In 1977 a former waitress from Schenectady, New York, by way of Burlington, Vermont, did something no other woman had ever done: She won a professional racing championship.
Two years after becoming the first female to earn an NHRA Top Fuel license, Shirley Muldowney won the Top Fuel world championship, and before retiring she won two more NHRA crowns plus an AHRA title just because she could. Muldowney is rightly given credit for ripping the ignition wires out of the idea that women couldn’t beat men head-to-head on the racetrack.
Other women preceded Muldowney into the NHRA’s male-dominated citadel—Della Woods, Paula Murphy and Shirley Shahan, to name but a few. However, none was impetuous enough to demand a shot at racing in Top Fuel, and more to the point none had the unflinching moxie to stand up and get right in the grille of anyone who stood in her way.
“You can’t overlook the fact other women tried to do what I did before I raced in Top Fuel,” says Muldowney, who now serves as team/sponsor representative for David Grubnic’s StriVectin-SD Top Fuel outfit owned by Connie Kalitta.
“You can’t take that away from them. But I didn’t want to race just to be able to say I could do it. I wanted to win just as badly as the men did. Sometimes more.”
The undeniable truth here is drag racing—both on the sportsman and professional levels—holds the winning hand when it comes to equal racing opportunities for women. Drag racing, particularly the NHRA, embraced the unisex approach to a much greater degree than any other organized motorsports discipline. But there’s a whole new vibe happening even in the NHRA women’s movement—and it’s gathering speed.
Never before have there been as many women in the NHRA’s professional ranks blessed with the potential to win national events and series champion¬ships concurrently. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Angelle Sampey, 35, has already won three category titles, is the winningest woman in NHRA history and recently won the first bike event of the year, the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.
Hillary Will, 26, made the jump from a Top Alcohol dragster to an 8000-hp Top Fuel machine this season and has clearly shown she has the skills to win. So has Erica Enders, the 22-year-old Pro Stock sophomore whose adventures in a Jr. Dragster served as the basis for the Disney-produced TV movie Right on Track.
Ashley Force, 23-year-old daughter of 13-time Funny Car champion John Force, will move from an A/Fuel dragster to one of her dad’s nitro Funny Cars next year—a class where few women have raced with any success. Back in the bike pits Karen Stoffer, 41, is a two-time national event winner while Connie Cohen, 44, and Holly Wallace, 28, may be on their way to future Pro Stock Motorcycle winner’s circles.
But the biggest star in the NHRA’s female firmament is Melanie Troxel, 33, wife of Funny Car veteran Tommy Johnson Jr. and daughter of the late Mike Troxel, 1988 Top Alcohol Dragster world champion. Another graduate of the Alcohol Dragster class, Troxel races in Top Fuel with the copious resources of Don Schumacher Racing behind her, and in February she won her first race as a pro, the 2006 Winternationals.
Troxel says drag racing has always been a friendly port for women wanting to go fast.
“Shirley [Muldowney] really is the one who made it okay for women to race against the men,” Troxel says. “I can honestly say I haven’t encountered any prejudice from any of the men racers or fans. It’s no longer a big deal for women to be out there racing.”
Women compete successfully against men in drag racing but generally have not run at the front consistently in other series. Is drag racing easier to excel in than road or oval racing?
“It’s comparing apples and oranges,” says Troxel. “Other styles of racing bring in the endurance factor, something we don’t have to contend with.
“On the other hand,” Troxel says, “the ability to react at the starting line where what you do is measured in thousandths of a second, and having to respond to what a race car is doing as it accelerates to 100 mph in 60 feet, to keep it in the groove or work the throttle if the tires begin to spin, are not skills that come easily.
“In other kinds of racing, if you make a mistake you can often make up for it on the next lap. We can’t. Make a mistake and your day is over. Is it easier to drag race? I’ve never driven an Indy car, so I can’t answer that.
“Another reason drag racing is more open to women is the way we race,” Troxel continues. “In wheel-to-wheel racing, a woman would have to be aware of other drivers who may not be happy she is out there. It could get rough, especially on local short tracks where there isn’t a major media presence reporting on the event. In drag racing you stay in your own lane, and there is no chance for any rough stuff.”
Another component that has made drag racing more gender diverse is the NHRA’s incremental category structure. Kids start out in the Jr. Dragster program, graduate to one of several sportsman classes (Force’s two youngest daughters, Brittany, 19, and Courtney, 17, race in Super Comp), and if they stick with it, can move into the pros—with an adequate bankroll.
“That’s definitely helped get young girls acclimated to the sport,” says Troxel, who raced her street car at organized events when a teenager. “Once they have been exposed to racing against boys in a Jr. Dragster, which can be intimidating at first, they are much more comfortable moving up the ladder into full-size race cars.”
Muldowney’s one-woman crusade to give the ladies a turn behind the wheel not only made her a legend but made drag racing the professional home of talented females such as Troxel, Sampey and Stoffer. They are among the 39 women in both professional and sportsman classes who have won an NHRA national event over the past half-century.
And there will be more.