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As NHRA closes in on 100 wins by female racers, it all started with one of the greatest, Shirley Muldowney

Apr 24, 2014, 10:01 PM EDT

Shirley Muldowney. (Photo courtesy: NHRA) Shirley Muldowney. (Photo courtesy: NHRA)

As the National Hot Rod Association prepares for its sixth race of the 24-event Mello Yello Drag Racing Series this weekend in Baytown, Texas, history could be made.

The NHRA is just two wins away from recording 100 victories by female drivers in the sport’s all-time annals, which could happen in this weekend’s 27th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals presented by Super Start Batteries at Royal Purple Raceway.

And while all eyes this weekend will be on drivers such as Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force (Funny Car), Brittany and Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel) and Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock) as potential candidates to set that significant milestone, it’s also time to reflect back on who started it all, the legendary Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney.

Driver of what became a signature hot pink Top Fuel dragster, Muldowney stormed out of her native Syracuse, N.Y., won her first NHRA national event in 1976 and went on to win 17 more races, as well as national Top Fuel championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982.

Although she’s been retired for 10 years, Muldowney still talks occasionally about climbing back behind the wheel. She missed the thrill, the excitement and the competition.

But at the same time, she’s also proud to watch today’s female racers who have followed in her shoes and in unison point to Muldowney as being one of their biggest inspirations when they decided themselves to become drag racers.

“I think it’s a terrific thing,” Muldowney said in an NHRA media release. “A lot of ladies played a big part in getting to 100 wins and it’s good for the sport.

“Anything that shows women can be competitive with men and come out on top, it’s a good thing. There are a lot of cars capable of getting that 100th win.”

Regardless of her gender, Muldowney set a number of significant marks in the sport, including becoming the first NHRA driver – male or female – to win three championships.

There was even a major motion picture made about her life (“Heart Like A Wheel,” starring Bonnie Bedelia as Muldowney).

“Nobody could hold me back from what I wanted to do,” Muldowney said. “When the NHRA saw that I was capable in the driver’s seat they relaxed and were great. They were very accepting. They knew I could sell tickets and that I had the goods.”

Indeed, the NHRA was the first major motorsports series – and one of the first major professional sports entities in general to accept female athletes.

Muldowney quickly went from being a curiosity due to her gender to being quickly accepted for her talent and ability, to becoming one of the sport’s biggest stars and most popular drivers.

Once she started winning, she was no longer a female drag racer. Rather, she was looked upon as just one of the guys, which became one of the highest compliments ever paid to her for her gender was no longer relevant to her success behind the wheel.

“Some of the most wonderful things people said to me or said about me just because I drove that race car is really special and unbelievable,” Muldowney said. “It was my life and it means a great deal to me. That tells me I made a difference, had an impact, helped the sport and did something good.

“It’s amazing to see how I am treated all because of that race car and I can’t say enough how much I appreciate it. I love the sport and I think drag racing is the most exciting motorsport around. There’s nothing like it.”

In a career that spanned more than three decades, Muldowney said she has two special memories that stand out. Winning the U.S. Nationals – drag racing’s Super Bowl – in 1982, as well as her second Top Fuel championship in 1980.

“In 1980, we slayed them,” Muldowney said. “We came out of the box (in the season opener) at Pomona with a brand new car that I had never even driven before and we won. I was really proud of that.”

Thus far this season, DeJoria has won two races and Enders-Stevens has one win.

“I think today’s crop is very good,” Muldowney said. “Erica is as good as anybody and is good as I’ve ever seen. She does an incredible job and you don’t see many mistakes from her, and the job all of them are doing is great.”

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Qualifying for this weekend’s race begins Friday with sessions at 4 and 6:30 p.m. CT, with the final two qualifying sessions Saturday at 12:30 and 3 p.m.

Final eliminations are Sunday, starting at 11 a.m.

Here’s a brief history of female drag racers who have competed in the NHRA, as well as those who have won races (and how many).

