| Drag racing icon Shirley Muldowney, a 3-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion and Grand Marshal of the 2011 March Meet at Auto Club Famoso, Mar. 18-20, looks back and lets loose
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Contact: Rob Gibson, Auto Club Famoso Raceway, email@example.com
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (Feb. 22, 2011) – In a world of changes, Shirley Muldowney remains Shirley Muldowney. Still feisty, candid and brutally honest, the legendary three-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion drag racer always “tells it the way it is.” In this interview, Muldowney, who will be greeting fans as the Grand Marshal of the 2011 March Meet (Mar. 18-20 at Auto Club Famoso Raceway), discusses – as only she can – her career, “beating the boys at their own game,” today’s racers, winning the March Meet and how she really feels about the nickname “Cha-Cha.”
Question: How does it feel to be the Grand Marshal of the 2011 March Meet?
Shirley Muldowney: It ranks right up there with a lot of positive things that have come my way in my career. I was thrilled when I got the call. It confirms the demand is still there. The fans appreciated how I was when I competed.
I always found time for them, but unfortunately, you can’t satisfy everyone. There were always a few at the end of the line that didn’t get what they wanted. I’d have to report to the staging lanes and someone would ask for ‘just one more.’ That’s the classic line I’ve heard for 30 years: ‘Just one more.’ It’s never one more: one turns into 10, 20, 50 and a 100. That’s the way it is. And all you can do, if you were smart, is realize that’s a compliment.
Question: Did you ever think when you were competing that people were going to still appreciate your accomplishments 30 years later?
Muldowney: I can’t remember if I actually saw it in those terms. I was just so busy trying to keep my head above water and be able to deliver on my promises, keep my people happy and make sure that everybody got paid. My CPA would constantly say, ‘Shirley, you’re going to have to pay yourself something. You have to do that. You have to rack up some Social Security benefits.’
In the early days, I went several years without any compensation for myself. I really lived off what I did, and as did everyone on my end. But it didn’t secure my future, and there were times that we raced from week to week, then month to month. Then it got better as it was year to year, but I can’t remember that many years where I could say at the beginning of the year, I’ll be in the black come October.
I never thought that far in advance – I was never able to. The ’70s were rough but the ’80s were an okay block. The ’90s were a match race tour for me, which I would have never believed that every single race was standing room only, but they were. I booked a two-run match race in Edmonton, Alberta. You couldn’t find a place to stand – it was packed. The owner came up to me after the first round and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I didn’t charge enough.’ I’ll never forget that. He was awestruck. He had never had a crowd like that.
Question: Was there ever a point in your career where you could finally sit back and say, ‘I’ve made it?’
Muldowney: I’ve felt that for a good number of years. I’m about to be inducted in the Diecast Hall of Fame, so now I’m a 10-time Hall of Famer. I don’t know how many racers out there can say that. I was always thankful for every single win, every single accolade, all of the nice things that came my way because of what I did. I could be flying in coach, and more than a couple of times, stewardesses would come back and say, ‘Ms. Muldowney, would you come with me?’ And they’d take me out of coach and put me in first class.
Question: Being a champ has its advantages.
Muldowney: All because of what I do. And I consider those times wonderful. I’d get a table if the line was an hour long. Just things like that. I always was embarrassed about. For years, people would say, ‘Shirley, you’ve got to start dropping your name.’ All I have to do is give my credit card, and the first thing people want me to do is tell them how to fix their car. I can drive it, but I don’t know how to fix it. But I can change a tire.
Question: You had a great run at the March Meet in the early 1980s. You were in the finals three straight years, 1980-82, and won in it ’81. What do you remember about that stretch and 1981?
Muldowney: I could tell you that ’81 started out wonderful. The March Meet win was the first one that came our way. And we earned every single one of them. Nothing was handed to us, such as a red light or fail to fire. Every win was a perfect run with big mph. At the ’81 March Meet we only changed two pistons the whole race, throughout qualifying and eliminations. It was also the second race we ran with the 1071 style blower – we were the first team to step up to a 1071. Bakersfield was the beginning of a three-race assault. After Bakersfield, we went on to win Gainesville and then Atlanta; that made it three in a row. That definitely put them all on notice – every racer out there knew we were going to be tough to deal with.
