Thursday, July 21, 2016

Shirley Muldowney Has Health Scare

Shirley Muldowney

Has Health Scare, But is Okay!

The Movie Heart Like a Wheel &

Life and Times of the First Lady

of Drag Racing

-Alan Arnell

Shirley Muldowney is on the road to recovery after tumors found in her lung were revealed to not be cancerous.

Shirley Muldowney
Shirley Muldowney who is a multiple NHRA Top Fuel champion had a bump in the quarter mile of her life when tests revealed she had tumors in her lungis.  Thankfully, Shirley is now on the road to a full recovery after surgery where doctors found the tumors were not cancerous.

Muldowney was discharged from the Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, NC., on May 31, and is now convalescing at home.

Muldowney's May 25 surgery lasted five hours and, initially, thoracic and cardiac surgeon Dr. Harold Howe planned to remove her right lung, but upon closer inspection removed instead the upper and lower lobes of her right lung and lymph nodes.

Muldowney, who has bravely stood up to chauvinistic men during her storied career and made her way back from a devastating crash in 1984, admitted the initial prognosis and surgery made her more frightened than ever. However, her doctor’s good news of no cancer was, as we all can imagine, well received.

The Movie Heart Like a Wheel

Back in the day of only three channels to watch on TV and most households only having one TV it was fairly easy to miss out on important milestones in the timeline of popular events.   My knowledge of dragracing consisted of what I was able to watch on the Wild World of Sports.  I knew of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, because I had watched his car explode on a Sunday show of Wild World of Sports.  

In 1970, Garlits was driving Swamp Rat XIII, also called the Wynnscharger, a front-engined slingshot rail, when the vehicle suffered a catastrophic failure. The two-speed transmission Garlits was developing exploded and took a piece out of his right foot.

And. “The Snake” Don Prudohmme who was racing his Funny Car and winning multiple championship during my youth and was, it seamed, alway on the TV programs I was able to watch.  Besides those two great racers, I was clueless to drag racing.  

In 1982, I was introduced to Shirley Muldowney when I saw the movie “Heart Like a Wheel”  The movie was a compromise move with my wife, as it was about drag racing, which I like and a woman’s fight against the world of a men’s sport, which like the Lifetime Channel the joy of my wife.  

John Force and his three racing daughters.
Ashley Force, Britney Force and Courtney Force

Today, the Force girls may be leading the current pack of women drag racers, but it is, in my mind’s eye, doubtful any of them will surpass the importance to the sport of Shirley Muldowney.  Other females had success during the same time of Shirley’s racing fame, but Muldowney was the first to have a Fuel license and the first to score a pro-class event win.  With multiple championships and national wins, Shirley Muldowney’s accomplishments can not be viewed on a scale of achievements by women, but by in the contest of one of the greatest pure drag racers of all time.

Nevertheless, her gender brought nationwide attention and as, I mentioned earlier, a  film was made of her life story in the1983 entitled, Heart Like a Wheel.  The movie was released on DVD in 2006.  

Actress Bonnie Bedelia, portrayed Shirley in the film.  The move was a shot in the arm for Shirley’s PR, if not just for me, as it raised interest Shirley and Drag Racing in the American Public as a whole.  Needless to say, The move was a great view into the sport of drag racing as well as Shirley.  

Marvin Graham, left, next to actor Beau Bridges during the filming of the Movie

Other racers involved in the movie were Top Fuel’s Marvin Graham, a tech adviser who also starred as Connie Kalitta’s crew chief and stunt drivers Kelly brown, the 1978 Top Fuel champion and the the legendary TV Tommy Ivo who, along with Don Garlits and Connie Kalitta, had signed off on Shirley’s Fuel License in 1972.

