Drag racing has dominated 19 of her 36 years, destroyed her marriage, cost her nearly every cent she’s earned and left a part of her face scarred by burns. But Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, one of drag racing’s few licensed women and its second-best driver, is undaunted. Someday soon she may become the first female champion of an integrated sport in the U.S.
“I want to be the fastest woman in the world—in a manner of speaking,” Shirley half-joked a couple of years ago. She has since been credited with the second-highest speed—249.30 mph—in drag racing history. Now she is gunning for her friend and chief competition on the circuit, Don “Big Daddy” Garlits, a 25-year veteran who holds most of the sport’s records.
Off the track she is trying to catch up with the publicity reaped by Janet Guthrie, who passed her rookie’s test at last year’s Indianapolis 500 in a car 80 mph slower than Muldowney’s. “Boy, was I hot when I read all that,” Shirley says. “She’s never done anything.”
Muldowney is a frail 5’4″ and 100 pounds, with nerves of steel and a foot of lead. She gives nothing away to rival Garlits, 45. “He is like the grandfather of drag racing,” she says. “I’ve beaten him lots of times in the last three years.” She also insists she is never afraid, despite rocketing from 0 to nearly 250 mph in less than six seconds. “I’m a professional. I’ve never driven over my head in my life.” Her nonchalance is all the more remarkable in view of the three fires that marred her career—one scorching her so badly her eyes swelled shut. “It was like opening a furnace door in your face,” she recalls. “Before the car stopped it burned the tires right off.” Then she switched from “Funny Cars” (shortened stock car bodies with racing engines in the front) to safer rear-engine Top Fuelers. The fastest drag racers built, they are named after the potent and expensive non-petroleum fuel they require.
Muldowney’s fascination with speed began as a cheap thrill on the streets of Schenectady, N.Y. She grew up driving anything she could borrow until her first car, a ’40 Ford with a Cadillac engine. “We used to go out on the streets and run 120 miles per hour,” she recalls. “We were crazy kids.” The second daughter of a Teamster official, Shirley left school at 16 to marry Jack Muldowney, a mechanic she met while working as a car hop.
With Jack as her partner, Shirley supported her addiction to racing with jobs as a dental assistant, typist and waitress. She turned professional driver 10 years ago in the face of considerable resistance, official and unofficial. One woman fan was so incensed she threw a can of soda at Shirley. The nickname Cha Cha stuck after someone wrote it on her car in shoe polish. Muldowney prefers the name Shirley, but continues to sell Cha Cha T-shirts at the track for $5 apiece.
Her marriage broke up in 1971. “Things started opening up for me after so many years of fighting to be accepted, and Jack had a filling station to run,” she says. “I had a decision to make. I took racing. We’re still good friends.” While male resentment has diminished—she is sometimes asked to join their card games—Shirley still has almost no social life and finds ironic her “All my men wear English Leather” commercials.
Last year she pumped $146,000 into her two cars (one on each coast) and four-man crew, logging 80,000 miles during the racing season. “I’ve made money, but not a lot,” she says. “Plenty of years I didn’t have anything left at the end.” Prize money and guarantees are 75 percent of her income; sponsors provide the rest for advertising on the car.
On those rare occasions when she parks her apple-red camper at home in Mt. Clemens, Mich., Shirley putters with her antique collection and cooks Italian dishes for her son, John, 18, now her mechanic and closest friend. “We kind of grew up together,” she says. She plans to launch John on his own racing career this year. “It’s a sickness,” Shirley says. “Either you love it or you hate it. I am probably more comfortable when I get in that race car than I am any other time of the day.”