Bakersfield gave us the conditions that we needed to find where we wanted to go. The conditions were always very, very good at Bakersfield. You were at a national event – that was the thing that really pushed us on in ’81.
We had a wonderful year until the U.S. Nationals where we had to deal with JE Pistons. They had put out some pistons that had an improper heat treat. And they wouldn’t admit it. We broke three engines at the U.S. Nationals, and chose to sit out. Everyone went back and did some testing at Bakersfield and then went on to Denver, I think. But the races we sat out were because we didn’t have any parts.
We decided to go back to the Venolia piston after the year’s end, and our performance turned around in one run down the race track. It went back to what we knew with that Venolia/Ed Pink piston, and lo and behold, our performance was right where it needed to be, right where it was before we made that parts change.
Question: Was the March Meet one of your all-time victories?
Muldowney: It was the top win in and around the NHRA national events. If you won Bakersfield, you were competitive to go and run the other big races. It was just like winning a national event, but it was even better because there were always a mega number of Top Fuel cars there – more than any other race. It made you believe you could go there and put down some numbers that are well within the pack. You knew that you had found your way, were competitive and good enough to win.
Question: The March Meet final in ’82 was historic: the first all-female Top Fuel final.
Muldowney: Yes indeed, I lost to Lucille Lee, my favorite lady driver of all the women that have come and gone. She was the most genuine, humble, friendly and sincere. I got along pretty good with Lucille. I lost in ’82 because I flat got outrun. I ran a 71 and she ran a 68. That’s pretty much the way it happened.
Question: Did being in the all-female final have any extra meaning to you?
Muldowney: I hated it. I remember Dale Armstrong was at the end of the racetrack jumping up and down like a fool. He was obviously very happy that I had gotten beat. I didn’t say anything to him, and I wanted to after the fact. For a number of years I carried a real hatchet for him because Lucille had confided in me and said, “Oh, Shirley, I apologize I didn’t come over and greet you after the race down at the far end. Dale Armstrong grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘Don’t you go over to her.’” She said she was ‘intimidated.’ She was new on the block, so she didn’t.
She just withdrew and got in her truck or whatever. But that was the reason why. I went, “Oh, yeah? Well, it’s really funny, Dale, that you’re down there making a big show for yourself. The reason you’re down there and you’re not in my place is because you were a DNQ.” I loved it, but I never really confronted him. But I was able to chuckle on my own.
Question: It has to be pretty satisfying looking back on that three-year March Meet run.
Muldowney: I can’t recall who I raced in ’83, but we lost. We were out there and freight training, and we had a clutch failure. I lost because of parts failure and that was a hard pill to swallow because you really don’t want to lose that race.
Question: Was the March Meet more fun than other races, or was it business? What made it special?
Muldowney: The fact that there were so many cars there and anyone who was anyone was there. I liked that about Bakersfield. I liked the food there, too. Prior to the race we would go and do press stuff, and then the track would take us to these Basque restaurants.
Question: Is there one particular March Meet memory that stands out?
Muldowney: It doesn’t have anything to do with me winning or losing, but I remember one incident that happened there that stayed with me for a number of years. Larry Dixon’s son (Larry Dixon Jr.) was around 7 years old at the time and was full bore, flat-out, wide-open across the pits on his mini-bike and he smacked into one of those big log telephone poles that they would lay down to separate lanes or parking. He T-boned it and he went ass over teakettle and was really banged up, screaming and carrying on. He was hurt and I got to him first.
He told this story at a Mac Tools convention we were both at because I was there. He didn’t confess to the fact that he crashed on his mini-bike, and because I went and squealed on him, his mother took his mini-bike away. That’s the way he told the story, and I said to myself, wait a minute, I rescued you. Now that he’s a superstar, he might not want to admit to something like that.
