The life story of Shirley Muldowney, the first lady of drag racing

The life story of Shirley Muldowney, the first lady of drag racing

Kenneth Mwenda
updated at December 2, 2023 at 6:15 AM

Shirley Muldowney’s ascent in the high-speed world of drag racing is a story woven with unexpected turns and groundbreaking achievements. Born amidst the scenic landscapes of Burlington, Vermont, her life took a pivotal turn in the streets of Schenectady, New York, far from her birthplace.

Shirley Muldowney's net worth
Shirley Muldowney speaks during an Annual Great Sports Legends Dinner at the Marriott Marquis Hotel on October 24, 2022, in New York City. Photo: Eugene Gologursky (modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

Her then-husband, Jack Muldowney, introduced her to drag racing by building her first dragster. This was the catalyst that launched her extraordinary journey, transforming her into a legendary figure in a sport where she was once an outsider.

Profile summary


Shirley Muldowney

Date of birth

June 19, 1940

Zodiac sign



83 years (as of November 2023)

Place of birth

Burlington, Vermont, USA


“First Lady of Drag Racing,” “Cha-Cha”


Retired drug racing driver

Debut season



Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion (1977, 1980, 1982)


John Muldowney


Jack Muldowney (first husband, married at 16, later divorced), Rahn Tobler

Net worth

Approximately $5 million (as of 2023)

Where did Shirley Muldowney’s racing journey begin?

Born on June 19, 1940, in Burlington, Vermont, Shirley’s racing journey began in Schenectady, New York. She was not drawn to the conventional life paths that were expected of women during that time. Instead, she found her calling on the racing tracks.

At the age of 16, she married 19-year-old Jack Muldowney, who built her first dragster. This marked the beginning of her racing career, a path that would lead her to become a legend in the world of drag racing.

Having learned from Jack how to navigate a speedy car on the streets skillfully, Shirley began her foray into "official" drag strip racing in the late 1950s. She drove an array of cars during this time, including a Cadillac-powered '40 Ford, a tri-power 348 Chevy, and a Corvette, before graduating to a Super Stock '63 Plymouth!

Muldowney’s entry into drag racing

Is Shirley Muldowney still alive?
Shirley Muldowney (L) before a race on January 1st, 1986. Photo by Richard Mackson
Source: Getty Images

Muldowney made her debut on the dragstrip of the Fonda Speedway in 1958, the same year their son, John, was born. She gained a reputation as the girl who kicked all the boys and even earned a nickname: Cha-Cha. All the best drivers had nicknames: Snake, Mongoose, Big Daddy, The Farmer, The Madman, The Snowman.

In 1965, Shirley obtained her NHRA pro license. This milestone marked the beginning of her groundbreaking journey in the sport.

Regardless of her having a license, the concept of a woman driving a dragster was met with skepticism by numerous race officials. As a result, Shirley and Jack spent several years journeying to various races, often uncertain whether they would be permitted to compete.

Muldowney’s determination and skill quickly made her a formidable competitor in the male-dominated world of drag racing. In 1969 and 1970, Muldowney participated in the U.S. Nationals, racing a twin-engine dragster in the Top Gas category. In 1971, Shirley achieved her first significant victory at the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Southern Nationals.

As interest in Top Gas waned, she transitioned to Funny Car. During this period, Shirley’s relationship with Jack Muldowney began to fade. Their differing views on nitro racing led to their separation and divorce in 1972. However, they maintained a friendship until Jack’s passing in 2007.

Shirley Muldowney and Connie Kalitta

Where is Shirley Muldowney now?
Top Fuel NHRA dragster Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney during the NHRA Spring Nationals on June 13, 1976, at the National Trail Raceway in Hebron, Ohio. Photo: Dozier Mobley
Source: Getty Images

Muldowney relocated to Detroit and then formed a partnership with Connie Kalitta. In 1973, Muldowney advanced to Top Fuel, obtaining her license and becoming the first woman to do so. She achieved this behind the wheel of Poncho Rendon’s digger.

