NGK Spark Plugs: Mancini Sells Them and Shirley Wins with Them


The pairing of NGK Spark Plugs, Inc. and the “First Lady of Drag Racing” Shirley Muldowney proved to be a winning combination. NGK is a world leader in technology, development, and first-class quality designed spark plugs and oxygen sensors. Muldowney was a trailblazer for women in automotive sports and remains a big supporter of drag racing.

Muldowney, a winner of 18 National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) national events and the victor of four drag race championships, started racing as many youths do. She first began street racing in Schenectady, New York, running various cars prepped by her first husband, Jack Muldowney.

Above: In 1983, at the height of her career, Playboy magazine ran a pair of NGK Spark Plugs advertisements with Shirley Muldowney as the spokeswoman. At the time, Muldowney was the reigning three-time NHRA Top Fuel Champion. 

She eventually moved to the drag strip, where she raced a B/Gas dragster, then a supercharged BB/Gas dragster, and finally stepped up to a Top Gas dragster running in the AA/Gas class. With the Top Gas eliminator’s popularity fading, Muldowney purchased a used nitro funny car (AA/FC) from Connie Kalitta.

In 1971, she won the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Southern Nationals with Jack Muldowney handling the tune-up. However, her desire to run nitro and Jack’s waning interest slowly ended her first marriage, and by 1972, she relocated to Detroit to be closer to the automotive manufacturers.

Above: Muldowney experienced several fires with her previous Funny Cars. Her 1973 Satellite was her last funny car. The 70s Funny Cars all looked similar to the factory car they were supposed to represent. While the cars were cool, this era also was known for serious fires. 

Kalitta, in his Bounty Hunter Mustang and Muldowney, in her matching Bounty Huntress Mustang, teamed up to match race around the Midwest. Muldowney’s match race experience helped her at national events. However, Muldowney, just like many competitors in that era, had several funny car fires. At one event, the Mustang burned to the ground.

An older Don Schumacher Plymouth was pulled out of storage, reshot in the Bounty Huntress paint scheme, and loaned to Muldowney to meet her on-track match race obligations. By 1973, Muldowney was racing a new Plymouth Satellite in which she had yet another severe fire.

Above: The Satellite did not escape the dreaded engine failures and fire. A few more runs were put on the Satellite after this fire, but Muldowney’s days in the “hot seat” were coming to an end.

As a result of the multiple fires, Muldowney became the first woman to license for Top Fuel eliminator in 1974. In a rear-engine Top Fuel dragster, Muldowney would not be exposed to the wicked nitro fires she experienced in her Funny Car. With Kalitta as the crew chief, she won her first NHRA Top Fuel race in 1976 at the Winston World Finals. Kalitta’s continued engine tuning helped Muldowney become the first woman to win an NHRA National Championship in 1977.

After a falling out with Kalitta, Muldowney was competitive in 1978 and 1979. Then, in 1980, Muldowney’s team, which consisted of her son, John, and then-fiancée Rahn Tobler, jelled. With their help, she became the first Top Fuel driver to win two NHRA Championships. In 1981, she won the AHRA Championship, and in 1982, she earned her third NHRA Championship. That was four championships in six years.

Above: Muldowney was the first woman to earn an NHRA Top Fuel license. The move to Top Fuel relocated Muldowney to a position in front of the engine, which reduced the chances of fire-related injury.

In 1983 at the pinnacle of her career, NGK ran several ads in Playboy magazine explaining that if its plugs are good enough for multi-time champion Muldowney, they are good enough for you. Also, in 1983, Muldowney was so popular the movie Heart Like a Wheel was made about her life.

In 1984, Muldowney suffered a severe accident while attempting to qualify for the NHRA Grandnationals at Sanair International Dragstrip in Montreal, Canada, which sidelined her for almost two years. When Muldowney returned to the driver’s seat, she focused on IHRA races with a sprinkling of NHRA events thrown in.

Above: In 1977, Muldowney won her first of three NHRA Championships. The pink dragster was around in the late rounds at many races in the late-70s and early-80s. A second NHRA Championship was earned in 1980. A third followed in 1982. An AHRA Championship was achieved in 1981.

Most of this time, Muldowney ran her operation without significant sponsorship. By 2003, she permanently vacated the driver’s seat, but nobody that ever saw her on track performances will forget the sleek pink competitive dragsters that ruled the strip for thirty years.

During Muldowney’s career, she experienced plenty of challenges, but her tenacity led her to a list of firsts that could fill a book. As a result, she is in multiple halls of fame, and she was voted #5 in the NHRA Top 50 Racers of its first fifty years.

Above: Muldowney in deep concentration before a pass in her dragster. Many of her competitors felt she was one of the most natural and talented drivers in Top Fuel. Muldowney, since her days with the Plymouth Funny Cars, worked with Direct Connection. By the 1980s, Muldowney continued to win, but she was now winning with NGK Spark Plugs.

In 1966, NGK Spark Plugs (USA), Inc., was founded as a subsidiary of NGK Spark Plug Co., Ltd., of Japan, established in 1936. NGK has offices in Wixom, Michigan, and the company produces spark plugs and oxygen sensors in its Sissonville, West Virginia, assembly plant.

With the advent of electric vehicles (EVs), which do not use spark plugs or oxygen sensors, NGK has shifted its focus to include solid-state batteries, which utilize the expertise of a subsidiary company’s ceramics knowledge.

Above: After a devastating accident in 1984, Muldowney was sidelined for almost two years. When she returned to the driver’s seat, she focused on IHRA races. While she never again experienced the same level of success she had before the accident, she did manage to continue racing competitively until her retirement in 2003.

NGK Spark Plugs are used in a variety of racing sanctioning bodies. The plugs are sourced by some teams in Formula One, IndyCar Series, and NHRA. When it comes to motorcycle racing, NGK Spark Plugs are exclusively supplied to MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3, and the Superbike World Championship teams.

If you need a set of fresh plugs for your Mopar, consider NGK Spark Plugs. Mancini Racing has dozens of designs to meet your requirements. Check out Mancini for the NGK Standard Series, V-Power, Laser Platinum, Iridium IX, G-Power Platinum, or Race plugs for your engine. If they are good enough for Muldowney’s Hemi, you know they are more than adequate for your ride.


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Chris Holley

Technical Contributor Chris has been a college professor for 25 years; at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA. for the last 20 years. Chris instructs automotive classes in HVAC, electrical/electronics, and high-performance, including using a chassis dyno, flow benches, and various machining equipment. Recently, he added a vintage vehicle upholstery class to his teaching assignments. Chris owns a '67 Dart, a '75 Dart, a '06 Charger, and a '12 Cummins turbo diesel Ram, and he is a multi-time track champion (drag racing) with his '69 340 Dart, which he has owned for 34 years.

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