Shirley Muldowney doesn't have any regrets about her career. O.K., maybe she has one. Because of a 1984 crash that nearly killed her and left her with a fused left ankle, she can only wear tennis shoes. You might not expect a woman who has been drag racing since she was 15—she fell in love with fast cars on the streets of Schenectady, N.Y., 48 years ago—to have a girly side, but Muldowney surely does. "I love ladies' shoes, and shoes today are the most fantastic shoes," she says. "When I go to a store, I'll look at the shoe department and say, Oh, God, why?"
Muldowney's determined recovery from that wreck (she couldn't race for 18 months) left people wondering whether she would ever leave the sport. Now, nearly 20 years later, she's finally hanging up her helmet after a career in which she became the most recognizable drag racer in the world. That she was a woman was only part of her allure: Unlike virtually every other female auto racer who took on the boys, she beat them. She was the first woman to race an NHRA top-fuel dragster, the first woman to win the top-fuel world championship and the first person of either sex to win it more than once. Her life was immortalized in the 1983 movie Heart Like a Wheel, starring Bonnie Bedelia. (Muldowney liked the movie but thought Bedelia could have been I more realistic: "She got up out of the race car after winning the world championship like she was getting up from the dinner table.")
Muldowney's decision to retire was partly to make life easier on her crew chief—and husband of 25 years—Rahn Tobler, who will become crew chief for Doug Kalitta, one of the NHRA's top drivers. For the past 12 years Muldowney has been barnstorming, as opposed to running a full-time NHRA schedule, which meant that Tobler, 48, had to do everything from building the cars to hauling them to the track. "It's about time Rahn flew to races instead of driving a big rig across the country," she says.
After an NHRA career that began in 1971 Muldowney has one race left, this weekend in Pomona, Calif. (Besides clocking her best time and speed on the quarter-mile course on Sept. 28, she has advanced to the semifinals in two of the five events she's raced this season.) Muldowney has always been a crowd favorite—burly men cheered when she deployed her trademark pink parachutes—because of the way she carried herself and her refusal to back down in the face of the chauvinists she encountered early in her career. That resiliency, as much as any record, is what Muldowney is proud of. "I bucked 'em," she says. "Nobody likes a woman telling them how it's done and how it should be done."