn't see the car," said Tobler softly to her at the end of the strip. "From where I sat it was still chewin'," Shirley said, meaning the traction had felt fine. Not to mention how wonderful it had felt to have her foot planted in every bit of the 3,000 hp, where it belongs.
"Well, let's load it up and go home," Tobler said with a sigh.
Shirley was already home.