Shirley Muldowney Documentary: Why Is the American Auto Racer Nicknamed Cha Cha?

FS1 and the FOX Sports app recently released a documentary titled Shirley, that showcased the adrenaline-fueled life and career of Shirley Muldowney. Shirley Muldowney was once a highly skilled American auto racer. Furthermore, she became the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to drive a Top Fuel dragster. In addition, she fought discrimination and reached immense stardom in a sport dominated by men.

Throughout her career, Shirley had two prominent nicknames: “First Lady of Drag Racing” and “Cha Cha.” However, only a handful know the true origin of the latter.

Interestingly, in the aforementioned documentary, Muldowney revealed how she got the name “Cha Cha.” The auto racer explained that she might have been mistaken for an Hispanic. One thing led to another and “Cha Cha” stuck.

Shirley Muldowney said, “We went to Sanford, Maine, and the tech people putting class numbers on windows with shoe polish. When it was my turn, here I come up with the big dark hair and the gold, always gold earrings. And for some reason, I think he thought I might have been Hispanic or something. I don’t know … but he said, ‘Cha Cha’ and he wrote it with the shoe polish on the window of the car.”

Furthermore, she added that drag racer Tommy Ivo advised her to stick with the name. Muldowney recalled, “Tommy Ivo said, ‘Keep the name and paint it pink’ only because nicknames were synonymous with the sport. It exacerbated the irritation for the racers. Not only were they getting beat by somebody named Shirley, they’re getting their butt kicked by somebody named Cha Cha. And that was horrible.”

Shirley synopsis

According to NHRA’s official website reads, “Shirley is the true, unfiltered story of the inimitable Shirley Muldowney. Salty, sassy, and unflappable, Muldowney crushed stereotypes and became an integral part of the gritty, golden age of drag racing. Her aggressive approach fueled intense rivalries, passionate fan reaction, and occasional caustic headlines but never derailed her quest to be a champion.”

It further reads, “She’d be the first woman to earn a license to drive a Top Fuel dragster, first woman to win a professional racing championship, and the first driver to win three Top Fuel championships. Her journey came with great personal costs, but her perseverance proved women could race equally with men. Controversial, inspirational, and fiercely honest — there is only one Shirley, and luckily, she was up to the challenge.”

Shirley will air again on FS2 on Wedensday, March 27, 2024, at 2 p.m. ET.

How old is Shirley Muldowney now and when did she debut

Shirley Muldowney is currently 83 years old. She made her debut on the dragstrip of the Fonda Speedway in 1958.

In a 2014 interview with Mandatory, Muldowney explained that modern drag racing is nothing like it was when she was active. She stated, “It’s changed in leaps and bounds. Its very ego-driven. The TV has made, at least in their minds, they think they’re household names, but the majority of them, 98% of them, you could see their name outside the circles of drag racing and nobody would know who they are. That’s not a putdown.”

She continued, “That’s just simply the way it is. In the motor sports world, we have more than our share of superstars. Our people are equally as good as the Nascar group. Our people are dedicated. They are talented. They are spoiled. Andt they are ego-driven and there’s a good number of them that I can count on more than two hands that are really, great people who would do anything for you.”

In the same interview, she reflected on her first first world title and how amazing she felt to prove the naysayers wrong. She stated, “I stuck it to my critics long before I won that, truthfully. It was not only what we did, its how we did it. It wasn’t a countdown, crapshoot, mind you.

She further stated “It was a series of x number of races, x number of points races that we were forced to run by the NHRA. That’s how they set it up back then. It was x number of points, if who ever had the most points, wins, etc at the end of the year, that was your world champion and that’s the way it should be. I licensed for Top Fuel in 74′ and three years later, I was world champion. You can’t argue with that. The thing about it was, is that I had it won in Indy. I had it sewed up at the U.S. Nationals so that makes Indy even more special to me.”

The 1983 film, Heart Like a Wheel, is based on Muldowney’s life and career. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, Bonnie Bedelia portrayed her role in the movie. Its producers were Lamar Card, Marty Katz, Charles Roven and more.


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