Shirley Muldowney, the first lady of the drag strips, the National Hot Rod Association's only three-time World Champion in Top Fuel, is back—and what a journey it has been.
At a race at Sanair Speedway outside Montreal on June 29, 1984, as Muldowney, then 44 years old, sped through the timing lights at about 250 mph, she saw the inner tube of her left front tire squirm out of the casing and, like a deadly black snake, coil around the axle. The motorcycle-sized wheel locked up and threw her spindly 26-foot-long car sideways into a ditch beside the strip, which in turn triggered a horrifying high-velocity tumble. The dragster disintegrated as it rolled 600 feet, with Muldowney strapped in her seat inside the roll cage. Her legs were shattered, and her pelvis, hands and three fingers were broken. Her right thumb was nearly severed. Her wounds were full of dirt, debris and grease. "It took them six hours to clean me with wire brushes before they could operate that night," she says. "I was not awake, of course."
The next morning a friend came into the hospital room. Muldowney looked up with crimson eyeballs through the tubes and slings attached to her and said, "Not doin' too bad for a little s—-, huh?"
For the next 7� weeks, doctors at Montreal General Hospital did their best to put Muldowney back together. "I owe the paramedics at the track and the doctors in Montreal my life, I owe them everything," she says. The specter of infection and amputation hung like an evil spirit over her bed, and to compound her agony, morphine had little effect—it would be months before doctors found an effective painkiller she could take. In August she returned to her home in Mt. Clemens, Mich., with Rahn Tobler, her crew chief, fianc� and nurse-to-be. There were 17 pins in her legs—structural supports and anchors for the stainless steel braces that held the limbs together.
That's when the real pain began—the misery and frustration of therapy and rehabilitation—and the depression of facing the future. "When I looked down at my ankle and could see out the other side, I went, 'Blah, it is over,' " she says. "The whole world had fallen apart in a matter of seconds." Over the next year there would be five more operations, including a bone graft and skin graft. "They took a huge slab off my thigh. Looked like hamburger. Oh, let me tell you I cried." While her legs were in casts, a four-inch section of her right tibia shifted and healed crooked. When that was discovered, Tobler called Indy Car owner Roger Penske to inquire about the treatment his driver, Rick Mears, had gotten for his crushed feet after a crash the same year on the oval track at the same Sanair Speedway. Penske referred Tobler to Dr. Terry Trammell of Indianapolis. Tobler loaded Muldowney and her wheelchair into their van one frigid January day and drove her to Indy.
"When I saw him I fell in love," says Muldowney. "I knew I was in good hands. The first thing he said to me was he was amazed at my tiny, fragile bones."
By then, Muldowney and Tobler had come to grips with the question of whether she would return to racing. "For the longest time after the crash I was totally negative," Tobler says. "I didn't want to look at a race car ever again." But one day in December '84 he had wheeled Shirley to a shopping mall to get her hair done. "I'd already been pushing him about coming back," Muldowney recalls, "and on this day I was kind of cranky. I was hurting. We were having lunch and I wouldn't let it go. Suddenly he said, 'Well all right goddammit, if that's what you want, we'll do it.' "
"That's what made her well," Tobler says. "She was motivated from that moment on."
When Muldowney ran out of painkillers, she quit cold turkey. She clung to sleeping pills a while longer, however. "But Rahn kind of ragged me about them," she says, so she's taken the last one of those, too.
She answered 4,700 get-well letters during her rehabilitation, handwriting each reply with the pen gripped in her fist, since three fingers in her right hand had been broken by the steering yoke when it was yanked out of her hands.