The night Shirley Muldowney, a little bit of a baby, was born, her father, Belgium Benedict Roque, a bear of a man, fought his next-to-last professional fight. He won by a TKO, just in time to rush home and take his wife, Mae, to the hospital to deliver their daughter. Belgium—he called himself "Tex Rock"—had a gentle streak and a mean streak. He played the violin; he lost his temper and decked people.
Tex Rock had a fist "like this," Shirley will say, holding up her small hands as if there were a volleyball in them. "I remember very little about my young years. Very little. But I do remember this. I was about six and my sister was eight and we were sitting at the kitchen table with my mother. We were all crying. My father was in jail. He had hit someone. Each of us had a piggy bank. He needed money. He was in trouble. I remember those days."
When Shirley was eight, she was a shy little girl whose legs were "this big around," she says, holding her fingers up as if she were squeezing a pop bottle in them. "She was very tiny, so tiny," says Mae. "Her father encouraged her to learn the accordion. It was bigger than she was. Shirley couldn't even carry it."
The Roques lived in an apartment on the wrong side of the tracks in Schenectady, N.Y. Tex drove a taxi all day and Mae worked in a laundry, so Shirley was on her own a lot. "I went to a tough school where I got my ass kicked every single day," she says. So Tex told her, "Here's what you do: You pick up a board, you pick up a pipe, you pick up a brick, and you part their hair with it." Says Mae, "She was real interested, and she went along with it. There was no more coming home beat up. She went out and took care of herself. She was all thrilled."
When Shirley was 13, she began cutting classes at the school she hated. When she was 15, her favorite class was mechanical drawing because the teacher let her sneak out the window and climb down the fire escape to a coffee shop around the corner, where she would meet her boyfriend. Jack Muldowney, the best hot-rodder around. At home nights she would stay up in her pajamas until Tex would say, "Shirley, I think it's time you went to bed now." So Shirley would go up to her bedroom, and wait until she heard the rumble of Jack's '51 Mercury outside—Tex would also hear the hot rod, but he'd pretend not to—and Shirley would sneak out with Jack, still in her pajamas. They would go out to Depot Road and race other hot-rodders until the lights in the farmhouses came on, soon followed by the headlights of the police, who would chase them all away.
In the summer of 1956 Shirley had just turned 16 and gotten her learner's permit. "Jack's car was this Rebel Without a Cause Mercury. Beautiful. Three-speed. Column shift. I had had my permit about a week, and Jack put me behind the wheel. I remember we were alongside this '56 Oldsmobile on Route 9. We came to this long stretch of road with a wide curve to it. Jack said, 'I'm just going to rest my hand on the steering wheel.' I was going 120."
She quit high school and married Muldowney that year. She was driving through the countryside one day and glanced in a barn and there, a beam of sunshine across its hood, was the car she wanted: a '40 Ford coupe. She bought it for $40. "Jack put a Cadillac engine in it for me," she says. "Guys heard about this, and they would come from Amsterdam, Glens Falls, Albany. I'd race them, and when I'd turn around they'd be going the other way. It was very satisfying.
"I'd say the first time I ever took my life in my own hands and got away with it was when I really appreciated what I thought I was capable of."
What Shirley Muldowney, now 41, 5'4" and 108 pounds and sometimes described by reporters as "sultry," was capable of is drag-racing history. She is the only driver to have won the National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel class world championship twice, first in 1977 and again last year. Don (Big Daddy) Garlits, who was the sport's preeminent figure in the '60s and '70s, has won it once, in 1975. She has won 11 Top Fuel national races, second only to the 49-year-old Garlits' 21, and he is all but retired from racing. And she has made more sub-six-second runs (64 through 1980) and over-250-mph runs (six) in NHRA nationals than any other driver.
"I'll tell you a story that says all you need to know about Shirley," says Richard Tharp, the 1976 Top Fuel champion. With Garlits pretty much out of the picture, Tharp is one of the few drivers with a good chance of beating Muldowney at a national, and he's the only one with a tongue as spirited as hers. Says Tharp, "One time me and Garlits were standing around together at a race, just sort of leaning against the truck and talking, and Shirley comes up to us. She was mad about something. She points her finger in our faces and shakes it and shouts, 'You bleepbleepers better start treating me like a lady!' "