Question: Who was your toughest opponent?
Muldowney: Definitely, Don “Big Daddy” Garlits. There was no car more feared by anyone than the Black Car. He could be the most cantankerous, and he sure looked mean when he was outrun. No one wanted to call him on anything, regardless if he was the one at fault. He just had that way about him that most drivers would back down from – they just wouldn’t challenge him on anything. I did a number of times, and it no doubt got under his skin that this woman was not going to take a backseat. When our car ran better than his and we would eliminate him from the race, he would not take it lightly, especially the first time we beat him at the Olympics at Union Grove, WS. We just ran super and he flat got beat. Don was not happy and I was now on his hit list. That’s the only way I can describe that weekend. It was terrible and the beginning of a long rivalry that lasted for years.
Question: Was he mad at you because you beat him or because you were a woman and beat him?
Muldowney: Both. Being the strong competitor he was, he hated it when I won.
Question: So much has been written on how you ‘beat the boys.’ Did you feel like a trailblazer for other female racers, or did you just consider yourself a regular racer wanting to win?
Muldowney: The trailblazer part never really entered my mind because I was still in the thick of things, and I hadn’t been gone from Schenectady very long. I left there in 1971. I ran my first Funny Car race ever after getting licensed and went on to Lebanon Valley and all the biggies were there for their big Saturday night match race, and I won the thing.
Oh, god, it was brutal. I thought they were going to commit suicide. All of the guys were awful except Jungle Jim (Liberman). He was the most gracious and he would constantly tell me, ‘You drive like a man.’ And I thought that was the best compliment. I have respect for these guys, big respect, but it was from putting them on the trailer.
Question: Did you ever feel truly accepted by the boys?
Muldowney: Yes, there were times I believed that some drivers respected my ability, but most of the time in the early years, I felt I was singled out and I had my own little club… and I was the only member. There were so many that were cruel and miserable to me, but never, ever, ever were they bad enough to come to my face. They never did that – they always did it behind my back in a very small way. I don’t know how I would have handled it face to face, but I’m sure that I could have swung as hard as they could.
Question: How do you feel now though? History clearly shows that you were a dominant, championship winning driver, period. I think all your detractors have to accept it.
Muldowney: Even today, there are those who are still not professional enough to admit they were wrong in their attitude and thinking. I went on to enjoy true success when most of the people that treated me badly never even delivered a win. The majority are nowhere to be found these days. They’re definitely not in the record books.
Question: How would you describe yourself back when you started to race?
Muldowney: Tough. Maybe strong is a better word. I had to be. They would have walked on me like a shoe. It was just a matter of holding to my own and sticking to my guns and driving the car and trying to be the best I could at it. I did more than get just from A to B with my eyes closed. I learned to handle the car under a lot of adverse conditions. I didn’t have the best of everything like they had today.
It doesn’t upset me or turn me off when they compare young ladies to me today, because you can’t do that. You have to weigh everything.
Question: When people compare the new female drivers to you, do you look at it as a compliment?
Muldowney: In a way I do, but I know what it really took to survive back then, and what I truly had to endure. It was very obvious what I had gotten myself into, and what it was going to take to survive and still win. I know the ups and downs, the good, the bad and the very ugly. All of that is something they don’t experience today, at least on the level that I did. That's been a thing of the past for a good many years, and that’s a good thing. The fight was fought. After I proved myself, even in the early days, NHRA did their best to make darn sure I had a level playing field. I can thank them for keeping it more than fair from start to finish. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the ladies today enjoy the same standards.
Question: So it’s a different world for today’s drivers.
Muldowney: It can be a money pit for the average racer and a basic tax write-off for the wealthy teams. I’m not sure the cost of the toys is a fair trade, but for drivers such as a well-funded Tony Schumacher, I would have to say he’s not the greatest driver I’ve ever seen, but I think he's good and definitely the most consistent. Having the best of everything, every time out, can build real confidence when you need it most. Who will ever forget the final at Pomona in 2006? I know I won’t.
