Shirley Muldowney eyes comeback
When Shirley Muldowney was winning drag racing championships and instilling fear in her male competitors, it was best to buckle up and stay out of her way. Still is.
At 73, Muldowney would still like to be racing. Still could, say those who know her, and she is not happy, she says, about feeling overlooked in the 10 years since her retirement from competition.
But now she is eyeing something bigger, an assault on the world land speed record scheduled for spring 2014 in which Muldowney and Doug Herbert, a former Top Fuel champion and high performance auto parts distributor, are pursuing the male and female marks for a piston-powered car at rates they estimate will reach over 400 and 500 mph, respectively.
Since retiring from competitive racing in 2003, Muldowney, a three-time Top-Fuel champion with 18 National Hot Rod Association victories, said her driving has been restricted the last several years "to my 10-year-old TrailBlazer on the street." But she quickly points out that the multi-million dollar streamliner she hopes to drive at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah is not like the dragsters she drove in the '70s.
"That's when it was hard to drive, the cars not perfected, there wasn't all this technology and the tracks were marginal," Muldowney said. "I want to make that ride, and I know how to drive a race car."
Muldowney's biggest rival in her prime, Don Garlits, called Muldowney "the greatest woman race car driver ever to this point. I don't know what's going to happen, but someone is going to really have to do something to ever beat what she did," said the man they still call "Big Daddy."
"I always said she had the killer instinct, which is what you have to have to win in drag racing, and if she wants to go to the Bonneville Salt Flats and drive the streamliner, I think she'll do well because it doesn't require the physical endurance of a top-fuel dragster."
Anyone who doubts the ability of older drivers need look no further than John Force, who at 64 is still winning races in Funny Car, and perhaps the best example, Chris Karamesines, who is still competing in NHRA Top Fuel races at age 81. Muldowney, who sustained severe injuries and a half-dozen surgeries from an '84 crash that kept her off the dragstrip for several years, retired at 63.
"I went 300 miles per hour at 71," Garlits said. "That's when my wife put her foot down."
Herbert described Muldowney as "sharp as a tack. Her ability has not changed," he said. "Her focus and her concentration, I don't think it's a bit different than it was 30 years ago. I think the only thing that would come to mind is her legs and feet, which were broken up in the accident.
"But Shirley is not looking to race every week. … I'd put her in my car in a second. I have no doubt in her ability to run a race car. All anyone has to do is look in her eyes and you know."
Herbert said the most difficult thing about driving a Top Fuel car or at Bonneville is "knowing when to shut it off. That's the most important thing, and Shirley knows when to say, 'Uncle.' "
Since racing, Muldowney said she has been disappointed with what she called a lack of opportunities around racing.
"Fans have gotten better over the years, and now the following is unbelievable," said Muldowney, who has 20,000 likes on her Facebook page. "[But] since I left in '03, I have been offered zero positions, nothing, and I'm not thrilled. I still have to make a living. The land speed record won't make me rich, but it's something no one else will be able to say, that I'm the fastest woman in the world."
Graham Light, NHRA senior vice president of racing operations, said he could not address Muldowney's claims about a lack of opportunities, but called her "an icon."
"Shirley is determined enough that she can drive anything no matter how old she is," Light said. "She's a race car driver and a damn good one, and she was from the beginning. It was tough back then and she had to be tough to get through it, but she certainly earned the respect of everyone out there. She could drive with the best of them, and today she is just as capable."