Notably, her application was signed by Don Garlits, a crucial endorsement among the three signatures required. The other two signatories were Tommy Ivo and Connie Kalitta, completing the official endorsement she needed. Between 1972 and 1977, she formed a racing partnership with Connie Kalitta, participating in match races under the monikers “Bounty Hunter” for Kalitta and “Bounty Huntress” for herself.

In 1977, Muldowney achieved a significant milestone by winning a Top Fuel championship, marking the first time a woman had secured a professional motorsports title. However, despite her professional success, she ended her relationship with Kalitta, with Muldowney remarking:

“I left him standing in an airport and never looked back.”

Was Shirley Muldowney married to Connie Kalitta?

While Shirley Muldowney and Connie Kalitta had a significant relationship, they were never married. Her relationship with Kalitta was an important part of her racing career, but it remained a personal and professional partnership rather than leading to marriage.

How old is Shirley Muldowne?
Muldowney during the NHRA’s Winternationals on January 1, 1980, at the Auto Club Raceway / Pomona Raceway. Photo: Disney General Entertainment Content
Source: Getty Images

Despite the personal challenges, Shirley remained focused on her racing career. In 1980, she clinched her second Top Fuel championship, setting a record as the first individual, regardless of gender, to achieve this feat.

The following year, in 1981, she won an AHRA championship, with Rahn Tobler as her crew chief and her son, John, serving as a mechanic. Continuing her winning streak, in 1982, Muldowney secured another NHRA championship and triumphed at the U.S. Nationals, the most prestigious event in drag racing, notably defeating her former partner, Connie Kalitta.

Shirley Muldowney’s horrific accident

In 1984, Shirley suffered a catastrophic accident at the Sanair Super Speedway in Quebec, Canada, during a qualifying run. The crash resulted in severe injuries, including broken bones in her hands, pelvis, and legs.

After the severe accident, doubts were widespread about Muldowney’s ability to walk, much less return to racing. Defying expectations, she made a remarkable comeback 18 months later at the season opener in Pomona, California.

Muldowney made her comeback to racing in 1986, yet from 1986 to 1989, she did not secure any race victories. She tied the knot with her pit boss, Rahn Tobler, in 1988. To aid Muldowney’s return to form in 1989, Tobler enlisted the help of her long-standing, amiable competitor and backer, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, as her advisor.

That year, she advanced to the finals in multiple events and triumphed at the NHRA fall nationals in Phoenix. Muldowney continued to race, achieving further victories and setting new records until her retirement in 2003.

Is Shirley Muldowney still alive, and where is she now?

Shirley Muldowney's age
Drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney addresses the crowd on September 21, 2018, at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois. Photo: Michael Allio
Source: Getty Images

As of 2023, Shirley Muldowney is alive and well. She resides in Huntersville, North Carolina, enjoying a quieter life away from the roar of drag racing engines.

How old is she?

At 83 years old (as of November 20230, Muldowney has retired from the world of drag racing but continues to be a revered figure in the sport. Her son, John, passed away in 2017 at the age of 59, a loss that deeply affected her.

Shirley Muldowney’s net worth

As of 2023, Shirley Muldowney’s net worth stands at approximately $5 million, a testament to her successful career in drag racing. Shirley’s net worth is not just a figure but a reflection of her trailblazing journey in a sport that was once considered exclusive to men.

Shirley Muldowney’s life story is not just about fast cars and winning races; it is a narrative of resilience, breaking barriers, and an unyielding passion for drag racing. Her legacy continues to inspire and influence the world of motorsports, proving that determination and courage can pave the way for extraordinary achievements.

READ ALSO: Don Garlits’ net worth, age, family: Is he the best drag racer ever?

Sports Brief published an article about Don Garlits’ net worth, age, and family. Drag racing is an adrenaline-pumping sport that has captivated fans for decades, and few names in the history of drag racing resonate as loudly as that of Don Garlits.

Known as “Big Daddy,” Garlits has been a dominant force on the track and a pivotal figure in shaping the sport. Click on the above link to read more!

Kenneth Mwenda photo
Kenneth Mwenda
Kenneth Mwenda is a business and sports writer with over five years of experience. At Sportsbrief, he contributes to writing biographies and listicles.