Back to Driving Force, Summer 2017

Ladies First: Women Heat Up the Track

By Colby Martin

  Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney

In many ways, auto racing is a great equalizer. All forms of the sport have much in common with non-motorized team sports. While miracles happen, persistence under pressure is usually the common denominator. It goes without saying that one should never completely count out the underdog. However, one major element that sets racing apart from others is that both men and women compete in the same arena—an idea I’ve always found uniquely refreshing.

When I was very young, I learned quickly that nobody with any sense dared snicker at the lone Top Fueler painted in bright pink. I fondly recall Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney lining up against the likes of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, “The Bounty Hunter” Connie Kalitta and other greats. Her reputation as a skilled driver had long been cemented as she struck fear into the whole field of entries. Shirley was the first woman to receive a Top Fuel dragster driver’s license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) after forging her career in the ’60s. She earned the title of “First Lady of Drag Racing” while repeatedly catching the win light. Long before the era of big sponsorships and multi-car teams, Muldowney won the NHRA Top Fuel championship three times in 1977, 1980 and 1982. Her life and career were subsequently the focus of the 1983 feature film Heart Like a Wheel.

Today, we live in a time of heightened sensitivity regarding individuality and personal traits. With that context, I find it a joy to know that winning an auto race is completely up for grabs by anyone. Like all sports, some classes have tougher competition. But anyone with enough ambition, time, resources and heart has a chance at the championship. No matter one’s background, it’s all business when the helmet goes on.

Lately, the chance for women to compete equally has weighed on my mind. I’ve realized that there are myriad consequences should our government begin to tamper with racing. For the last year, I’ve done much thinking about the massive effort to enact the Recognizing the Protection of Motorsports (RPM) Act into law. In my lifetime, I’ve watched the number of female racers grow exponentially, from a handful across all forms of motorsport to contenders in nearly every class. Outlawing the conversion of street vehicles into dedicated racers would certainly reduce the number of future female competitors. Still greatly outnumbered by men at the track, women would be among those hit hardest if the bill is not enacted into law. It would be a shame not to see more women involved in emerging categories like Formula Drift, Global Rallycross and Formula E.

I’m so glad to have met Muldowney. Not all of one’s heroes are as genuine and respectful. I’ve seen her challenge hardship and triumph in a heavily male-dominated arena. Her boldness in not accepting a traditional role is an inspiration still today. Sure, I’ll never be a professional quarter-mile driver but she opened the staging lanes of my mind early on. Let’s make sure the same effect is available to racing fans of future generations. Go to www.sema.org/RPM to quickly and easily support the RPM Act.