Shirley Shahan then, in the winner's circle, Pomona, 1966 ...
... and now, at the 2007 NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion
Last Monday, your humble doorkeeper to drag racing’s great untold stories cited the accomplishments of our two groundbreaking Shirleys: Shahan, the first woman to win an NHRA event, and Muldowney, the first to do so in a Pro class. I’d dare to wager that the vast majority of you, whether you’re new to the sport or have been around since it was a good thing when a Top Fueler smoked the tires during a run, know all too well the exploits and heroics of Ms. Muldowney: three-time NHRA Top Fuel world champ, subject of an award-winning movie, and testament to the fortitude of the human soul and the need for speed. But it occurred to me sometime afterward that Shahan’s name, let alone her story, might be unfamiliar to many.
When I wrote that piece, I was on my high horse about Danica Patrick being called (by some, since retracted) the first woman to win a major auto racing event, and I’ll admit that when I wrote “I’d better get Shirley Shahan on the phone and let her down gently,” it was on a type-and-duck basis because, while as far as I knew she was still gracing our planet you never know anymore; so it was doubly wonderful to hear from her after the column appeared. She thanked me for my kind words about her career and for giving her the chance to relive her experience and said, “Thanks to all your fans who read your articles and remembering me as being the first. It was a great thrill at the time and still is. I especially remember the fans who stood up as I passed by after my final run, cheering for me. I will never forget them and their support.”
And, well, you know me … never one to leave well enough alone. So I begged her – I’m not proud, you know -- to share the details of her amazing career with you all.
It took a while for her to get back to me – “us retired folks are just really busy,” she explained (she turns 70 this June) – but when she did, her story was rich with detail just ripe for this column. I had planned to run this Monday, but then Ashley Force struck another first for women drag racers, so this column is doubly timely now. And so here is the story of the career of the amazing woman known to many as the Drag-on Lady. (For the record, though her name now is Shirley Bridges, I’ll stick with Shahan here for clarity.)
Shahan was born and raised in Visalia, Calif., a city with oak-tree-lined streets in the heart of central California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley and home to the Visalia Vapor Trailers, NHRA’s longest active NHRA Car Club. Shahan took to automobiles the way some girls take to dolls. She learned to drive at age 10, at the wheel of her dad’s ’34 Ford pickup. As the oldest of four children, she also was dad’s mechanic helper during his own racing forays. “At an early age, I knew the difference between a 5/8 and a 9/16,” she recalls proudly.
Although her first teenage love was fast-pitch softball – she had a cannon of an arm, hewn by loading and unloading her dad's roofing truck, and could reach home plate in one throw from her centerfield position – after earning her driver’s license, she spent weekends cruising Main Street and racing against the boys in the family’s Studebaker pickup.
She married early, at age 17, and she and H.L. Shahan initially had a couple of cars, a ’55 Chevy and then a new ‘56 Chevy with a 265, that she drove to work and raced every weekend at the drags after H.L. became the flag starter at the local races in Visalia.
“We found I could drive as well as he if not better, and it received much more attention,” she said modestly. “The upper-body strength I had benefited me shifting gears. We usually raced Bakersfield the first Sunday, Madera the second Sunday, and Visalia the third Sunday. Fremont, Santa Maria, and Half Moon Bay were usually the fourth weekend.
In 1958, the Shahans bought a new Chevy in which she won the first Bakersfield March Meet, in 1959, against the best that California had to offer.
“We had never really raced any of the L.A. crowd until that race,” she recalled. “I understand that Don Nicholson, Tom Sturm, Arlen Vanke, and Hayden Proffitt were all at that meet, although I did not know any of them at that time. My driving locally around the San Joaquin Valley was not a real novelty; people were used to me driving, but when we began to venture out a little bit, they didn't like being beaten by a female.
“I remember a time [in 1960] when I won my class, and when I came back to the pits found out we had been protested,” she recalled. “In those days, $50 was all that was needed to see if you were legal. I stepped out of the car, and when the protester saw me, his mouth dropped wide open. I was seven months pregnant. I guess that really shocked him!”
The mother of three kids – Janet, Steven, and Robert – she handled those responsibilities, kept a job at Southern California Gas Co., and kept racing, but it wasn’t easy.
“There were lots of times I left work on Friday, drove to the races, raced, drove all night to get home, and went to work on Monday morning," she remembered. "When we were racing, the kids used to travel with us as much as possible. Sometimes we would take all three at one time, or I would fly home and pick one up and exchange for another the next month.”
