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Mondays with Murray: Shirley Muldowney

18 Aug 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Seeing drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney in the photos from John Force’s induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Mich., last Wednesday reminded me that I haven’t run a Mondays with Murray column in more than a month, so while the 1980s and beyond balloting in our Favorite Race Car Ever poll continues (scroll down two entries), in which Muldowney’s Pioneer Special is one of the nominees, I thought I’d bust out one of the columns that legendary sportswriter Jim Murray penned about the three-time NHRA Top Fuel world champ.

As you may remember, I was given permission to reprint these gems by Murray’s widow, Linda McCoy-Murray, founder and president of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, which promotes his legacy by awarding annual scholarships to aspiring journalists so that his work can be remembered and appreciated and perhaps inspire a new generation of journos.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Shirley for more than 25 years, and I’ve seen her at her best and at her worst, seen her on top of the world and down in the dumps. For all the knocks she’s taken throughout the years, deserved or not, I hold an immense appreciation for her willingness to stick to her guns and speak her mind and a genuine fondness for her. During her racing years, I sometimes was as big of a pain in her side as Don Garlits, and our relationship sometimes was rocky if she took umbrage at something unflattering or incorrect we had published in National DRAGSTER. I dreaded picking up the phone and hearing, “Phil, this is Shirley. We’ve got a problem.”

In the years since she hung up her famous pink helmet, we’ve enjoyed a wonderful friendship, communicating often by e-mail and sometimes by phone, sharing life’s little joys and its miseries, and when she does show up at the track, I make sure to find her. She’s a special lady, and it’s hard to say where the sport might be today without her.

Murray wrote this column prior to the 1983 Winternationals, and it appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of the Los Angeles Times as Shirley was preparing for the beginning of her third world championship defense, back when gas was $1.50 a gallon and nitro $34 a gallon. Man, those were the days.

No, She Is Not a Guy in Drag, by Jim Murray

 

Sick and tired of the family gas guzzler? Eating you out of house and home, is it, with fuel at a buck-fifty a gallon? Gets you only 10 miles to the gallon, does it?

Cheer up. How’d you like to drive a coupe that got you only 190 feet to the gallon? How’d you like it if it cost you $34 a gallon? You’d need your own oil field to go to Santa Barbara.

What would you expect in a car for $100,000? A bar in the back? Air-conditioning, velvet seats, a digital readout on the dash that’s patched into the stock exchange?

Well, the only thing this car has is a parachute. You’ll need it because the brakes don’t work too good at 250 miles an hour. It doesn’t back up, it doesn’t have Corinthian leather seats. The tires are guaranteed a week. If you’re into exterior design, you can be the first one on your block to have a car that looks like a giant insect, a praying mantis on wheels. You’ll never be able to park it. It’s just shorter than an aircraft carrier.

The only thing Honest John, your friendly neighborhood dealer, could say about this car is that it is a one-owner vehicle. And it’s only got about 11 miles on it. But it hasn’t been driven only by two little old ladies from Pasadena or a schoolteacher from Lompoc. Rather, it was driven by a lady who’s as hard on cars as a kid in a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back, or the driver of the getaway car in a bank robbery.

When you know that Shirley Muldowney is the world’s No. 1 chauffeur in the fastest and most competitive form of motor racing, you half expect her to show up smoking a cigar, sporting a butch haircut, having maybe an American flag tattooed on her bicep, drinking beer from a bottle and swearing a lot.

Shirley Muldowney looks less like a race driver than Shirley Temple. The hair is in black ringlets framing the face, the eyes are blue-gray, the face is skin-cream commercial soft. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was Doris Day researching a part.

As a matter of fact they are making a movie of her life. You’d never guess she is the best drag racer in the world. In this macho sport of burning rubber, midcourse flameouts and speeds so high the vehicles almost take off and fly, she has three times in the past five years been world champion and is the only driver who has won that championship more than once. She has won 15 National Hot Rod Assn. championships, second only to the legendary Don (Big Daddy) Garlits, whom she defeated in his last NHRA competition.

 

Still, she’s a mere slip of a woman – 5-4 and 108 pounds before she quit smoking last year, and only about 120 now.  She’s the only race driver who does her nails the night before a race. But only her car is pink. You color her a nice lusty red when she starts down that runway.

Her hand-eye coordination is such that she probably could have made a good living with the Dodgers if she were six inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. On a drag strip, there is .400 of a second between the yellow and green light on the “Christmas tree” that triggers the start of a race. Shirley’s reaction has been timed at .408. Competitors swear she can see the light change mini-seconds before it does. She’d have no trouble spotting a curveball.

The cars she drives are aptly named “fuel eliminators.” The fuel is a compound of nitro-methanol, which she has to buy by the drum because her 3,000-horsepower car gulps it up at the rate of seven gallons per quarter-mile race. Although the race takes only a little over five seconds, a driver must be able to trim for traction and direction at 250 miles an hour, and that’s like landing a jet with no brakes in a cornfield.