The following women (listed in alphabetical order by category) have competed in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:

Top Fuel (18): Vivica Averstedt, Dannielle DePorter, Vicky Fanning, Gina Ferraro, Brittany Force, Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Lori Johns, Kim LaHaie, Lucille Lee, Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Payne (Anderson), Cristen Powell, Leah Pritchett, Sue Ransom, Joanne Reynolds, Rachelle Splatt, Melanie Troxel, Hillary Will

Funny Car (14): Alexis DeJoria, Vicky Fanning, Courtney Force, Ashley Force Hood, Rodalyn Knox, Paula Martin, Shirley Muldowney, Paula Murphy, Cristen Powell, Leah Pritchett, Susie Spencer, Melanie Troxel, Della Woods, Carol Yenter.

Pro Stock (6): Erica Enders-Stevens, Grace Howell, Judy Lilly, Lucinda McFarlin, Shay Nicols, Shirley Shahan

Pro Stock Motorcycle (16): Dawn Matthews Baugues, Connie Cohen, Vicki Farr, Lori Francis, Linda Jackson, Anne Hansen, Elvira Karlsson, Peggy Lewellyn, Dawn Minturn, Stephanie Reaves, Angelle Sampey, Angie Smith (McBride), Karen Stoffer, Katie Sullivan, Valerie Thompson, Holly Wallace

Female leaders in victories:

1. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle 41 (first at Reading 1996, last at Houston 2007)

2. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel 18 (first at Columbus 1976, last at Phoenix 1989)

3. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock 7 (first at Chicago 2012, last at Las Vegas 1 2014)

4. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle 6 (first at Houston 2004, last at Denver 2011)

5. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel-Funny Car 5 (first at Pomona 1 2006, TF, last at Bristol 2008, FC)

6. Shelly Payne, Top Fuel 4 (first at Reading 1993, last at Seattle 1996)

Lori Johns, Top Fuel 4 (first at Pomona 1 1990, last at Memphis 1991)

Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car 4 (first at Atlanta 2008, last at Indianapolis 2010)

9. Courtney Force, Funny Car 3 (first at Seattle 2012, last at Epping 2013)

10. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car 2 (first at Phoenix 2014, last at Las Vegas 1 2014)

11. Lucille Lee, Top Fuel 1 (Atlanta 1982)

Cristen Powell, Top Fuel 1 (Englishtown 1997)

Peggy Llewellyn, Pro Stock Motorcycle 1 (Dallas 2007)

Hillary Will, Top Fuel 1 (Topeka 2008)

 

Female pro series world champions:

Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel ­ 3 (1977, 1980, 1982)

Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle ­ 3 (2000, 2001, 2002)

 

NHRA Mello Yello Series victories by female drivers:

1. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 13, 1976, Columbus, Ohio

2. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 10, 1976, Ontario, Calif.

3. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 12, 1977, Columbus, Ohio

4. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, July 16, 1977, Englishtown, N.J.

5. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Aug. 7, 1977, Montreal

6. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Feb. 3, 1980, Pomona, Calif.

7. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 8, 1980, Columbus, Ohio

8. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Sept. 21, 1980, Seattle

9. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 19, 1980, Ontario, Calif.

10. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, March 15, 1981, Gainesville, Fla.

11. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, April 26, 1981, Atlanta

12. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, March 14, 1982, Gainesville, Fla.

13. Lucille Lee, Top Fuel, April 25, 1982, Atlanta

14. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 13, 1982, Columbus, Ohio

15. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Aug. 22, 1982, Brainerd, Minn.

16. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Sept. 6, 1982, Indianapolis

17. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Feb. 13, 1983, Pomona, Calif.

18. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 16, 1983, Irvine, Calif.

19. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 15, 1989, Phoenix

20. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, Feb. 4, 1990, Pomona, Calif.

21. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, April 22, 1990, Atlanta

22. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, May 6, 1990, Memphis

23. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, May 5, 1991, Memphis

24. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Sept. 19, 1993, Reading, Pa.

25. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Feb. 6, 1994, Pomona, Calif.

26. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, May 5, 1996, Richmond, Va.

27. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Aug. 4, 1996, Seattle

28. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 15, 1996, Reading, Pa.

