|Connie Kalitta with top fuel dragster in 1967.|
Kalitta began drag racing when he was a sixteen-year-old student at Mount Clemens High School. He worked himself up the ranks of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to become one of the sport's top drivers. Known as The Bounty Hunter, Kalitta was the first driver to reach 200 mph in a sanctioned NHRA event. In 1989 at the Winter Nationals, Kalitta was the first driver to break the 290 mph barrier with a 291.54 mph qualifying run.
In all, Kalitta won ten national titles and was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992. The NHRA compiled a list of the Top 50 Drivers for their fiftieth-anniversary in 2001. Kalitta ranked 21st on the all-time list, and in 2016, he became the first recipient of the NHRA's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Kalitta's first NHRA win came in 1964 in Bakersfield, California. In 1967, he won his first NHRA title. With the prize money, he bought his first airplane--a Cessna 310--and started his company Kalitta Air at the Willow Run Airport shipping freight for the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo)--his racing sponsor.
|Kalitta Air and Kalitta Motorsports company photograph.|
Kalitta no longer races, but he is the CEO of Kalitta Motorsports in Ypsilanti, Michigan which sponsors four cars and drivers. His love of racing became a lifelong pursuit and a way of life.
After her split from Kalitta, Shirley went on to make a name for herself in this macho male sport. At first, she had trouble attracting sponsors and finding a crew that would work with a woman. But when Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney showed up at the track with her hot pink car, cowboy boots, and crash helmet, she started filling the grandstands. Even her pit crew wore hot pink team shirts.
Muldowney defied traditional gender stereotypes head-on and challenged sexism in the racing culture like Billie Jean King had for tennis in 1973's Battle of the Sexes against Bobby Riggs. Both ladies proved women can compete in a man's world.
Shirley Muldowney was the first woman to receive a NHRA license to drive top fuel dragsters. She was the first person--man or woman--to win three NHRA national events in a row. In 1980, Shirley won the World Finals by beating her nemesis Connie Kalitta, and in 1982, she won an unprecedented third NHRA Top Fuel Championship.
Muldowney's achievements were not lost on Hollywood. She got the big screen treatment in 1983's Heart Like a Wheel starring Bonnie Bedelia as Muldowney and Beau Bridges as Connie Kalitta. Muldowney has said the film didn't capture her real life very well but was good for the sport.
On the heels of her celebrity, Muldowney was faced with her biggest challenge. In June of 1984, her dragster crashed at over 250 mph at Sanair Speedway near Montreal, Canada. A front tire shredded and got twisted up in a wheel causing the car to lose control for 600 feet before crashing. Shirley was left with broken legs, crushed hands, a shattered pelvis, and a severed thumb. Determined to race again, she undertook two years of grueling physical therapy and recovery. Her first race back was against "Big Daddy" Don Garlits--a personal friend of hers. She lost.
Because of trouble attracting sponsors, Shirley retired from racing in 2003. During her career, she won eighteen NHRA National events and was ranked 5th on NHRA's 2001 list of its Top 50 Drivers earning her the title of "First Lady of Drag Racing." Her memoir Shirley Muldowney: Tales from the Track was released in 2005 depicting her drag racing life. The same year, Muldowney was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
***CKLW radio commercial for the Detroit Dragway from 1966: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbrdImfvFmQ
1982 U.S. Nationals Championship drag race between Kalitta and Muldowney: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-Q8f6bsfI0
Muldowney on the Johnny Carson Show in 1986 after her 1984 catastrophic car crash: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FeaqiczHzI