Drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney, who first learned her craft on the streets of Schenectady in the 1950s, is slated to undergo surgery today to remove her right lung as she fights Stage II lung cancer, the 75-year-old announced on her website and social media Tuesday.
Muldowney will have the surgery at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in downtown Charlotte, N.C., in what is expected to be a five-hour procedure.
“I urge everyone to keep up with their health and get chest X-rays as often as possible to make sure they are OK,” Muldowney said on her website. “I’m a fighter, always have been, and I’m going to fight this as best I can with everything I got. Dr. [Harold] Howe is the No. 1 guy in the business, and he’s as ready as I am to get this thing out of me.
“I’m ready for the pain to stop. It’s been getting worse the last few weeks as they did biopsies and the pre-op stress tests to make sure I was strong enough to have the surgery. Everything is good, so we’re getting it done.”
Muldowney was born in Burlington, Vermont, and grew up in Schenectady. She drag-raced on city streets, along with the other kids in the area where she grew up.
She started racing at Fonda in 1959 when the track opened an eighth-mile drag strip in a dragster built by her then-husband, Jack, whom she met at the track.
“Fonda was the only drag strip opened at the time,” Muldowney said in the early 2000s. “We used to turn the car around by the cow palace and come back down in the front of the grandstands back to the starting line.”
Muldowney raced at both Fonda and Lebanon Valley dragways early in her career.
In 1965, she became the first woman to earn a National Hot Rod Association license.
After racing gas dragsters she switched to funny cars and left the Schenectady area, and won her first major race in 1971. In 1977, she won the NHRA Top Fuel championship after becoming the first driver in the class to win three consecutive national events. In doing so, she became the first woman to win a major motorsports title anywhere in the world.
Muldowney also won Top Fuel crowns 1980 and 1982, and the AHRA Top Fuel championship in 1981. She was severely injured in a 1984 crash in Montreal, and did not return to racing until 1986. She earned her 18th and final win in 1989.
In 2004, Muldowney became just the second woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
“I look back at this, and the past 40 years have been like a cakewalk,” Muldowney said at the time.
Muldowney was the subject of the 1983 movie “Heart Like a Wheel” starring Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges.
“The fans have always been what’s kept me going,” she said on her website announcing her surgery, “and I’m sure people will be concerned about me now.
“Well don’t be; I’ll be fine. There are still a lot of things left I want to do.”
Reach Executive Sports Editor Mark McGuire at 395-3105, [email protected] or @MJMcGuire on Twitter.