In 1963, they bought a Z11 Chevy with an aluminum front end that they ran locally while H.L. was tuning for a young hot shoe teen from Tulare, Butch Leal, and for Ronnie Broadhead. In 1965, the Shahans got their first Hemi. Shirley had wanted a stick shift, but the gurus at Chrysler said she couldn't handle it. Even though she had never driven an automatic before nor used a tachometer, she began winning Division 7 points meets and setting NHRA records in California, Utah, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon.
Shahan’s fame grew, and in the mid-1960s, she hit a hot streak that carried her name into the history books. Late in 1965, Shahan was runner-up in Top Stock at the Hot Rod Meet in Riverside, Calif., and followed with a runner-up at the 1966 AHRA Winternationals in Irwindale and a win at the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona.
“What a thrill!” she remembered. “It was at this time we started getting phone calls to go back East and race. I honestly did not realize what an impact I had made in the sport of drag racing.”
She quit her job April 15, 1966, to go on tour with a Super Stock car. They raced all summer and didn’t come home until after the Nationals in September. “To be competitive in our match races, H.L. put on injectors and moved the rear wheels forward,” she said. “We raced all over the United States, including Hawaii, and in Mexico City. I'm proud to say we won the majority of our races.
“Match racing was an experience; eighth-mile tracks, four abreast, short shutoff areas, driving all night to get to the next race, meeting new friends, bumpy unsafe tracks, matching wits with the promoters, TV, radio stations, newspaper offices, track managers, and getting paid. I raced against Tom McEwen when he had a jet car. He gave me a half-track head start and still went past me before the finish line at almost 300 mph. Hubert Platt (in my blonde wig) once drove to the starting line pretending to me, and everyone fell for it. I also got to be a contestant on Hollywood Squares and To Tell The Truth (Bill Cullen guessed that I was the drag racer; he was very sharp). That was great!"
The Shahans raced full time from 1966 through 1968, including the NHRA national events in Englishtown, Bristol, and Gainesville, and Shahan represented Chrysler in the Mobil Economy runs those years, finishing second, fourth, and, ultimately, first, edging out Chrysler's in-house pro driver, Scott Harvey.
But their long run with Mopars was about to end.
“Late in 1968, we were approached by American Motors to run a '69 AMX,” she recalled. “As they were offering a salary and wanted us to campaign in the Los Angeles area for the LA AMX Dealers Association, we decided to make the switch. We felt we needed to be closer to home for our kids.
“What a neat car and so fun to drive!! I was back to a stick shift, yeah! In 1970, we won our class at the Winternationals, setting both e.t. and mph records during the season. We did do some match racing with the AMX but stayed pretty close to the Los Angeles area. The AMX was such a kick to drive. I think everyone was a little amazed when I stood it on the bumper at Lions Drag Strip.”
The team qualified the AMX for the Nationals but was disqualified for a technical infraction. In 1971, they ran an AMC Hornet in Pro Stock. While Shahan enjoyed driving the car, it was not competitive, and a request for an updated car was turned down as AMC was putting its bucks behind Roger Penske’s Mark Donahue-driven NASCAR entry.
When H.L. was offered a job building engines in Denver in 1972, Shahan hung up her helmet and called it a driving career after 19 years and devoted herself to her children. She went back to work for the gas company, and by the time she retired, she was a supervisor in charge of a $6 million budget and 100 employees.
Many women -- more than 40 to date -- have followed her to the winner's circle of an NHRA national event, including Muldowney, whose first win was 10 years after Shahan's Pomona breakthrough. She left behind a trail of trophies, broken records, and frustrated foes and got on with the second half of her life.
“It was a good life; I'm proud of what I've accomplished," she said. "I've since remarried (Ken, a retired fire chief in Tulare). We attend some drags and have started doing some nostalgic events. We play golf, travel in our fifth-wheel and try to stay close to the family. I am surprised at the fans who remember me after all these years. I still am in contact with some of the old racers and like good friends who remain such, even after all these years."
She lives in Tulare, and all three kids are nearby. Janet, her oldest, and her husband compete in tractor pulls with Shahan’s grandson at the wheel. Steven, her oldest son, has a silk-screening and monogramming business in Tulare and is a sometime crewmember for Steve Faria. Robert, her youngest, works for the city of Tulare. He has a replica of her '68 car (minus the Hemi) that he races and takes to car shows. “So we're all sort of involved in racing some way,” she said. “It seemed to rub off."
Reflecting on her short but glorious career, Shahan concluded, “I was about five years before women's lib. A professional manager would have been a great asset at that time, but the ladies that are racing now are doing such a fabulous job. I take my hat off to them.”
And us to you, Drag-on Lady.