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Drag racing's female pioneers paved the road to 200

17 Apr 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Shirley Shahan was NHRA's first female winner, at the 1966 Winternationals, and ABC's Wide World of Sports coverage made her an instant celebrity.
Judi Boertman triumphed in Stock at the 1971 Summernationals.

Annie Whiteley’s victory in Top Alcohol Funny Car at last weekend’s SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas marked the 200th occasion on which a female racer has reached the winner’s circle at an NHRA national event, and Erica Enders-Stevens’ Pro Stock win not long after ratcheted the number to 201. This milestone feat comes on the heels of last year’s celebration in Topeka, where Courtney Force’s Funny Car win was the 100th in the Pro classes alone, but I like this milestone a whole lot better because it celebrates the width and breadth of the role that women play in the success of our sport. In all, 67 female winners have contributed to the still-rising total.

We all know that it was Shirley Muldowney who was the first female Pro winner, at the 1976 Springnationals in Columbus, and most of you also are probably well aware that it was the “other” Shirley – Shirley Shahan – who broke the male-domination barrier with her historic Top Stock win at the 1966 Winternationals. Shahan’s win, in her Drag-on Lady S/SA '65 Plymouth, was historic but not necessarily a surprise. Late in 1965, Shahan had been runner-up in Top Stock at the Hot Rod Meet in Riverside, Calif., and followed with a runner-up at the 1966 AHRA Winternationals at Irwindale Raceway just before her big win in Pomona.

Fewer people remember, however, that between those two milestone “Shirley” wins a decade apart, there were two other female winners – interestingly, also a pair with similar-sounding names – who made it clear that the once male-dominated sport had better get used to the idea of female winners.

It took more than five years before Judi Boertman was the sport’s second female winner, scoring in Stock at the 1971 Summernationals, where she beat her husband, accomplished hitter Dave, who fouled in the final in a scenario that some wrote off either as a sacrifice to marital harmony or a gift. It was her first final, and he was a five-time winner, including two already that season. She was in his Winternationals-winning L/SA Dodge wagon, and he was in his J/SA Charger, with which he had won the Gatornationals. Both cars were sponsored by The Rod Shop (as was Pro Stock runner-up Mike Fons), so it was a win-win before they ever staged. Although the National Dragster staffer who penned the story 44 years ago for our July 30 issue wrote “a chivalrous husband obviously fouled,” I’m not about to guess what happened in the final. She had, after all, driven well enough to reach the final – and, as when some people called Matt Smith on the carpet for losing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final last year in Epping to wife Angie – there’s just not enough evidence for or against any shenanigans. (In fact, Dave had lost in the final at the Springnationals, the event preceding the Summernationals.)

Judy Lilly won four times in Super Stock, first at the 1972 Winternationals.

The following season, Judy Lilly became NHRA’s third female winner and the first in Super Stock when she beat Gary Herman to win the 1972 Winternationals with her Barracuda. Lilly, who became known to a generation as “Miss Mighty Mopar,” had been incredibly successful regionally in the Rocky Mountain area for a decade with cars wrenched by her husband, Lou (and later Dennis Maurer), prior to her breakthrough national event victory. Although she has long been identified as a Mopar loyalist, she actually began her career in a four-speed Corvette and '55-'57 Chevys, running in NHRA’s Sports Car classes, where she also was successful, scoring respective class wins in E/SP and D/SP in 1965 and 1966 and in E/SP at the 1966 Nationals in Indy. Her “factory deal” with Chrysler in the 1960s was the impetus for her to switch from Chevy to Mopar, but because the sponsorship consisted of only parts and advice -- no cash – she took up a side career as a hairdresser (for its schedule flexibility) to help foot the racing bills.

Lilly was certainly the female star of the first half of the 1970s, following that Winternationals win with three more scores – at the 1973 Springnationals, 1975 Gatornationals, and 1975 Fallnationals, as well as five division championships – before Muldowney became the fourth female winner at the 1976 Springnationals.

Charlene Wood won the Division 1 Stock title in 1975 and Le Grandnational in 1976.

Muldowney’s breakthrough Top Fuel win was followed two events later by Charlene Wood’s conquest of the Stock field at Le Grandnational in Canada, where she became the sport’s fifth female winner after driving her record-setting Tons A Fun I/SA Pontiac wagon to victory. Like Shahan and Lilly, Wood was no flash in the pan, having won the Division 1 championship the previous year.

A year later, Margaret Glembocki added to the total with a Super Stock win at the 1977 Fallnationals, and Amy Faulk closed a successful decade with her first victory in Super Stock, at the 1979 World Finals, which, as was the case then, also earned her the national championship. By decade’s end, women had visited the winner’s circle 14 times, led by Muldowney’s five victories.

In light of the milestone in Las Vegas, I thought it would be interesting to track down a couple of those early female winners and get their thoughts about how far we’ve come in the decades since they first made headlines.
 

