Shirley Muldowney born June 19, 1940 in Burlington, Vermont), also known professionally as "Cha Cha" and the "First Lady of Drag Racing", is a pioneer in professional auto racing. She 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 has won a total of 18 NHRA national events.
Born Shirley Ann Roque, Muldowney began street racing in the 1950s in Schenectady, New York. "School had no appeal to me. All I wanted was to race up and down the streets in a hot rod," declared Muldowney. When she was sixteen, she married nineteen-year-old Jack Muldowney, who would build her first dragster.
It was Jack Muldowney who first taught me how to drive a car. Jack was the mechanic. He was the guy who tuned the cars that let the girl beat all the boys. I was a kid from upstate New York with no guidance, no direction. I was headed for trouble, nothing going for me. Then I found the sport at a very young age and was able to make something out of it.
In 1958, the then eighteen-year-old made her debut on the dragstrip of the Fonda Speedway. Muldowney obtained her NHRA pro license in 1965. She competed in the 1969 and 1970 U.S. Nationals in a twin-engine dragster in Top Gas. With Top Gas losing popularity, Muldowney switched to Funny Car, buying her first car from Kalitta.
Around this time, she and Jack drifted apart. "He didn't want to go nitro racing and we parted, but we stayed friends all those years until he passed away just recently."
Muldowney won her first major event, the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Southern Nationals, in 1971. From 1972 to 1977, she teamed up with Kalitta, competing in match races as the "Bounty Hunter" and "Bounty Huntress".
She stepped up to Top Fuel, getting her license in 1973. An unprecedented three NHRA Top Fuel world championships followed, in 1977, 1980, and 1982.
Muldowney's success came in the face of enormous opposition from those who felt drag racing (or any form of motorsport, for that matter) was no place for women.
Muldowney noted, "NHRA fought me every inch of the way, but when they saw how a girl could fill the stands; they saw I was good for the sport."
A crash in 1984 crushed her hands, pelvis, and legs, necessitating half a dozen operations and 18 months of therapy. Muldowney was sidelined for a long period, but returned to the circuit in the late 1980s. She continued to race, mostly without major sponsorship, throughout the 1990s in IHRA competition as well as match-racing events. She returned to the NHRA towards the end of her career, running select events until her retirement at the end of 2003.
Muldowney was described by longtime drag racer Fred Farndon as the "best 'natural' driver (top fuel or funny car), no question."
Contrary to popular belief, the nickname "Cha-Cha" Jack her Husband said it was given to her by a relative after the birth of her son John. Shirley recalls it was an employee who added the numbers on cars at the track, writing it on their '58 Chevrolet in shoe polish. And it just stuck. Tommy Ivo advised her to always include it on her cars. Today she is the one and only Shirley Muldowney!
Recent activities include the dictation of her memoirs, Shirley Muldowney's Tales from the Track, which Bill Stephens transcribed, and which Sports Publishing L.L.C. published in 2005.