Shirley Muldowney doesn't have any regrets about her career.
O.K., maybe she has one. Because of a 1984 crash that nearly
killed her and left her with a fused left ankle, she can only
wear tennis shoes. You might not expect a woman who has been drag
racing since she was 15--she fell in love with fast cars on the
streets of Schenectady, N.Y., 48 years ago--to have a girly side,
but Muldowney surely does. "I love ladies' shoes, and shoes today
are the most fantastic shoes," she says. "When I go to a store,
I'll look at the shoe department and say, Oh, God, why?"
Muldowney's determined recovery from that wreck (she couldn't
race for 18 months) left people wondering whether she would ever
leave the sport. Now, nearly 20 years later, she's finally
hanging up her helmet after a career in which she became the most
recognizable drag racer in the world. That she was a woman was
only part of her allure: Unlike virtually every other female auto
racer who took on the boys, she beat them. She was the first
woman to race an NHRA top-fuel dragster, the first woman to win
the top-fuel world championship and the first person of either
sex to win it more than once. Her life was immortalized in the
1983 movie Heart Like a Wheel, starring Bonnie Bedelia.
(Muldowney liked the movie but thought Bedelia could have been
more realistic: "She got up out of the race car after winning the
world championship like she was getting up from the dinner
Muldowney's decision to retire was partly to make life easier on
her crew chief--and husband of 25 years--Rahn Tobler, who will
become crew chief for Doug Kalitta, one of the NHRA's top
drivers. For the past 12 years Muldowney has been barnstorming,
as opposed to running a full-time NHRA schedule, which meant that
Tobler, 48, had to do everything from building the cars to
hauling them to the track. "It's about time Rahn flew to races
instead of driving a big rig across the country," she says.
After an NHRA career that began in 1971 Muldowney has one race
left, this weekend in Pomona, Calif. (Besides clocking her best
time and speed on the quarter-mile course on Sept. 28, she has
advanced to the semifinals in two of the five events she's raced
this season.) Muldowney has always been a crowd favorite--burly
men cheered when she deployed her trademark pink
parachutes--because of the way she carried herself and her
refusal to back down in the face of the chauvinists she
encountered early in her career. That resiliency, as much as any
record, is what Muldowney is proud of. "I bucked 'em," she says.
"Nobody likes a woman telling them how it's done and how it
should be done."
November 3, 2003
Bill Scheft is on vacation.