Hal Pilger story on 67-year-old former drag racer Shirley Muldowney
By Hal Pilger
Gatehouse News Service
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- She realized she had a passion for cars when she was about 15 years old, growing up in Schenectady, N.Y.
Today, at 67 and despite decades of rugged competition, serious racing fires and a horrendous 1984 Montreal crash that resulted in several surgeries and many months of painful rehabilitation to walk again, that passion still burns red-hot for former NHRA drag racer Shirley Muldowney.
A three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion who retired as a driver following the 2003 season, Muldowney is in Springfield this weekend to help promote the International Route 66 Mother Road Festival. She says she only does about two auto shows a year, around the races.
“I get to meet so many people at the events,” she said.
Even though she no longer competes as a driver, Muldowney is attempting to put together a race team as an owner, perhaps for the 2009 season — if not sooner.
“It turned into a lifestyle for me,” says the woman some have called one of the 20th century’s most important female athletes. “I’ve been doing it a long time. There’s not a pension involved, so now I must decide what I’m going to do now that (the driving) is over.”
Simply hanging out at the tracks and at a few car shows each year could never be enough to satisfy the first woman to win a pro class at an NHRA national event, which she accomplished during the June, 1976 Springnationals; the first woman to win an NHRA Top Fuel championship, in 1977; and the first person to win two NHRA Top Fuel titles, securing her second in 1980. She added a third in 1982.
And she knows exactly what it will take financially to get a fledgling racing program out of the staging area and onto the track.
“It’s pretty expensive,” she concedes. “We’ve found $1.3 million right now, but I’m looking for another $2.6 million. It’s a lot of money.”
Muldowney, who used to race Funny Cars before embarking upon 30 years in the Top Fuel division, is impressed with what Springfield Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson has been able to accomplish over the years with his relatively low-budget, single-car program.
“It’s very impressive,” she said. “Plus, he’s a nice guy. You don’t find that out there. They can be nice when the camera’s around; they can be nice when they’re winning. But when they’re not laying the numbers down and things don’t fall into place, the true personalities surface.
“I could stand right here and name names, and the list would be long. Tim’s not on that list. And when it comes to crunch time, sitting in the race car, he’s very good. He knows his job.”
Muldowney believes she may have found a female driver who can do the job for the team she’s attempting to put together.
“I was looking for a driver; it just happened to be a female,” Muldowney said. “She’s 41, mechanically astute, very sharp, and she drives an A-fuel (alcohol) car now, on her own. She’s spent six years with me as an assistant.
“Her name is Sheila Kopchick; we call her ‘Tough Chick.’ I definitely think she can get the job done.”
Of her many accomplishments in racing, including numerous Hall of Fame inductions, Muldowney may be most proud of the fact that she became her own boss in what had always been perceived as a man’s world.
“Even today, in 2007, I’m still the only female that actually ran her own deal,” says Muldowney. “Put it together, hired crew members, owned the equipment — made it happen from square one. “Everyone else (female) that’s come along since then has had either a sugar daddy or someone to pick up the bills.
“It was rough back then. It was not a kid’s game, and you could get really hurt in some of those cars. And there was not a lot of money involved. But we survived off the cars. That’s how we lived and paid our bills.”
Muldowney can’t say exactly what triggered her early interest in cars.
“I should come up with a really great story,” she said with a chuckle. “I was just a kid, racin’ around the streets, up and down downtown Schenectady, N.Y. Neither one of my parents was aware of what I was involved in. Little did we know then what this was all going to turn into.
“But I was serious,” adds Muldowney, who inspired the 1983 film, “Heart Like A Wheel” and undoubtedly has inspired countless young women — and men — to pursue their passions despite incredibly long odds.
“It was just such a closed-door, ole boys’ game,” she said. “Disgusting the way they acted back then. It was a fight, and I’m glad that it was me, because I was a good fighter. And I still am. I like a good fight.
“So it worked out. I did it for a living from ’73 to 2003 and never looked back.”
Even in retirement, she’s still looking ahead.
“There is nothing I’d like better than to put a team out there and kick their (rears),” Muldowney says. “That’s the name of the game.”
Hal Pilger can be reached at 788-1548 or email@example.com.