Congrats to NHRA drag racing pioneer Shirley Muldowney, who turns 72 today.
Muldowney began street racing in the 1950s around her home in Schenectady, N.Y., and earned her NHRA pro racing license in 1965. From there, she made her way through Top Gas, Funny Car and Top Fuel ranks, challenging conventions and exceeding expectations about female racers at every step. Three NHRA World Championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982 silenced the most curmudgeonly of doubters. Her fame grew with the release of a widely acclaimed feature film about her, Heart Like a Wheel, in 1983, starring Bonnie Bedelia.
Ironically, Muldowney was no fan of the film's portrayal of her or of Bedelia's performance, telling Sports Illustrated in 2005, "When she was promoting the movie on TV shows, she would tell interviewers she didn't even like racing. She got out of [the] racecar like she was getting up from the dinner table." However, she conceded that the film had been "very good for the sport."
Although she subsequently switched to IHRA and match-racing competition, Muldowney returned to the NHRA toward the end of her career, running select events until her retirement at the end of 2003.
Nowadays, of course, female racers are hardly a novelty, particularly in the NHRA, and Shirley Muldowney is one of the primary reasons why.