After losing the battle with Shirley Muldowney for the 1976 NHRA Top Fuel Championship, Don Garlits famously said to Sports Illustrated “Not to be a male chauvinist, but women are the weaker of the two sexes and need to be protected by men while they’re carrying the babies. I don’t understand these women like Muldowney who want to prove they’re as good as men. I wouldn’t want my wife sticking her hands down in an engine changing red hot pistons, getting her fingers all cut up and dirty. How can a woman expose herself to that … and all the rough talk around a race track, and still be feminine?”
Since then, of course, and in spite of Garlits’ overly chauvinistic view, many women have followed in Muldowney’s winning footsteps – so many in fact, that it is old news and no longer a relevant story. And in professional drag racing, where Top Fuel Dragsters were once one of the most fearsome and dangerous of all race cars back when the engine was (almost) always in front of the driver, the so-called “kings of the sport” are today one of the safest, (relatively speaking, of course,) and some might argue, bland, forms of racing.
But put the engine back in front of the driver, and the modern-day Top Fuel Dragster again morphs into the somewhat unpredictable, highly intimidating, dangerous, hot oil and fire spewing monsters they used to be.
Today, not one woman comes to mind as having driven front engined FUEL dragsters during the heady days of 50’s and 60’s Top Fuel Racing, and certainly, there were not any women winning in them. With the cars so dangerous, it was the domain of the era’s stereotypical male: fearless, brave, and someone who must win at all costs. Indeed, at a 1969 White House visit and car display when the greatest racers of the year met President Nixon, Mario Andretti peered into the cockpit of Garlit’s front motored car and famously asked, “where do you put the balls?”
Mr. Andretti might be surprised to learn that a woman, in only her second full season, dominated the only place left where you can still witness and enjoy front-engine Top Fuel cars competing: the NHRA Heritage Series. Mendy Fry, a second generation racer, teamed with tuner and team owner Tom Shelar to deliver a crushing blow to her male competitors for the 2018 NHRA Heritage Series Championship.
Jason Rupert’s drag racing career has been a storybook tale.
The multi-time Nostalgia Funny Car champion will soon begin writing another chapter. https://t.co/1TjnqWJk54
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) October 26, 2018
If the fine art of driving a professional NHRA Fuel Car no longer exists (the crew chiefs can – and often do – remotely shut the cars off before the finish line, rendering a good driver’s instinctive feel and awareness of an engine in the process of damaging itself, no longer relevant, among many other automated things…), here in the Heritage Series, and especially in the Top Fuel Dragster class, such talent is required to stay alive, just like in the old days. If you think you’re going to drive it to the finish line while the engine is in the process of eating itself and expect your crew chief to save you, well guess what? They can’t. Which makes this class the last great thing in Fuel Racing. Yes, here, the drivers still drive. Alone. For a quarter mile, too. It’s Fuel Racing the way Wally, and the Nitro God if there is one, intended it to be. Add to the mix a bunch of ego driven, ballsy men who just had their asses utterly kicked in the most demoralizing way by a woman and her team, (Shelar and Fry set low ET of every single round, during both qualifying AND eliminations); then you have a story. Maybe even THE story.
It wasn’t all champagne for Fry this year, though. Early on, it was beer. Flat warm beer. Fry lost the final round at the season’s kick off, the March Meet, from the driver’s seat by crossing the centerline on an admittingly very cold and difficult track, and it didn’t sit well. But like all very good drivers, she rebounded in a strong way, winning the next race in Bowling Green by out driving one of the men’s men in the final, Jimi Young. Young arguably had the car to beat in Bowling Green, but this time, it was he who was unable to keep his machine in the groove in the final, spinning the tires just enough to let Mendy by for the win. Boise was the season’s third race, and Shelar and Fry again stomped their dominance on the field for their second win in a row. Tulsa was next, but a forecast of heavy rain for the weekend influenced the track to cancel the race two days before it was to begin, leaving Shelar and Fry Champions with one race, the California Hot Rod Reunion remaining. And just to make sure everyone knew who is best this year, they went out and promptly won the Reunion too.
Some grumbled that a four-race Championship was something of a joke, but the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello TF Champion, Stevie Torrance, just wrapped up his first championship in only five races – out of six total (which count for the championship,) so the argument that the Heritage Championship is a meaningless joke is hard to make. Unless, of course, you also want to call the countdown a meaningless joke too.
The rules and opportunities are the same for everyone, so pretty much anyone who honestly wins a championship deserves it. It’s a huge understatement to say that Shelar put the dominating car on the race track. And it’s also an understatement to say that Mendy Fry has the potential to be the most exciting and promotable champion the Heritage Series has had in a long time, if ever. She is everything the sport needs – focused, grounded, humble, classy, and well spoken.
And she is the perfect person – and she should be the one – to tell Mr. Andretti where the balls go in front engined Top Fuel dragsters. The fact that she wouldn’t even hesitate says all you need to know about Mendy Fry. She knows exactly where they go.