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Badass Female Racing Drivers and Their Muscle Cars



Written by Elise

12th October 2020

Badass Female Racing Drivers and Their Muscle Cars
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Badass Female Racing Drivers and Their Muscle Cars

By Niamh Smith

The First Ladies of Motorsport 

Better reactions, tighter control, sharper clarity… factors that influenced a significant number of people I meet at the track to attest that the best racing drivers are women. European FIA drag racing is even dominated by women currently, and there’s a reason for that: Finnish racer Anita Mäkelä is collecting Top Fuel and other drag racing championship titles like they’re going out of fashion. 

But it wasn’t always that way: the fact that women in motorsports are still to this day being attributed as ‘the first woman to…’ shows that we’ve come a long way, but the journey isn’t over. 

For female gearheads, gaining licenses for motorsports was as revolutionary as milestones such as bra-burning and being allowed to wear slacks in public. Yet, plenty of motorsports fans aren’t aware of of the badass babes of racing history who paved the way for female competitors (and spectators) to be where they are today. 

1- Marie-Claude Beaumont (Charmasson) – The First Lady of Corvette

Starting off as an interpreter for the English rally teams, Marie-Claude got her break through her father’s links with Citroen. She was hired by Henri ‘Titi’ Greder (French rally champion) as his co-driver in his Ford Mustang. After taking the wheel of the Mustang, Beaumont decided she would rather drive than navigate. Impressed with her driving skills, Greder started up his own team for the 1969 rally season and made her his lead driver. 

Supported by General Motors, Beaumont drove a series of Opels and Chevrolets, mostly Corvettes. Racing for Greder, she took part in the French Ladies’ Rallying Championship in both 1969 and 1970, where she finished fourth in the overall standings. Driving a Chevrolet Camaro in the 1969 Tour De France, teamed with Michele Dubosc, she placed eleventh.

In 1971, the French motorsport authorities relaxed their position on female competitors and accepted Greder Racing’s entry for Le Mans, making her the first woman to compete in the event since Gilberte Thirion in 1954. Racing a heavily modified Chevrolet Corvette C3 for Greder, Beaumont achieved her best result in the 1973 24 Hour Le Mans; twelfth overall. 

Beaumont retired in 1982 to pursue her passion of racing photography, covering the events of Grand Prix and Le Mans. Often still hailed as a pioneer for women in motorsports, Marie-Claude Beaumont worked hard to secure her place in French racing history as one of the best female racing drivers. 

marie claude beaumont

 2- Shirley Muldowney – First Woman to receive an NHRA Top Fuel  license 

Possibly one of the most famous women in motorsports, Shirley ‘ChaCha’ Muldowney was well-known for her grit and determination at the strip, earning herself 18 NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) victories during her 45-year career. Everyone tends to know Muldowney as a Top Fuel dragster driver, but comparatively few know that she started from humble beginnings, namely street racing in New York in the 50s. 

At the age of 16, she married her husband, mechanic Jack Muldowney, who eventually built his wife her first dragster. Muldowney made her professional debut in 1958 at Fonda Dragstrip at the tender age of 18. For a while, she raced a 1963 C2 Chevrolet Corvette, which she owned with Jack. 

After arguing with the officials, who at first refused, she managed to obtain her NHRA Pro license in 1965, competing in Top Gas class in 1969 and ‘70. When Top Gas lost popularity, she bought a Ford Mustang ‘funny car’ (so-called for being based on muscle car bodies but with elongated and ‘funny’ looking flip-bodies) from Connie Kalitta, another famous drag racer. 

After divorcing Jack, Muldowney and Kalitta formed a team, racing together from 1972 to 1977 and dubbing themselves the Bounty Hunter and the Bounty Huntress. Muldowney stepped up to Top Fuel in 1973, winning three NHRA championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982. 

All of this was achieved in the face of enormous opposition from track spectators, who made it clear that women were not welcome on the dragstrip, nor in motorsports for that matter. But Muldowney powered on: Don Garlits, one of the most globally well-respected drag racers to this day, remarked: “Now, if you ask who do I have the most respect for, I’d say Shirley Muldowney. She went against all odds. They didn’t want her to race Top Fuel, the association, the racers, nobody…Just Shirley”. 

Shirley herself recognised that although the NHRA wasn’t fond of having women on their strips, it brought money in for them: “NHRA fought me every inch of the way, but when they saw how a girl could fill the stands, they saw I was good for the sport.”

After a bad crash in 1984, Muldowney was rendered unable to drive for 18 months while she underwent therapy, but returned to the strip in the late ‘80s, racing mostly without major sponsorship throughout the 90s at IHRA events and match races. She ran at selected NHRA events until her retirement in 2003 and can still be seen around the paddock at drag racing events to this day. 

Shirley Muldowney - First Woman to receive an NHRA Top Fuel  license

3- Lyn St James – First Woman to win Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award 

A true motorhead, former racer Lyn St James was never in it for the money or the fame. Rather than push any agendas, she was in the game to drive fast and as often as possible. 

The first car St James ever drove was her family’s far-from-high-performance Ford Fairlane convertible when she was 15. In the 60s, like many other racers’ humble beginnings, she started off with street racing alongside her friends and going to the drags. Her first taste of Indy was when her boyfriend took her to the Indianapolis 500 on the back of his motorcycle on their second date. 