Shirley was also the subject of a documentary on the Biography Channel.  See more at

A Brief Summary of Shirley Muldowney’s Life and Career

Shirley Muldowney (born June 19, 1940 in Burlington, Vermont, also known professionally as "Cha Cha" and the "First Lady of Drag Racing".  She is an American auto racer and was the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to drive a Top Fuel dragster. She won the NHRA Top Fuel championship in 1977, 1980, and 1982, becoming the first person to win two and three Top Fuel titles. She won a total of 18 NHRA national events

Early Life

Shirley Muldowney

Shirley Muldowney was born Shirley Roque on June 19, 1940 in Burlington, Vermont, to Belgium Benedict and Mae Roque. The family moved to Schenectady, New York, where Shirley grew up with her older sister. Their mother worked as a laundress and father as a cab driver. Belgium was also a boxer, and is credited as instilling a sense of toughness in his petite daughter.

Shirley fell for avid car racer Jack Muldowney and married him at age 16, dropping out of high school; after two years, they had a son, John. Shirley soon found herself taking to the racing scene as well, learning to drive from her husband and then entering matches in her area. With Jack working on car upgrades that would allow for higher speed, Shirley honed her skills as a competitor in a male-dominated field.

Racing Career and Championships

In 1965, Shirley Muldowney became the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association to drag race professionally, after forming a coalition with other women racers that included Judi Boertman and Della Woods. By the early 1970s, Muldowney was a no-nonsense contender in "funny car" races (so named because the vehicles are designed radically different from conventional cars for racing purposes), and was able to reach speeds of more than 200 mph, making the finals of the NHRA Nationals in 1971. She and Jack divorced, and she moved to Michigan to be more in the mix of the sport.

By the mid-'70s, Muldowney had won the NHRA Spring Nationals, becoming the first woman to do so, and went on to become the first person ever to win the association's World Fuel Championships on three separate occasions—in 1977, 1980 and 1982. She would go on to win 18 NHRA titles in total, dominating world championships and setting various records. Muldowney had become a multi-pronged trailblazer.

Muldowney's success was all the more poignant considering the sexism found in racing culture, with Muldowney having more difficulty than male drivers attracting sponsors and finding a crew. Her success also defied traditional gender stereotypes, as she was a top racer who loved high heels and would paint her cars hot pink, both as something she enjoyed to do and to get under the skin of hecklers. She became a fan favorite of both women and men alike.

Connie Kalitta

Muldowney's son eventually came to work as part of his mother's crew during his adolescence, and she entered into a personal and professional relationship during the '70s with racer and car-builder Connie Kalitta. The two would sometimes race together, and Muldowney was given the nickname "Cha Cha." (She would later state that she never cared for the moniker.)

Major Accident and Comeback

Shirley's horrific crash.

In 1984, Muldowney experienced a near-fatal crash in Montreal when her vehicle spun out of control for 600 feet due to a wheel malfunction. Her legs were shattered; her hands, pelvis and several fingers were broken. Dirt and debris had to be removed from her body for hours before doctors could operate, and then she had a long, terribly painful rehabilitation process at her home in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Thousands of fan letters poured in, and she resolved to return to racing. She made her comeback in 1986, winning another NHRA Nationals title in 1989. The accident also spurred the design of safer vehicles with reconfigured wheels.

Muldowney decided to retire in 2003, partly to alleviate the workload of her husband and crew chief, Rahn Tobler, whom she married in 1988. (The two split in 2006.)

Shirley Muldowney’s Tales From the Track, release in 2005
Muldowney later wrote the memoir, Shirley Muldowney’s Tales From the Track, release in 2005. She has earned a slew of awards and accolades as well, including being inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame and receiving an "Outstanding Achievement Award" from the U.S. House of Representatives.

Muldowney, who is retired from active competition, still attends the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series as an ambassador of goodwill though her Shirley's Kids program, a 501charity.

Shirley's Kids
Shirley's Kids provides funds to select children who may be struggling with medical issues or financial hardships brought on by a personal or family tragedy.

Muldowney, per her Twitter account, anticipates a return to the drag races in July when the 24-event NHRA tour rolls into Bandimere Speedway located outside of Denver.

Shirley at the height of her fame wearing her Championship ring.

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