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Miss STP recalls an amazing racing career
For those who remember the 1973 US drag racing invasion at Santa Pod, Paula Murphy, or Miss STP as she was dubbed, and her STP-backed Plymouth funny car will be familiar to you. Alongside Don Schumacher, the pair (and the late Tony Nancy) left an indelible impression on all who attended the 4th Internationals, when US-style funny car action exploded on to the UK drag racing scene for the first time ever. For Paula, though, it was just another event in a truly amazing racing career. DRCReview caught up with this remarkable woman, who set no fewer than 360 world speed records, to find out more about her career and her account of that ’73 UK trip.
How did you get involved in motor racing?
"I started sports car racing when I was about 24 years old. I had some friends where I worked in the aerospace industry and they had a very active sportscar club. My girlfriend and her husband were members of this club and she invited me to come to the races saying, “you’ll really enjoy it.” I thought this must be the most boring thing I’ve ever seen in my life. When they announced they were going to have a ladies’ race, I thought no way can these women be ladies, but then I met a guy who owned an Alfa Romeo and I got to realise that there were guys and girls who really loved racing. I thought “I can do that,” and he offered me his car to drive and I won my first race – not overall, but first in class. One thing led to another, and before long I got to race a Porsche RS, a Birdcage Maserati and a Ferrari. I won my first race overall in a Ferrari at Riverside.
winning at Riverside
How did you start your association with Andy Granatelli and STP?
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 Neiland, with whom I began sports car racing.
About a week later, I got a call and found out it was with Studebaker and Andy Granatelli, who later moved to STP. Andy had prepared the car – it was a Studebaker Avanti – and we went with another driver, Bill Carroll, who was editor of another automotive journal, coast-to-coast, border-to-border, and set four transcontinental speed records.
Then we went to Bonneville with Studebaker in 1963, and set over 360 production car records in a range of new models. Andy asked me if I wanted to go faster and go for a land speed record. I said “sure”, so they put me in a Studebaker Hawk and I went 154mph for the flying mile. Then he put me in the Avanti and I went 161mph. That was quite a thrill, and Bonneville was great.
Paula & Barbara set a 1,000 mile record in this 6 cylinder Studebaker Lark of 100.31mph on a huge circular course at Bonneville
Paula set the women's land speed record at 161mph in this Avanti in 1964
I got to go even faster on the salt a year later, at the wheel of Walt Arfons’ jet dragster called “The Avenger”, setting a new record at 243.44mph to take the world land speed record for women. That was a scary ride.
The thing developed 10,000hp and I’d never seen it, let alone driven it, when I turned up on the salt. 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. Anyway, we got the record, so that ended well.
Didn’t you drive a car at Indianapolis?
Yes, I was the first woman to drive alone at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a racing car, which was a major achievement at the time. It was in a supercharged Studebaker Novi race car, and I set test laps with an average speed of over 100 mph.
Paula at Indy - the first woman to drive the track in a race car
How did you get in to drag racing?
It sort of followed on from me driving the jet car. Walt used that car at drag meetings, and I got interested in that form of racing as it was something I hadn’t tried. I first drag raced an Oldsmobile 4-4-2 prepared by Dick Landy in 1965/66, before switching over to a funny car. The Olds managed a best of 12.46 at 110mph, which was very competitive at the time.
Did you have any problems obtaining a licence?
I was the first woman licenced to drive a funny car. Don Garlits and Tom McEwen signed my NHRA licence, but then after about six months, I received notice from the NHRA that they were rescinding my licence - they thought it was an unsafe category for a woman to be driving in. