By Eilene Lyon — November 12, 2019
On this date 55 years ago, drag racer Paula Murphy broke her own land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats, with a two-run average speed of 227.36 miles per hour, to become “the fastest woman on wheels.” The previous year, 1963, she hit over 160 mph in a stock Studebaker Avanti. Her 1964 runs were made in a 10,000-horsepower jet car. She would go on to break other barriers in the male-dominated sport of auto racing.
A native of Ohio, born Paula Louise Muhlhauser, she received a bachelor’s degree in physical education. Though a sports enthusiast, auto racing held no interest for Murphy until she moved to California in the 1950s. She became intrigued when a “ladies” race was announced at the sports car track in Santa Barbara. Watching races bored her, but participation held allure. After buying a used 1954 MG (to drive to work), racing became more than just a hobby.
Before racing professionally, Murphy spent seven years on the Saturn S-IVB missile project as an engineering aide creating visual representations from rocket test data. She also worked for an auto company as a test driver and in the chemicals department.
She was the first woman to drive a race car at the Indianapolis speedway, the first one licensed to drive a funny car, the first to break the standing-start 200 mph barrier – in 7.55 seconds.
In 1970, she was the only woman on Andy Granatelli’s STP racing team, receiving equal billing with Mario Andretti. In the Union Oil trials at Daytona Beach that year, she was the only female driver and won four of the six classes she competed in. At Talladega in 1971, she broke NASCAR’s closed-course speed record for women by 23 mph.
At one point, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) tried to revoke her license. “They said super stocks were too dangerous…but I threatened a lawsuit and they changed their minds,” she said in March 1973. The risk didn’t seem to faze her.
An experimental rocket-powered car nearly ended not only her career, but her life, in September 1973. Driving at the Winter Nationals at the Sears Point raceway near San Francisco, she attempted to break her 258-mph quarter-mile record.
During the exhibition run, the rocket throttle jammed and she hurtled close to 300 mph. When her chute deployed it ripped a chunk from the rear of the dragster, sending the vehicle cartwheeling for nearly three-quarters of a mile. She walked away from the wreckage, but with several cracked vertebrae in her neck. She spent many months in a cast.
Murphy, despite her daredevil feats, was known for putting safety first. She lost her mother, an uncle, and her sister-in-law to auto accidents, and believed they would have lived had they used seatbelts. With Barbara Nieland, she won four cross-country endurance driving records – at legal speed limits. When she learned about child safety seats being produced by the American Safety Equipment corporation, she was quick to help promote the devices.
“I wouldn’t drive to the corner without a seatbelt. That’s why when I’m out driving and I see a mother with a child on the seat and another standing up, I just cringe” she was quoted as saying in a 1975 article in the Dayton Daily News.
The Motorsports Hall of Fame inducted Paula Murphy in the drag racing class in 2017. She retired from drag racing in 1976 at age 47, by that time having lost most of her hearing due to the “deafening roar” of race car engines.
Feature image: 50th anniversary NHRA finals at Pomona, California by ATOMIC Hot Links at Flickr (used with permission).
Britt, Bloys. “Paula Murphy: Fastest Woman on Wheels: Twice held speed marks at Bonneville, Utah.” The Terre Haute Tribune-Star, July 12, 1970, p. 48.
“Deafening Roar: Stock-car decibel level is driving the ear crazy.” The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia), February 18, 1978, p. 21.
Hefley, Linda. “Don’t let Paula Murphy’s looks fool you.” Dayton Daily News, January 12, 1975, p. 66.
Hower, George. “Meet Paula Murphy – World’s fastest woman: Clear skies expected for Sears Point drag races.” The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, California), September 23, 1973, p. 33.
Olsen, Eddie. “Women’s lib pioneer revs up movement.” The Philadelphia Enquirer, March 30, 1973, p. 30.
Osgood, Nancy. “She’s a whiz behind the wheel.” Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida), February 15, 1964, p. 16.
“Paula is leaving hospital.” Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, California), October 6, 1973 pp. 11-12.
“Paula Murphy breaks own land speed mark.” Calgary Herald, November 13, 1964, p. 18.
“Sears Point driver hurt: Paula Murphy’s car goes off the track.” Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, California), September 24, 1973, p. 28.
Stockbridge, Dorothy. “Fastest woman driver stops here.” The Tampa Tribune, February 7, 1964, p. 29.
White, Karen. “Paula Murphy: She’s a lady and the Fastest Woman on Wheels.” Santa Maria Times (Santa Maria, California), January 30, 1973, p. 9.