The Olympics are coming. Once again, the world will have an opportunity
to learn that the best woman’s performance in track is at least
10% slower than the best man’s. In strength events, nobody bothers
The world will not notice this discrepancy. And, when I watch Marion
Jones streak down the track, I will not notice either. That lady
is fast! Nevertheless. . . .
Women cannot compete with men in athletics. They will get beaten
is an asterisk to this statement. An exception. A very odd exception
that never was front-page sporting page news. But it sits there,
challenging male chauvinist pigs such as myself. There may never
be another, but there is this one:
For a decade, from the mid-1970’s to the mid-1980’s, Shirley Muldowney
was in contention for the title: the best drag racer on earth. She
was — sorry, I just cannot resist — the Drag Queen.
Drag racing is not one of America’s headline sports. If it weren’t
for ESPN’s gargantuan demand for something, anything to put on the
air 24 hours a day, most people would not know about it. I daresay
that few of my readers have ever been to a real-live drag race.
I have. Once. In 1962. When you’ve seen one drag race, you’ve seen
Unless there is an accident. And then each one is horrifyingly different.
A man — or one lone woman — sits in a tiny space at the back of
a low-slung, long-nosed vehicle. He sits just in front of a huge
engine filled with highly explosive fuel. This vehicle can attain
a speed of well over 300 miles per hour in a quarter of a mile.
A drag race lasts about five seconds. One slight mistake in steering,
one engine bearing that goes bad, one unforeseen tire failure, and
the vehicle can be catapulted into space, briefly, and then come
to a bouncing, fiery halt.
Kids, don’t try this at home.
I have no idea what kind of emotional strength it takes to aim a
needle on wheels at an invisible spot a quarter mile down a track.
I have no idea what physical strength and reflexes are required
to keep it aimed. What I do know is that if physical strength and
reflexes are missing, fractionally, on any given day, the driver
will go to the morgue.
Shirley Muldowney in 1965 became the first woman licensed by the
National Hot Rod Association to drive a gasoline-burning Gas dragster
capable of going over 150 miles per hour.
A decade later, she was voted to the 10-person (previously, 10-man)
All-America Auto Racing team.
In 1977, she was named Drag News’ Top Fuel Driver of the year, for
the second straight year.
In 1978, she was the top vote-getter in the 10-person All-America
In 1981, she won the American Hot Rod Association World Championship.
In 1982, she won the Winston World points championship, becoming
the first person in drag racing history to win the title three times.
Retirement beckoned. Retirement was rebuffed.
This year, she won the Auto Fest’s New Year’s Eve race against her
old rival, Don “Big Daddy” Garlits. (I first heard of Big Daddy
when I was a sophomore in high school in 1957. He was already a
legend.) This year, she was runner-up at the International Hot Rod
Performance Parts Nationals.
This year, she qualified number-one at the IHRA Nationals with an
elapsed time of 4.74 seconds and a speed of 319
miles per hour.
And I sit here, winded, from walking my dog.
So, whenever you hear about champion women athletes who could never
compete against a man, keep this asterisk in mind.
Rent Heart Like a Wheel. It’s not too bad as low-budget movies
go. It tells her story. You even get to see the late Hoyt Axton,
already ballooned but still marvelous, sing, “I’m built for comfort,
not for speed.”
2003: In November, 2003, at the age of 63, she
Gary North is the author of Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals
Captured the Presbyterian Church, which is available free of charge
as a downloaded text at www.freebooks.com.