Shirley, 42, who has a grown son (John Muldowney, 25) had a hard time convincing drag-strippers she wasn’t in the game for quick publicity and a show-biz career. They dubbed her “Cha Cha” to heighten the hype, but Shirley hated it. “Made me feel like a go-go dancer on her day off,” she complained. Or a Cuban bombshell from Xavier Cugat’s band.

But she was not part of anyone’s conga line, and she will be the one to beat, as usual, at the 23rd annual Winternationals this Sunday at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds drag track in Pomona. It’s a rescheduling of the NHRA races washed out last week.

It’s an astounding achievement. If anyone told you two years ago that the foremost driver in the hair-on-the-chest sport of drag racing would be named Shirley, your reaction would be, “Oh, sure. Just about the time the middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers is Debbie.”

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

Courtesy of:
Jim Murray Memorial Foundation
P.O. Box 995
La Quinta, CA 92247-0995
Ph/Fx: 760-771-8972
E:
[email protected]
www.jimmurrayfoundation.org

I was there when Shirley suffered her horrible wreck in Montreal in 1984 -- I remember I was standing with Gary Beck, who must either have already run or was preparing to, and I'm sure the look of concern on his face mirrored mine; it was clearly a nasty wreck even from our starting-line vantage point, the car leaving the racing surface at an obscene angle and disappearing from view, the sound of a wide-open engine, and then a blizzard of parts flying through the air -- and I was there when she made her triumphant return two years later in Phoenix.

 

I also was in Montreal exactly two years later. In the second round, on the track that nearly claimed her life 24 months earlier, she beat Hank Endres but broke a rod, which blew the supercharger, which took out the left rear tire. She masterfully kept the car under control and hauled it to a safe stop, and she was amazingly calm as she exited the car. I rolled up just as Steve Evans had finished interviewing her, and as she passed me, headed for the crewcab, I said, "World-class driving job, Shirl.” She said, “Thanks,” and looked over, and when she saw it was me, she stopped. “Are you all right?” she asked. “I heard you got hurt last night.”

I had spent the previous night in the emergency room of the local hospital, getting stitches above my left eyebrow after taking a racquetball-racket shot to the face courtesy of former ND Art Director Bill Crites (why do you think he’s the former art director?). It was both of our faults -- mine for trying to chase down one of his wicked shots, and his for assuming that I, in my second game ever, would never get to it and deciding to play it with a smashing follow-through that connected with my noggin – and I had a wonderful shiner and a bandage above my eye the next day.

So when Shirley asked how I was, I stood there, dumbfounded. She had just climbed out of a situation that had to provide flashbacks to 1984, and yet she was asking me how I was?

She was one cool customer.

 

 

Of course, no 1980s memories of Shirley would be complete without mentioning her beloved sidekick, Skippy, who was with her from 1973 until her four-legged friend passed away in January 1991.

Skippy was a gift to Shirley from John Zendejas, who worked on NHRA’s Safety Safari, and, according to Shirley, “Skip was a mixed breed, some kind of terrier and possibly sheltie. She only weighed about 8 to 10 pounds but had very long legs.”

Skippy definitely had her likes and dislikes.

“She loved filet, pasta (al dente), lobster, burgers, and St. Hubert's chicken (in Quebec) -- well, any chicken for that matter," recalled Shirley. "Dog food was definitely out! She also didn't like [Don] Prudhomme. And when I would sit in the doorway of the trailer or on the tailgate with a coffee, she would reach over and drink it … her way of telling me she needed water.

“One of my better stories is seeing her run across the starting line when I was pulling up to the water box in the right lane at Indy. One of the crewmembers piling out of the door of the push truck accidently forced her out, too. She ran full tilt from the left lane right past [Chief Starter] Buster [Couch] and into the arms of some photographer standing in the grass. I watched until I saw that she was safe and then began the burnout.

“Then there was the time when two Shirley-haters decided they were going to feed her to the gator that was penned at the far end in Gainesville. Steve Evans stopped them. If necessary, we would let her out to pee after a run, and that time, we just forgot her. She was just sitting at the far end waiting for the red truck to come back.

“Then there was the time she got left at a truck stop in Arizona. We realized she wasn't in the truck 25 miles down the highway. We turned around, and there she was, waiting right next to the garbage dumpster, happy as hell to see her mama. Another time, in the wee hours in the morning in the middle of winter, we forgot her out on the tarmac at WillowRunAirport. We returned and found her sitting up on the wing of [Connie] Kalitta's airplane.

“She was a great little friend that was with me through a lot of rough times. Skip was 18 years old when I buried her in the Calabasaspetcemetery on Jan. 29, 1991, headstone and all. She was born in California, so that's where I put her to rest.”

Amy, a 10-pound Italian greyhound who could run 100 yards in under nine seconds (“That’s faster than Carl Lewis,” Shirley remembers proudly), took over Skippy’s watch and was with her until she died in October 2005 at age 15.

Shirley’s newest canine companions are a pair of chihuahuas, Peanut and Midnight.

“Life would not go on without them,” she says. “It's we three girls against the world. They are the reason I don't attend more races. I can't seem to function well when we’re apart.”