I don’t know what I was expecting when I sat down to read Shirley Shahan: The Drag-On Lady by Patrick Foster, but I have to admit that I was delightfully surprised. Here was a photo-heavy book about one of drag racing’s most badass women, and her life story was incredible.
Welcome to Women in Motorsport Monday, where we share the stories of the badass women who have conquered the racing scene throughout the years — and to the people who are making it happen today.
Shahan was born into a family of racers, and she spent her childhood learning how to drive and serving as mechanic for her father at the race track. She started drag racing in high school, married a mechanic, and began touring local race tracks. She and her husband started a family, maintained regular jobs, and went racing on the weekends.
I’ll be honest: I think one of my favorite things about Shahan was that motherhood and marrying a racer didn’t take away from her career the way it did for so many other women in motorsport. I’ve seen so many stories of women who married a competitor that expected her to immediately retire and focus on him, or of women who kicked ass until getting pregnant with her first child. And while both of those are admirable decisions — committing oneself to other people is never easy —it’s always been a somewhat disappointing denouement to careers that otherwise would have continued on for years.
But that’s not what happened with Shahan. Her husband, H. L., stepped back from active competition when he realized his wife could easily best his times on the drag strip — he instead focused his attention on becoming a master of fine-tuning engine performance. Shahan’s pregnancies, too, failed to stop her, and there’s a great story in The Drag-On Lady that illustrates it best: One of her male competitors, already upset to be beaten by a woman, became visibly distraught when Shahan exited the car with an obvious baby bump.
And her accomplishments were numerous. She was the very first person to take victory at the inaugural March Meet, beating 40 men — and countless high-profile names — in the process. She was a regular winner at local events. And she also secured sponsorships from big-name companies like Chrysler and AMC. During her tenure, she earned the nickname The Drag-On Lady.
Another exceptional fact about Shahan? She maintained her full-time job at the SoCal Gas Company while racing. She knew her passion wouldn’t bring in the money she needed to support her family, so she stayed on with the company for over 30 years.
Shahan retired from competition in 1972. At the time, her husband had been offered a full-time job building racing engines, which meant that he was no longer available to help her tune her own engine before events. She’d been competing for the better part of two decades at that point, and she was ready for a slower pace of life and to focus on raising a family.
The full story of her life and accomplishments is fascinating — more so than my brief summary can describe. But if you’re in the mood for a quick-read book about one of motorsport’s coolest women, try The Drag-On Lady by Patrick Foster.