Shirley Muldowney broke into drag racing amid indescribable resistance and chauvinism, and it took unprecedented success — 31 victories and four season championships — for the boys on the strip to learn respect.
Three decades later, 39 women have won National Hot Rod Association national events, and one of the circuit’s highest-profile drivers, a man, said that the women competing in the Top Fuel division will be “the faces of our sport in the near future.”
While women competing in the highest levels of open-wheel racing can make big news, like Danica Patrick did last year in the Indy Racing League, the NHRA has long been an equal-opportunity circuit.
“We don’t have any discussions about how to deal with the guys,” said Melanie Troxel, a Top Fuel driver entered in the Checker Schuck’s Kragen Nationals at Firebird International Raceway. She earned her first Top Fuel event win Feb. 12 in Pomona, Calif.
“It’s normal. If you have the ability to drive the car, people will put you in a car and give you the opportunity to race. I’d like to think that the gender factor doesn’t even play into it.”
Patrick became the fourth female driver to participate in the Indy 500, while 15 women have competed in a top-level NASCAR race (but only one, Shawna Robinson, since 1989).
Seven women compete in the NHRA’s elite divisions — Top Fuel (three), Funny Car (none), Pro Stock (one) and Pro Stock Motorcycle (three) — and that roster figures to grow in coming years.
Funny Car competitor John Force, a 13-time season champion, has three daughters who are racing. The oldest of the trio, Ashley, is expected to be competing on one of the elite series soon.
Force believes the increased presence of women in drag racing will help gain the sport media attention and sponsorship revenue. The latter is a traditional challenge for most NHRA drivers, male or female, to acquire.
“I think these women are going to pave the way for big changes over the next five years,” Force said. “Companies like Clairol and Maybelline have been the new sponsorship vehicles as of late, not the oil companies. . . .
“You get new companies to show interest, that’s going to make it easier for the male drivers to find sponsors, too.”
Why have women found the NHRA doors much easier to open?
Three main reasons are usually cited:
• The trail blazed by Muldowney, whose ability to compete and win — she won NHRA titles in 1977, ’80 and ’82 and an American Hot Rod Association title in 1981 — made team owners and sponsors more willing to look at women.
• The junior dragsters program, which enables girls as young as 8 years old the opportunity to take up the sport.
• The format of drag racing, with its short runs that place an emphasis on smarts and reaction time, not endurance (which generally gives men an advantage in 500-mile races).
“NHRA racing has been very accepting of women,” said Hillary Will, a rookie in the Top Fuel class. “Other drivers and people in the sport know that we are competitors, just like any other driver.
“When we go to the starting line, all of the girl stuff is over, and it’s about who is the better driver and who has the fastest car.”
Or motorcycle. The most successful Pro Stock Motorcycle racer is Angelle Sampey, who has 37 event victories and three season titles.
“I haven’t gotten maybe one-tenth of the publicity that Danica Patrick has received,” Sampey said. “It’s a little disappointing. . . .
“I’m not jealous of Danica. I’m proud of what she’s doing. I wish the NHRA would promote us more, but they are getting better.”
Erica Enders, a secondyear Pro Stock competitor, had her junior-dragster successes portrayed in “Right on Track,” a 2003 cable TV movie.
“I’ve had so many parents come up to me and say they saw the movie and have their kids in junior dragsters,” said Enders, who had the quickest Pro Stock time Friday at Firebird. “The more NHRA racing is fed into the mainstream media, that will help.”
This summer, the NHRA will take a leap into the mainstream, when Force and his daughters are the subject of a cable reality series, “Driving Force.”
Still, the woman who started it all believes that the ultimate barometer of the female impact in drag racing is the on-track success. Speaking on the phone from her home in Michigan, Muldowney said that “when you look at the winner’s circle, the visits have been few and far between.”
Retired since 2003, the 65-year-old Muldowney, who remains involved with the NHRA as a sponsor representative, gets the old competitive juices flowing when talking about the importance of women not just competing, but winning.
Of the current seven female drivers, only Troxel, Sampey and motorcycle rider Karen Stouffer own event victories in the elite classes.
“I think the standard has been set that (women) are capable of more than a win once in a while,” Muldowney said. “I hope I live long enough to see another lady win a season championship.”
Will acknowledged that, like in any sports venue, success is the best way to gain admiration. However, in the NHRA, she has never had to fight to gain acceptance. “Nobody in this sport is automatically respected,” Will said. “You have to earn it. I’m fortunate that I’m at least given a chance to prove my abilities. I don’t know if that’s the case in the other motorsports.”