If she hadn’t of achieved success in drag racing, legendary Shirley Muldowney would have made one hell of a fighter.
After all, it was in her genes.
If they had tangled in a ring, Ronda Rousey would have had nothing on Muldowney in her prime.
Muldowney’s father, Belgium Benedict Roque – nicknamed “Tex Rock” – was a taxi driver by day and a semi-pro boxer of note at night in and around Shirley’s hometown of Schenectady, New York.
It was almost prophetic that on an otherwise nondescript June night in 1940, Belgium would win his next-to-last fight by TKO, rushed home to pick up wife Mae, and a short time later in a local hospital, Shirley would enter the world.
And from that point, not only was a drag racing legend born, her reputation as an oftentimes hard-headed fighter of a different kind was born. She would go on to fight bullies in school, drag racing officials and opponents who looked down upon her with disdain because she was a woman in a “man’s sport,” and even race fans who were obviously no fans of hers that would call her every vile, disgusting, sexist and profane word in the book.
All because she was “a girl.”
All Muldowney ever wanted was a chance to prove herself, that she was every bit as good as any male drag racer. And you know what? She did just that, becoming the first woman to earn a professional drag racing license, the first woman to win a national event, the first woman to win a major racing championship and the first woman to win three NHRA Top Fuel titles (and a fourth in the rival American Hot Rod Association).
Muldowney raced until her retirement at the end of the 2003 season, a career that spanned more than four decades, perhaps as much as a million miles of barnstorming to grudge match races in the U.S. and Canada, and overcame a near-fatal crash in 1984.
They even made a movie about her life, the still popular “Heart Like A Wheel.”
Now, Shirley is in the biggest fight yet of her life – and it will be fought not on four wheels, but on a surgical bed.
Early Wednesday morning at a Charlotte, North Carolina hospital, the 75-year-old Muldowney will don a hospital gown, be rolled into an operating room, will be anesthetized and wake up more than five hours later – minus her right lung.
Muldowney has Stage 2 lung cancer, discovered only recently. According to various online research studies, Stage 2 cancer victims only have about a 30 percent chance of still being alive five years after surgery.
But this is not just another cancer statistic or unlucky victim. This is Shirley Roque Muldowney. All her fighting over the last seven decades has been just a warm-up for the bout she is about to undergo.
Yet knowing Shirley as I have for more than 30 years, she’s going into this next journey of her life in the same way she’s described herself to me over the years: “a tough broad.”
She has to be scared – even the most fearless shudder when the “C” word is mentioned – but I’ve never, ever seen Muldowney let her guard down and show fear. (Well, once, which I’ll get to shortly.)
Ironically, when I first met her in 1983 at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis – which began a 15-year stint as USA Today’s first NHRA drag racing writer – it was I who was scared.
Growing up on the mean streets of Chicago’s South Side and being in more than my share of fights (I was usually the one picked upon, much like Muldowney), I also learned not to be afraid of anything.
But Muldowney’s reputation indeed scared me. I heard she was not only tough with fellow racers, but also with the media.
When Shirley’s PR person, Francine Lippsman, approached me to interview her, I was apprehensive but still went along.
Within five minutes of meeting Muldowney, all the rumors and stories of her being this quarter-mile ogre were quickly dispelled. She couldn’t have been more pleasant, more accommodating, more patient.
That day was the start of a long friendship. As a reporter, you’re supposed to be objective, but I can honestly say that of all the thousands of athletes across all varieties of sports that I’ve covered and interviewed over the last 35-plus years, I would count those that made the biggest impression upon me on one hand.
There’d be the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton, Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, racers Tony Stewart and John Force … and Shirley Muldowney.
I fondly remember all the years and countless interviews I had with Shirley. I remember even more instances where we just shot the bull, not for publication. I remember how she never was politically correct – she ALWAYS said what was on her mind, good or bad, in gentile language or interspersed with more than a few expletives.
I remember how, when she was at her fiery best, she told numerous competitors and even NHRA officials – both behind their back and to their face – to “(eff) off.” I remember when she was so fed up with the NHRA and its politics, even after her three championships, that she pulled up stakes and spent several years racing in the rival International Hot Rod Association.
