According to Phil Burgess writing in National Dragster, Paula Murphy was the first woman to be granted an NHRA license to drive a nitro-fueled car of any kind—in her case, a Funny Car. For Paula, however, that was not her first go around the block.
Paula, from Granada Hills, California, got her racing start at Pomona of all places but not on the drag strip. Her first recorded race was on the old road course that went down the strip and under the bridge before looping back. The first entry I could find was January 31, 1959, when she raced an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider for John E. English. She did okay but by 1961-62 she was in her stride and recorded several first and many second places. Mostly she was driving the Adam-Mitchell Special but the list of rides included Porsche 550, 356 and a 718 RSK entered by Vasek Polak.
In an interview with Andy Kirk for drcreview.com, Paula recalled the next big turning point in her career, “I got a call from Bill Dredge, who was Automotive Editor for the LA Times, and he said, ‘How would you like to drive a car coast-to-coast, border-to-border, and set some speed records? I can’t tell you who it’s for, but would you like to do it?’ I said I’d love to, and he asked if I’d like to recommend another lady to accompany me, so I referred him to Barbara Nieland, with whom I began sports car racing.” A week later Paula got a call from Andy Granatelli that resulted in driving a Studebaker Avanti coast-to-coast for the Ford Transcontinental Speed record. In total, the pair set four transcontinental speed records.
In 1963, she and Barbara made their first trip to Bonneville and driving a range of Studebakers set over 360 production car records. Andy then asked Paula if she wanted to go for a land speed record. “Sure.” She replied and took a Hawk to 154 mph and an Avanti to 161 mph saying, “That was quite a thrill.”
Her next ride was a little more than thrilling as it was behind the wheel of Walt Arfon’s 10,000 horsepower, J-46 jet-powered ‘Avenger’. She remembered, “When I turned up on the salt, I’d never seen it, let alone driven it. I had to sit with a pillow behind me so I could reach the pedals, which meant that my head was sticking out of the cockpit, and at over 200mph the pressure on your neck muscles is incredible.” On November 12, 1964, Paula went 243.44 mph saying, “That was a scary ride.”
Undeterred, Paula tried her hand at Indy becoming the first woman to drive alone there doing test laps at more than 100 mph in a Studebaker Novi racecar. Arfon’s meanwhile, was running his jet car at drag strips and Paula became intrigued, saying, “I got interested in that form of racing as it was something I hadn’t tried.” Her first outing was in 1965 driving an Olds 4-4-2 prepared by Dick Landy. Her competitive best was 12.46 at 110 mph.
The step up to a Funny Car came quickly after a chance meeting with ‘Fat Jack’ Bynum. Jack built the chassis and the 392 Hemi, they used a Mustang body sans windshield and Granatelli provided the STP sponsorship. The car and Paula became ‘Miss STP’. Tom ‘The Mongoose’ McEwen, then president of the United Drag Racers Association, welcomed her and presided over her licensing at Lions and Don ‘Big Daddy’ Garlits signed off.
Miss STP—both the woman and the car—was a crowd pleaser but the NHRA was not so pleased and in late-’67 rescinded her license. Granatelli, a big sponsor, stepped in and consequently her license was reinstated but not before the team lost a few bookings. The following year saw her dip into the sevens and break 200 mph. For the 1969 season, Paula purchased a Barracuda Funny Car built by Don Hardy and spent most of the year match racing around the Midwest—where the money was.
Paula’s association with STP continued and in 1971 she was invited to Talladega Superspeedway to drive the STP Dodge stock car of Freddie Lorenzen, with which she broke the NASCAR women’s closed-course record at 171.499 mph. The team got a new Duster-bodied Funny Car that not only toured the country but also went to England in 1973, along with Don Schumacher, as part of a three-weekend trip organized by Tony Nancy. In her interview with Kirk she remembered, “My race suit was made up in the STP colors of red, white and blue with added frills to give it a touch of femininity, but I remember one small child coming up to me in the pits and saying to me, ‘Excuse me, but are you a clown?’” The Plymouth was sold in England where it became ‘Houndog’.
Upon her return to the U.S., Murphy pursued a new assignment as a rocket-car driver of Ky Michaelson's hydrogen-peroxide-fueled rocket dragster. Unfortunately, on her first-ever pass at Sears Point Raceway, “Nothing Worked. The engine wouldn’t shut off, the parachute ripped off the back of the car, and I went flying off the end of the drag strip at 258 mph.” She made it through a gate but assended a hill and went up in the air about 90 feet before reentering the atmosphere. It didn’t roll, it went end-over-end and the car was doubled up, as it had been brought to a screeching halt from around 300mph. Paula recalled the experience, “I knew I was dead, and remember seeing blue sky.”
Many people would hang it up there and for Paula it was the end of really fast cars, nevertheless, Paula set a record for an around-the-world Bicentennial drive, drove one of Richard Petty’s stock cars around Alabama at 172.336 mph and returned to drag racing with a B/Modified Datsun in 1976. She also raced a FWD Z/Stock Honda Civic before retiring.
Paula was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1992, was Grand Marshall of the California Hot Rod Reunion in 2004 and was inducted into the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2016. Call her what you like: Miss STP, Fastest Woman on Wheels, or the World’s Fastest Woman Driver, Paula Murphy experienced it all and blazed a path for not just for women but for all would-be racecar drivers.
By Tony Thacker