Question: What about a guy like John Force? He was a truck driver. He came up the hard way, the old school way.
Muldowney: I feel that he did, but I can tell you a lot of drivers came up as hard, if not harder. Austin Coil was John’s key to success. Austin was there from start to finish and because of that, John was able to build on his consistency. Although I do feel that he’s done his share to elevate the sport, I believe he’s somewhat hijacked the sports television coverage, and that definitely hurts the other racers chances for stardom. I’d appreciate seeing the other racers get more camera time and a little less of the John Force Show. Nothing personal.
I cannot wait to see Matt Hagan bring home the championship because I strongly believe he’s the best thing to happen to drag racing in years – and I’m not alone. Just watch that guy because he is going to have multiple opportunities to bring home the title. There’s no doubt about it.
Question: Besides Hagan, any other drivers you like?
Muldowney: In Funny Car, Hagan is really the man as far as driver ability, looks, fan appeal and what he says and how he says it at the end of the racetrack. He’s a home run for drag racing. In Top Fuel, my favorite will always be Doug Herbert. Doug’s a terrific driver, a guy that has it all. He’s a great person and very good for the sport. He’s very good with the fans...and not just when the camera is around. It’s criminal he doesn’t have a sponsor!
Question: Did any of the old-time drivers impress you?
Muldowney: I’ve always been pretty impressed with Don Garlits. In the early, early days, I liked Pete Robinson. I got the chance to meet him in Atlanta when somebody I was with needed to pick up a supercharger. I was very impressed....only to lose him in 1970.
Question: Back in the earlier days, everybody had a nickname. You had one. Big Daddy had one. There was “Gentleman” Joe Schubeck, Snake and Mongoose. Today drivers don’t have those. Is that good, bad or does it matter?
Muldowney: The nicknames were great to help promote a driver. They were very easy to identify with. So many fans refer back to the days when the trick names and paint jobs went hand-in-hand. It now seems like the sport is trying to emulate NASCAR in some ways – I sure wouldn’t want to be referred to by just a number.
Question: I always heard that you hated the name “Cha-Cha.”
Muldowney: I didn’t. I tried to drop it in the ’70s because I wanted people to know my name. It’s hung around my neck and I will never lose it, and I don’t want to lose it. It’s on my website. I brought it back because the fans beg me to sign ‘Cha-Cha.’ That’s my era, my history in drag racing. It means a great deal to them. And then when I realized they were not joshing me, I decided to allow Action Collectables to produce a Cha-Cha car, which was a big seller.
The fans love it, and the media love it. ABC Wide World of Sports couldn’t say it enough during the telecast. People address me as Cha-Cha. There are times I would hear it from the stands. People just relate to it. They remember those days, and it’s nice to know there are a lot of people still with us that were there during those times.
Question: How would you describe your place in drag racing history?
Muldowney: A lady driver who delivered the goods. Really delivered wins without a car owner massaging, shifting and maneuvering how he might want the day to go. I’m proud of what I did and how I did it. It would have been a lot easier if there had been more compensation in the early years, but there wasn’t the funding available. I was simply way too ahead of my time.
Question: Are you content about it now?
Muldowney: Yes, I am....almost. When you think about it, up until last year, I was the only female to win a world championship against men in any form of sport. It’s been 28 years since there has been a female professional world champion in NHRA drag racing except for the motorcycle class.
My son John clued me in on Leah Pruett-LeDuc (2010 NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series Funny Car champion) and her accomplishments. I am very impressed as to what she has done and how she went about winning her championship – against the guys! I knew she was competing, but wasn’t up on all the facts. I must admit I now have new found respect. Not only is that class of racecar plenty tough to compete in, it has to be one of the most demanding rides out there today. Her website is one of the nicest I’ve seen to date, not full of the publicist stuff. Sure looks like she’s doing her thing in all the right ways. I am really looking forward to meeting her in Bakersfield at the March Meet.
Question: What do you think about the popularity of nostalgic drag racing? Why is it continually getting bigger?
