The family moved to Schenectady, Ny, where Shirley grew up with her older sister. Their mom was employed as a laundress and dad as a cab driver. Belgium was also a boxer, and is credited as instilling a feeling of stamina in his tiny daughter. Shirley fell for serious automobile racer Jack Muldowney and married him at age 16, dropping from high school; after a couple of years, they had a son, John. Shirley soon found herself taking to the racing scene at the same time, learning how to operate a vehicle from her husband and after that entering matches in her place. With Jack working on auto upgrades that will allow for higher rate, Shirley honed her abilities as a competition in a male dominated area.
In 1965, Shirley Muldowney became the very first woman to get a permit in the National Hot Rod Association to drag race professionally, after forming a coalition with other girls racers that contained Judi Boertman and Della Woods. By the early 1970s, Muldowney was a no nonsense competition in “funny car” races (thus named as the vehicles are made drastically distinct from standard autos for racing purposes), and could achieve speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, making the finals of the NHRA Nationals in 1971.
From the mid-’70s, Muldowney had won the NHRA Spring Nationals, becoming the very first girl to achieve this, and went to become the very first man ever to win the organization’s World Fuel Championships on three different occasions in 1977, 1980 and 1982. She’d go to win 18 NHRA titles in total, controlling world championships and establishing various records.
Muldowney’s success was all the more poignant thinking about the sexism discovered in racing culture, with Muldowney having more trouble than male motorists bringing patrons and discovering a crew. Her success also defied conventional gender stereotypes, as she was a top racer who adored high heels and also would paint her autos hot pink, both as something she reveled to do and to get under skin of hecklers. She became a fan favorite of both women and men equally.
Muldowney’s son finally came to work included in his mom’s crew during his adolescence, and she entered right into an individual and professional relationship through the ’70s with racer and auto-contractor Connie Kalitta. The two would occasionally race collectively, and Muldowney was given the nickname “Cha Cha.” (She’d later say that she never cared for the moniker.)
In 1984, Muldowney experienced a near-deadly crash in Montreal when her vehicle spun out of control for 600 feet as a result of wheel malfunction. Her legs were shattered; her hands, pelvis and lots of fingers were broken. Filth and debris needed to be taken off her body all day before physicians could work, and then she’d a long, very agonizing rehabilitation procedure at her home in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. She made her recovery in 1986, winning another NHRA Nationals title in 1989. The injury also spurred the design of safer vehicles with reconfigured wheels.
Muldowney made a decision to retire in 2003, partially to ease the workload of her husband and crew chief, Rahn Tobler, whom she wed in 1988. (The two split in 2006.) Muldowney’s profession was the topic of the 1983 movie Heart Like a Wheel, starring Bonnie Bedelia as Muldowney and Beau Bridges as Kalitta. Bedelia received an Oscar nomination for her work in the picture. Muldowney afterwards wrote the memoir, Shirley Muldowney’s Tales From the Track, launch in 2005.