I can’t count the number of female drag racers over the years that have considered Shirley as either their role model or mentor. Reigning two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders, Pro Stock Motorcycle star Angelle Sampey and even Brittany and Courtney Force – daughters of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force – all cite Muldowney as having a profound impact on their careers.
Behind the wheel of her hot pink dragster, Muldowney blazed the path for all female drag racers, and they have not overlooked or underscored the fact that had it not been for what she went through in her career, they might not be doing what they are today in their own careers.
On a more light note, and even though she has a grown son, I also fondly remember Shirley’s “baby,” her pride and joy, a little mixed breed dog named “Skippy,” who followed her from track to track for more than 15 years.
I admit, since hearing of Shirley’s condition and pending surgery earlier today, I’ve been thinking non-stop of her. I’m praying for her like I would pray for a close relative.
Which leads me to a story that only three people really know: Shirley, fellow drag racing legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and myself. Please indulge me to tell it to you now.
It was January 25, 1994. I remember the day as if it was yesterday. It was eight days after the terrible Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley area, which killed nearly 60 people and injured over 8,500.
I had been scheduled to interview Prudhomme at his shop a few miles south of Northridge. I admit, having been in the 5.5 magnitude aftershock of the Whittier, California earthquake in 1987, I really was hesitant to go back out the West Coast. But I put away my fear, flew out there and found my way to Snake’s shop that morning.
When I arrived at Prudhomme’s shop, I recall seeing a building maybe 500 feet away that was missing a roof and 1 ½ walls. It was leaning precariously. Meanwhile, Prudhomme’s shop had just minimal damage. Go figure.
After more than an hour of interviewing him, Prudhomme asked if I’d like to take a ride. He wanted to show me the devastation wrought by the earthquake.
We drove for about 20 minutes or so. I was astounded, never having seen such destruction before. It looked as if a proverbial bomb had gone off.
As we passed by the heavily damaged Northridge Fashion Center and Cal State Northridge University, Prudhomme suggested we stop at a little non-descript house less than a block from the campus.
“Let’s go see Shirley,” Prudhomme said with a smile on his face. A few minutes later and unannounced, we rang her doorbell and she answered. While she was happy to see us and greeted us warmly, I could see something was wrong. Shirley just wasn’t Shirley.
Finally, she said something to the effect of “I’m scared s***less. I want to go back to (her adopted state of) Michigan. I can’t stand it here. I’ve gotta get out of California. I’m really afraid that there’s going to be another earthquake. If that wasn’t the ‘big one,’ it sure as hell was pretty damn close.”
After all that she had to endure in her life, for all the put-downs and beat-downs and insults, she still managed to go on to become one of the greatest drag racers in history.
But at this particular moment, one thing was very, very clear.
For the first time in her life, Shirley Muldowney was really, truly scared.
She not just showed fear, she was essentially petrified. It was so uncharacteristic of her usual in-control-of-everything personality.
She admitted she hadn’t slept well the last seven nights – especially after she was knocked out of bed at 4:30 a.m. PT when the quake first hit on Jan. 17, 1994.
I still recall how Muldowney shook slightly when she showed some of the structural damage her house sustained in the quake. I can guarantee it wasn’t exactly the kind of tour of her house that she was used to giving.
Just a few months later, Muldowney stayed true to her word: she was on her way back to the Wolverine State. She put California in her rearview mirror and she went back to having the “no fear” aura that made her famous.
Hell, if the only thing in life that had ever scared her was an earthquake, then given Shirley’s makeup, cancer doesn’t stand a chance with the self-described “tough broad.”
She’ll not only kick cancer’s ass, she’ll beat it too, just like she did with virtually every driver who ever dared challenge her for supremacy of the quarter-mile.
When she is wheeled into that operating room Wednesday, Muldowney will once again take the gloves off, ready to fight for herself once again – just like she’s done her whole life.
The “big C” doesn’t stand a chance.