Muldowney: It’s the crowd-pleaser in drag racing. The drivers are way more accessible to the fans, and the fans are the foundation of our sport. It’s not like NASCAR. I don’t think drivers care at all about the fans over there. It seems like they can’t wait to get to their helicopters for a ride over to their jets and leave for their yachts. I’m kidding…but it’s close.
I can paint this picture exactly the way it is out there. I feel the drivers today are way too corporate and way too Hollywood. They need to take a couple of steps backwards and realize what really got them where they are today – the fans.
Question: I understand you’re doing a book.
Muldowney: I am. I don’t want to do a ‘burn them down, I'll never have lunch in this town again’-type book. I don’t want to do that to the sport. I want to tell the truth about how we all came up the hard way. All of us who were there and moved the sport in the direction it went, which I think is very positive in a lot of ways. And there are some aspects about it I don’t care for.
But it was great to be coming out from the east coast to the west coast, going to California in a Dodge Dually with four people and looking over and seeing rigs going in the other direction ...one right after the other. All because there was a major drag race every weekend at some place in the United States, all year long. Those were the things that we all loved about it back then. It’d be great to see that going on today. I know the fans would love to see it again.
But with 24 NHRA national events from February to November, there’s not a lot of time left to run any independent events and with the no-test rule that’s now in place. That’s pretty much dried up the match-racing that funded so many teams for so many years. One thing it did do that was positive was weed out the very small tracks that didn’t keep up with the sports’ progress. Safety became an issue with quite a few of the places we were running over 250 mph.
Getting back to the book, my son John, who was there from the beginning, has a much better memory than I do. He constantly reminds me, and I go ‘Oh my god, I haven’t thought about that in years,’ or ‘Wow, I forgot about that.’ It’s great he’s here to help me with so many stories that might have been simply forgotten. We’re shopping around for the best publisher and the best money deal we can come up with. It seems odd that everyone out there with a foolish shtick has a book. Even Snookie has a book, and Shirley Muldowney hasn’t written a book yet? That’s absurd.
I haven’t really put my nose to the grindstone on the book project, and I don’t want to just do a picture book – that wouldn’t let me blow all the whistles I want to blow. Yes, some people are not going to be very happy, but then again, fans are going to love it because it’s going to cover a lot of things that they’re not aware of...and would never have guessed. We definitely want to have some fun with this project, but not give it away just to say I have a book. You don’t do that when you’re doing a biography.
Question: As Grand Marshal of the March Meet, is there anything you want to say to the fans in Bakersfield?
Muldowney: I hope they can look at me today and know that I am still the same person I was when they were sitting in the stands watching me race back in the ’80s. I haven’t changed. I still believe in doing it the same way I did it. I still have the same love for the sport. It’s still my life as it is today. I’m thankful for the fans. I’m thankful for this thing I found as a teenager. I wouldn’t change anything. I would do it the same way I did it. It wasn’t always the right way, but I had no choice.
Question: Would you say you’ve mellowed over the years?
Muldowney: Mellowed? I always felt I might have been tough, but I think I was fair. And when I was wrong, I made up for it.
Now celebrating 53 years of racing, the March Meet is a three-day speedfest that enthusiasts call ‘the jewel of Nostalgia Racing.’ It attracts drag racers and spectators from around the world and also includes a hot rod car show, swap meet and a vendors’ midway. The 2011 March Meet will be held March 18-20 at historic Auto Club Famoso Raceway.
Drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney is this year’s Grand Marshal.
The 2011 March Meet is also the second race of the Hot Rod Heritage Series, the NHRA’s 11-race nostalgia racing series.
Fans can purchase daily and weekend tickets online now at www.autoclubfamosoraceway.com
The Kern County Racing Association operates Auto Club Famoso Raceway (just north of Bakersfield, Calif.) and promotes a full schedule of races year round, including the world famous March Meet, which is recognized as the Mecca of nostalgia drag racing. For more details, visit www.autoclubfamosoraceway.com.