Friday, January 12, 2018

Connie Kalitta "The Bounty Hunter" vs. Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney


Baby Boomers who grew up in the Detroit area and listened to Windsor radio station CKLW were familiar with advertisements for the Detroit Dragway located at Sibley and Dix. The ads always began with "Saturday, SATURDAY NIGHT, at the DETROIT DRAGWAY." Then the card for the automotive duels would be hyped. If you don't remember or aren't old enough to know what I'm talking about, I have a link to an audio at the end of this post.

Connie Kalitta with top fuel dragster in 1967.
Two of the most popular drag racers of the 1970s and 1980s were Connie Kalitta "The Bounty Hunter" and Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney. Connie was from Mount Clemens, Michigan, and Shirley was from Schenectady, New York. They shared a professional and personal relationship from 1972-1977. Connie gave Shirley a Funny Car he no longer raced and acted as her crew chief for many of her early races. In those days, Shirley was known as "The Huntress." 

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.
For a time, Kalitta retired from racing and directed his attention toward building up his air freight business. Now he has a fleet of about 100 planes, many of them 747s. In addition to a bread-and-butter FoMoCo parts distribution contract, Kalitta Air provides charter flights for Medical Flight Services, Air Ambulance Specialists, the Shriners' Children's Hospital and the United States Department of Defense, to name a few. It is not generally known that Kalitta Air keeps a 747 on standby to work with the military to return fallen service men and women to their homes.

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.

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Shirley Muldowney
Connie Katilla first met Shirley Muldowney in 1966 at Raceway Park in Illinois when she was racing a dragster with her husband as her mechanic. In 1972, Shirley divorced Jack Muldowney when she wanted to advance to top fuel funny cars, and he refused to live the life of a Gypsy to compete on the NHRA circuit. Doubtless, there were other personal issues as Shirley moved in with Kalitta in 1972. Kalitta was The Bounty Hunter and Muldowney became The Huntress. Connie soon tagged Shirley with the nickname "Cha-Cha" which she never liked, but it became part of her NHRA branding.

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.

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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