Drag racing legend to appear at Ferndale cruise

By: Jeremy Selweski | C&G Newspapers | Published August 15, 2012

 Shirley Muldowney, the first female drag racer, will be attending the Woodward Dream Cruise for the first time this year. She will sign autographs from noon-5 p.m. on cruise day in Ferndale.

Shirley Muldowney, the first female drag racer, will be attending the Woodward Dream Cruise for the first time this year. She will sign autographs from noon-5 p.m. on cruise day in Ferndale.

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FERNDALE — Shirley Muldowney is a living legend in the automotive world who has resided in Southeast Michigan for decades, but this year will mark the first time that she has attended the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Muldowney, who broke the gender barrier as the first female drag racer nearly 50 years ago, is undoubtedly one of the greatest champions of her sport. However, she only appears at a handful of automotive events each year, and she feels that the organizers of the Dream Cruise have not been especially accommodating to her in the past.

“They have typically blown me off for the last decade or so,” she said, “so I’ve never been there before. Because I’m local, I think they just expect me to show up there on my own, but that’s not how it works. I will be there this year for the fans, though. I have a wonderful base of fans, and I’m very excited to go out there and greet them.”

On Aug. 18, Muldowney will be signing autographs in the Michigan Gumball Rally area of the Ferndale Dream Cruise. She will be set up along West Nine Mile Road near Buffalo Wild Wings from noon to 5 p.m.

Forty-seven years after she became the first woman to receive a professional license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), and 39 years after becoming the first woman licensed by the NHRA to drive a Top Fuel dragster, Muldowney remains a staunch advocate of drag racing.

“This is really the most exciting motorsport there is; it’s much more exciting than NASCAR by leaps and bounds,” she said. “But you’ve got to see it live in person. If you think you’ve seen a drag race by watching it on TV, then you’re dead wrong. Once you experience this sport, you can never get enough of it.”

Muldowney won the NHRA Top Fuel championship in 1977, 1980 and 1982, becoming the first drag racer to win two and then three Top Fuel titles. During her career, she has won a total of 18 NHRA national events. In 1981, she earned a victory at the March Meet, one of the sport’s oldest and most traditional races. The following year, she made it to the finals at the March Meet once again, only to lose to Lucille Lee in the first-ever all-woman final. Her life story was later made into a hit movie, “Heart Like a Wheel,” starring Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges in 1983.

Muldowney is renowned among drag racing fans worldwide, not only for her racing talent, but also for her rebellious spirit, fierce tenacity and sharp business acumen. She was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2004. Eleven years ago, she was ranked No. 5 on the NHRA’s 50th anniversary list of its top 50 drivers from 1951 to 2000.

For Michael Lary, event organizer of the Ferndale Dream Cruise, Muldowney’s presence at this year’s cruise serves as a giant stamp of approval that should attract a big audience of drag racing fans.

“We asked her if she would take part in this, and we’re so lucky that she said yes,” Lary said. “She provides the important link of being a legend from the past at an event that is all about honoring the past. She’s a big piece of the history of this sport and a true icon among car enthusiasts.”

Randy Kohler, founder and organizer of the Michigan Gumball Rally, couldn’t agree more. “A lot of people from my generation might not know who she is, but she really is one of the greatest legends in all of motorsports,” he said. “She had class A, rock star status in her prime. Back then, women were not even allowed to drag race, but not only did she participate in this sport, she won a whole lot of races and championships. She earned everything she got.”

Over the years, Muldowney said that she has seen drag racing change in “mostly positive ways.” While she derided the modern culture of the sport as “a giant money pit,” she also praised the NHRA for taking major steps to improve safety, equipment and racing conditions.

“It’s definitely a lot safer now,” she said. “There are no more of the fire-breathing death traps that we had to drive in the early days.”

But all criticisms aside, Muldowney’s enthusiasm for drag racing has never waned — and neither has that of her legion of loyal, ardent fans. With that in mind, she is planning a comeback for 2013. At age 72, she has a new deal lined up where she will race in about 10 NHRA events next year as she aims to prove to the sport’s new generation that she is still the First Lady of Drag Racing.

“My last run was in 2003, but I think I still know how to do this better than most of the drivers out there today,” she said. “You don’t just suddenly forget how to race when you’ve done as many runs as I have. That’s something you never lose.”

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