Female Athletes: The Asterisk

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 to measure.

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 every time.*

*There 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:

*Shirley Muldowney excepted

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 them all.

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 team.

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.”

September 4, 2000

Note, 2003: In November, 2003, at the age of 63, she retired.

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.