“I want to be able to go to the race track and look like a lady but still do the job of a man when I’m racing…” – Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney
Photographer: Steve Green and Craig Butler
Professional motorsports is almost entirely a men’s sport – almost.
Shirley Muldowney, known as “Cha Cha” in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), is renowned for competing in a sport commonly dominated by the opposite sex. Muldowney originally “started drag racing in the late ‘50s after her husband taught her to drive,” became the first woman to be issued an NHRA license to drag race in 1965, then progressed through various drag racing levels. By the 1970s, after “[fighting] a 14-year uphill battle to join the elite group of big-name Funny Car drivers,” Muldowney was tearing up tracks in under 7 seconds while travelling 200+ miles per hour. Muldowney’s successes as a female Funny Car driver is shadowed by her challenges as a woman in a men’s sport and motherhood to a teenager.
Shirley Muldowney’s challenge entering professional motorsports wasn’t simply other Funny Car drivers. Muldowney faced criticism as a woman in a male-dominated sport while simultaneously “going to PTA meetings and attending to the duties of a 31-year-old mother with a 13-year-old son.” Women’s rights activists surged during the 1970s, yet Muldowney, who believed in gender equality, did not perceive her womanhood in professional motorsports as a barrier. Instead, Muldowney sought a balance of womanhood with her professional career, mentioning that she “[wants] to be able to go to the race track and look like a lady but still do the job of a man when I’m racing…” against other male Funny Car drivers. Muldowney even mentioned that she “[likes] being the weaker sex” but admitted that “people discriminated against [her] because [she is] a woman” in a sport dominated by men, yet firmly believed in her role as a female Funny Car driver and motorsports icon.
Muldowney’s gender never slowed her racing pace. She showcased her motorsport talent by winning the 1971 IHRA Summer Nationals, and attracted the utmost attention during the 1971 NHRA Nationals. On Muldowney’s “first pass off the trailer, [she] stopped the clocks at 6.76 seconds, easily making the field… a feat which eluded several of drag racing Funny Car heroes” and proved female Funny Drivers were equally as capable – and more capable – of competing in professional motorsports. Muldowney eventually partnered with racer and car builder Connie Kalitta, which earned her the nickname “Cha Cha” since Kalitta and Muldowney occasionally raced together, and the victories started piling up starting with winning the NRA Spring Nationals in the mid-1970s. Muldowney later became the first woman to capture the NHRA’s World Fuel Championships in 1977 while being named Car Craft Magazine’s Person of the Year, won a second title in NHRA 1980, won an AHRA Championship, was named to the Car Craft All-Star Team and Top Fuel Driver of the Year in 1981, and claimed a third NHRA Championship in 1982, becoming the first person to claim the championship three times. Muldowney was inducted to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990, the International Hall of Fame in 2004, and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2005.
Muldowney’s accomplishments as a woman and mother highlight how women have faced challenges in professional motorsports and societal norms. Muldowney’s influence as a female Funny Car driver illustrated how women defied gender norms to pursue passions and prove their worthiness as competitive drivers, and Shirley’s son, John Muldowney, followed his mother’s success by working on his mother’s dragster team, and becoming a fabricator and machinist for other teams. Muldowney’s accomplishments are concrete examples of how strong women have overcome gender discrimination to become successful and iconic historical figures who revolutionized the motorsports industry.