29. Cristen Powell, Top Fuel, May 18, 1997, Englishtown, N.J.

30. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 28, 1997, Topeka, Kan.

31. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 17, 1998, Englishtown, N.J.

32. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 20, 1998, Reading, Pa.

33. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 11, 1998, Memphis

34. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 21, 1999, Gainesville, Fla.

35. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 16, 1999, Atlanta

36. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 25, 1999, Englishtown, N.J.

37. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 27, 1999, St. Louis

38. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 10, 1999, Memphis

39. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 9, 2000, Las Vegas

40. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 7, 2000, Atlanta

41. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 18, 2000, Columbus, Ohio

42. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 16, 2000, Denver

43. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 9, 2000, Englishtown, N.J.

44. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 25, 2001, Houston

45. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 17, 2001, Columbus, Ohio

46. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 8, 2001, Pomona, Calif.

47. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 22, 2001, Denver

48. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 3, 2001, Indianapolis

49. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 7, 2001, Reading, Pa.

50. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Nov. 11, 2001, Pomona, Calif.

51. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 5, 2002, Atlanta

52. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 2, 2002, Chicago

53. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 30, 2002, St. Louis

54. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 2, 2002, Indianapolis

55. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 16, 2002, Reading, Pa.

56. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 27, 2002, Las Vegas

57. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 16, 2003, Gainesville, Fla.

58. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 13, 2003, Houston

59. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 1, 2003, Chicago

60. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 18, 2004, Houston

61. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 16, 2004, Atlanta

62. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Aug. 1, 2004, Sonoma, Calif.

63. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 10, 2004, Reading, Pa.

64. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Nov. 14, 2004, Pomona, Calif.

65. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 10, 2005, Houston

66. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 26, 2005, St. Louis

67. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 18, 2005, Reading, Pa.

68. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, Feb. 12, 2006, Pomona, Calif.

69. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 19, 2006, Gainesville, Fla.

70. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 2, 2006, Houston

71. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, April 9, 2006, Las Vegas

72. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 21, 2006, Columbus, Ohio

73. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 1, 2006, Richmond, Va.

74. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 18, 2007, Gainesville, Fla.

75. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 1, 2007, Houston

76. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 29, 2007, Atlanta

77. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, May 6, 2007, St. Louis

78. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, Sept. 16, 2007, Memphis

79. Peggy Llewellyn, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 23, 2007, Dallas

80. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, April 27, 2008, Atlanta

81. Melanie Troxel, Funny Car, May 18, 2008, Bristol, Tenn.

82. Hillary Will, Top Fuel, June 1, 2008, Topeka, Kan.

83. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, March 29, 2009, Houston

84. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, Sept. 7, 2009, Indianapolis

85. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, Sept. 6, 2010, Indianapolis

86. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 24, 2011, Denver

87. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, July 1, 2012, Chicago

88. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Aug. 5, 2012, Seattle

89. Courtney Force, Funny Car, Aug. 5, 2012, Seattle

90. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Aug. 19, 2012, Brainerd, Minn.

91. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Sept. 30, 2012, St. Louis

92. Courtney Force, Funny Car, Feb. 17, 2013, Pomona, Calif.

93. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Feb. 24, 2013, Phoenix

94. Courtney Force, Funny Car, June 23, 2013, Epping, N.H.

95. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Sept. 29, 2013, St. Louis

96. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car, Feb. 23, 2014, Phoenix

97. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car, March 30, 2014, Las Vegas

98. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, March 30, 2014, Las Vegas

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

  1. indycar02 - Apr 25, 2014 at 9:04 PM

    pippa mann, front row indy 500 (?).

  2. techmeister1 - Apr 26, 2014 at 12:00 AM

    Shirley most definitely knocked down a lot of barriers for woman in motorsports particularly NHRA drag racing. I think it’s great that woman get to compete on equal terms in motorsport. The social degenerates who can’t handle it need not watch. You can bet a lot of males get butt hurt when they get beat by a woman because they just don’t get it. The car doesn’t know or care if a male or female is driving. Let the best driver win.

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