Shirley (Shahan) Bridges, then and at the 2010 California Hot Rod Reunion

I ran into Shahan, whose last name is now Bridges, at the Irwindale Reunion/Steve Gibbs birthday party two weeks ago and told her of the then-impending 200-win milestone. I had interviewed her seven long years ago, early in this column’s history, to share her story (The Drag-on Lady: Racer, pioneer, mom), and I thought a return this week only fitting to give some perspective to the accomplishment.

“Back then, I couldn’t have imagined that someday we’d reach this milestone,” she told me earlier this week. “There were only a handful of us racing back then: myself, Judy Lilly, Maryann Foss, Paula Murphy, Barbara Hamilton, maybe a couple of others. I don’t think it was so much that women didn’t think they could race and win, but drag racing was so much a men’s sport. The guys worked on the cars, and the women just went to make the sandwiches.”

Her inclinations, however, were more competitive than culinary. Her dad had been a hot rodder and she had street raced a Studebaker pickup and just liked cars. The results of her junior high aptitude test suggested she would make a fine mechanic. When she proved just as good behind the wheel as husband H.L., he switched to wrenches and she to the wheel. They never looked back, and in 1965, they were brought onto the factory Chrysler team. “I don’t doubt that one of the reasons we got a car was because I was a female,” she admitted. But she certainly held up her end of the bargain.

Her easygoing personality and friendly nature helped her gain acceptance with “the guys,” and her Pomona win cemented the fact that she was a racer’s racer and not some housewife out for a weekend of thrills. The victory, broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, netted her a ton of initial attention – the suddenly famous 27-year-old mother of three was a guest star on the Hollywood Squares and To Tell the Truth game shows and invited to a special Sports Illustrated banquet – and made her an attractive draw to track managers back East who booked her to run match races. She quit her job, and off they went.

“At the time, I don’t think I realized how special it was to be the first female winner, or I probably would have capitalized on it more,” she said. “We raced a lot of match races and won a lot, but there was no publicity in that; nobody knew about it. Some of the tracks gave you press, but not a lot, so we kind of got lost. If I had the chance to do it over, I would have done it a little differently and promoted myself better. I think I could have won some more national events, but I’m still happy with my place.”

She also was the first female competitor in Pro Stock -- she qualified her AMC Hornet for the 1971 U.S. Nationals field – and follows the sport today, proud of her role in its history and of the accomplishments of today’s large group of successful female racers.

“The gals have just got it together these days; look at Erica,” she marveled. “Right now, she’s just a ball of fire.”

Judy Lilly, then and with Don Garlits at the 2012 Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals.

I also tracked down Lilly, who’s still as busy as ever, but today, her horsepower comes in the four-legged variety. She still lives in Colorado, on 36 acres that’s home to her barrel-racing horses, cattle, “and animals of all kind.”

She still follows the sport she loves so much, but when asked to reflect on all of the women who have followed her and her 1960s and 1970s contemporaries to the winner’s circle, Lilly admitted that she doesn’t consider herself a pioneer.

“I never thought about how my winning would affect anyone else,” she said. “I was always one of those people who fought my own battles, and whatever anyone else did, that was their deal. I didn’t have any real ‘cause’ to do anything other than what I thought was right. As soon as we climbed that one mountain, all we did was look for another mountain to climb. We never thought about what we had just accomplished.”

Lilly, who was named Car Craft Magazine Super Stock Driver of the Year in 1972, 1976, and 1977, was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Colorado Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2005 and is one of just six women to compete in Pro Stock (Shahan, Lucinda McFarland, Shay Nichols, Grace Howell, and Enders-Stevens), and she still follows the class. Her favorite driver – “her hero” – even though he has switched to Top Fuel, is Dave Connolly.

“I think a good deal of Erica’s success is that she had a good coach in Dave Connolly,” she said. “I never really had the benefit of someone teaching me how to do things, and if there’s anyone I’m envious of today, it’s those racers who had someone there to teach them the right way to do things, like [John] Force and his daughters, or even Judi Boertman, who had Dave to teach her. A lot of things that Lou and I did in the beginning were not done as correctly, mechanically, as they should have been.”

And, like Shahan, in general, Lilly says she never felt really ostracized by her male peers (there were a few exceptions) because everyone competed on an equal basis.

“We had something that we wanted to do, and we went out and did it,” she explained. “I’ve always believed that you should be able to go out and play any game as long as they don’t have to change the rules for you personally to be able to do it. I believe that drag racing is one of the very few sports that felt that way. Being a male or a female made no difference. Whether you’re black or green or purple, it shouldn’t make any difference. I think anyone can be a success at anything that they’ve got a little bit of talent for if they stay after it and keep practicing.”

Today’s female winners not only carry on in the tradition of their groundbreaking peers, but also embrace Lilly’s ethos, wanting to be known not as “female racers” but just “racers.” Stats nuts, historians, and the media will always want to keep tabs on the various breakdown of winners, whether by car make or gender or class, but to me, at least, when we do choose to categorize the accomplishments of the female drag racers, it’s more from a pride that speaks to the incredible diversity of our winners, something that no other motorsport can claim – and we’ve been showing that for almost 50 years now.