St James started racing in the amateur ranks of SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) in 1973, moving up to Trans-Am championships during the same decade. Racing a Ford Pinto in the 1975 Florida Regional Championship, and again in 1976, she took the title. In her breakout season in 1985, driving a Roush Racing Ford Mustang IMSA GTO, St James captured three victories, including the first IMSA GT win by a woman driving solo. 

But after winning the class at both Sebring and Daytona in 1990, racing the teams’ Mercury Cougar XR-7, and racing at Le Mans in 1989 and 1991, St James had a new ambition. Harking back to her second date, she wanted to become the second woman (after Janet Guthrie in 1977) to start the Indianapolis 500. Qualifying in 1992 and driving a Lola-Chevrolet (a custom built race chassis with a Chevy V8), St James placed eleventh, securing rookie honours. 

This was to remain her best performance. Despite regularly entering Indy500 each year, St James never improved on her eleventh place, and by her last appearance in 2000 she was the oldest driver to ever start the race.

Since then, St James has turned her efforts to motivational speaking and remains an active advocate for encouraging women in motorsports. Among her achievements is becoming the first woman to win an Indy500 Rookie of the Year Award, and being the first woman to break 200MPH on a race track, using a Ford Thunderbird to drive 227.32MPH. 

Lyn St James - First Woman to win Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award


4- Paula Murphy – First Woman Liscenced to Drive a Nitro-fueled Car 

Paula Murphy pretty much nailed every type of motorsports. After joining the Women’s Sports Car Club, Murphy began competing in 1956. In 1963, when she decided to quit her desk job and devote her time fully to being a speed queen, Murphy started entering men’s races (because women’s races were increasingly being phased out of competitions.)

In addition to her success in drag racing, Murphy added many strings to her bow, including border-to-border rallies, setting women’s land speed records at Bonneville Salt Flats, competing in NASCAR and setting records during test laps on the Indianapolis 500 track. 

Murphy’s first try at drag racing was in 1964 after being offered an Oldsmobile 442 by the LA and Orange County Dealers Association, prepped by MOPAR legend Dick Landy. After gaining major sponsorship from STP, Paula Murphy became the first woman to receive a licence from the National Hot Rod Association to drive a nitro-fueled vehicle, in her case a 392ci (6.4L) Hemi V8 powered Ford Mustang funny car, which ran low 8 second passes throughout 1967. 

STP switched up Murphy’s funny cars every three years, going through a series of MOPAR muscle-car-based performance cars, including a Plymouth Barracuda and a Plymouth Duster. 

In 1974, Murphy ended up in a serious crash when the throttle stuck open on the hydrogen-peroxide jet-powered car she was driving. After crossing the finish line at Sears Point Raceway at approximately 300mph, Murphy escaped with a broken neck. After recovering, she continued competing in various different motorsports until her retirement in 1976. 

Paula Murphy has since been inducted into the NHRA hall of fame, as well as being one of only two female drag racers to be inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, alongside Shirley Muldowney. 

Paula Murphy - First Woman Liscenced to Drive a Nitro-fueled Car 


5- Shirley Shahan- First woman to win an NHRA Pro event

In the 60s, a woman drag racing wasn’t the norm. A woman working full time, raising three kids, participating in fast-pitch softball AND drag racing… well then you’ve got Shirley Shahan. 

Shahan first picked up her interest in motorsports from her father, who raced dirt-circle track cars. As a teen, she’d go to the track with him and help him wrench the cars and learning the basics. She began competing in drag racing at only 17, and after marrying her drag racing husband, H.L Shahan, they formed a formidable team and tore up the strips. 

In 1959, Shahan won the first Bakersfield March Meet in her 1958 four-on-the-floor manual Chevy, in the Superstock class in a field of 40 men, including drag racing legends Don Nicholson and Arlen Vanke.

In 1965, Shahan landed a major sponsorship from Chrysler. The series of Chrysler Corp ‘Drag-On-Lady’ cars she drove, tuned by her husband H.L, were powered by the legendary MOPAR 426ci Hemi engine; the 7L V8 engine that dominated the drag strips at the time, especially in the Superstock classes. These Hemi Plymouths and Dodge Challengers were factory-built race cars and usually only built for racers that they sponsored. 

In 1965, Shahan won the Superstock Class crown in her ‘65 Plymouth Belvedere after ripping down the track in 11.26 seconds, making her the first woman to win an NHRA Pro event. Shahan shot to national fame, and the NHRA went along for the PR ride, arranging match races to bring in the crowds. 

Switching from Chrysler to AMC in 1969 to drive an AMX, a year later Shahan raced a 9.8 second AMC Hornet for the NHRA’s inaugural year for Pro Stock class. In 1973, when AMC decided to focus their race budget elsewhere, Shirley retired from driving. 

To this day, Shahan still attends the Hot Rod Reunion at Bakersfield and other NHRA events at Pomona and Phoenix. She doesn’t see herself as a female racing pioneer, saying “I just loved to go racing”, but we know for sure she’s an important part of racing history. 

Shirley Shahan- First woman to win an NHRA Pro event

Pioneering Women in Motorsports

Since Paula Murphy received her licence to drive nitro-fueled cars, 13 other women gained licences from the NHRA to race in her class, four of whom have won an NHRA national event in the class. A motivational speaker who encourages people to follow their passions, Lyn St James even started her own foundation to help women in motorsports. 

All of these women have left a lasting legacy, paving the way for the likes of UK female racing drivers Susie Wolff and Jamie Chadwick to follow in their footsteps. Overall, motorsports is now a much more inclusive area of competition and more accessible to all hidden speed royalty who just want to get out on the track.

Author: Niamh Smith

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