Jack Muldowney had major impact on drag racing

His name does not pepper drag racing record books, but Jack Muldowney, who died last week at 70, had a major impact on the sport. He was the man behind the woman -- ex-wife Shirley Muldowney -- who shattered the gender barrier, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: May 29, 2007, 6:48 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

His name won't be found scattered throughout the coveted pages of the most noteworthy drag racing achievements ever recorded. He never piloted a Top Fuel dragster to an NHRA or IHRA winner's circle, nor did he revolutionize the quarter-mile sport with groundbreaking innovations or astonishingly clever concepts which rippled through the nitro pits.

Shirley Muldowney
AP Photo/George BrichShirley Muldowney went from -- in her own words -- token to smokin' in the NHRA. She wasn't the first woman to win an event, but her success paved the way for a more diverse sport.

But make no mistake -- Jack Muldowney, who passed away last week at age 70 after a battle with cancer, made an indelible and undeniable mark on professional drag racing as the man who stood behind and gave the impetus to one of the greatest racers of all time, male or female, Shirley Muldowney.

As teenagers in Schenectady, N.Y., a half-century ago, Jack Muldowney and Shirley Roque were not only sweethearts but incurable hot rodders, prowling the streets of New York's Tri-Cities area in the tricked-out street machines that Jack lovingly built and maintained. After they were married, hot rodding remained a vital centerpiece of their relationship and street racing quickly led to drag racing at organized events close to where they lived.

"We were always together driving something fast in those days," said Shirley, who was at Jack's bedside along with their son, John, at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady when Jack lost his gallant fight with the terminal illness. "Jack was a master mechanic, a tremendous painter and auto body expert, and his incredible artwork that he applied to many of our cars was as good if not better that any out there. He could do it all."

It was Jack who taught Shirley how to drive, and soon, how to race. They were frequent competitors at such local New York venues as Fonda Raceway and Glens Falls, in a string of hopped-up cars which Jack wrenched and Shirley drove. In the time they raced together between 1958 and 1970, they won a remarkable 150 races.

"And I'd like to set the record straight," said Shirley. "A woman has won a national event in a nitro Funny Car, despite what everyone says. In 1971, I won the IHRA national event in Darlington, S.C., in a Funny Car tuned by Jack Muldowney."

In another example of fiction resembling fact, it was Shirley and Jack -- not her longtime personal and professional partner, Connie Kalitta -- who first campaigned a racecar wearing her soon-to-become notorious nickname, "Cha Cha."

People need to know this. Without Jack Muldowney, there would have been no drag racing career for Shirley Muldowney. The simple truth is it was Jack who was with me in the beginning, taught me more than I ever could have learned on my own, and was always watching from the sidelines and cheering for me every time I pulled to the starting line.

Shirley Muldowney

The critically acclaimed motion picture "Heart Like A Wheel," which chronicles the racing exploits of the Muldowneys, followed by Shirley's split from Jack and subsequent partnership with Kalitta, has become a must-see movie for any drag racing devotee. But in his humble, unassuming way, Jack Muldowney never saw his inclusion in the production as an open door to a big payday.

"He asked for $1 from the producers. And that's all he got," remembered Shirley.

Shirley and Jack remained in close contact over the years. It wasn't unusual to see him attending the NHRA national events at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. to visit Shirley's pit and give his unflagging support to the woman who irrevocably dismantled the gender gap in professional drag racing.

"In all the years I raced with him, and right up until I retired, Jack was as classy as they get," said the four-time Top Fuel champion in both the NHRA and AHRA. "He never felt any resentment or jealousy towards me because of the attention I received while he remained in the background. How many men would have been able to do what he did behind the scenes and never let their egos get the better of them? Jack was special that way."

Along with son, John, whom he fathered with Shirley, Jack later became a single father to another son, David, who at age 21 is on his way to becoming a New York State trooper. And up until he became ill, Jack took great pleasure in relaxing at his campsite in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

"People need to know this," emphasized Shirley. "Without Jack Muldowney, there would have been no drag racing career for Shirley Muldowney. The simple truth is it was Jack who was with me in the beginning, taught me more than I ever could have learned on my own, and was always watching from the sidelines and cheering for me every time I pulled to the starting line.

"I will be forever grateful for everything he did for me and the way in which he did it."

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com and co-authored a book with Shirley Muldowney, "Shirley Muldowney's Tales From The Track"