A fighter her whole life, Shirley Muldowney faces biggest battle yet

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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.

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Shirley Muldowney (Photo: Rob Geiger)

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.

MORE: BREAKING NEWS: Legendary NHRA driver Shirley Muldowney to undergo cancer surgery

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.)

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Shirley Muldowney in her prime and at her favorite racetrack, Lucas Oil Raceway, home of the NHRAs biggest annual race, the U.S. Nationals. (Photo: Auto Imagery)

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.

A young Shirley Muldowney (Photo courtesy Rob Geiger)
A young Shirley Muldowney (Photo courtesy Rob Geiger)

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.

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 27: Legendary drag racer Shirley Muldowney (R) and NHRA driver Larry Dixon (L) speak with the media, during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, held at University Hilton on January 27, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Legendary drag racer Shirley Muldowney (R) and NHRA driver Larry Dixon (L) a few years ago in Charlotte. Dixon recently beat throat cancer, while Muldowney will have surgery for lung cancer on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500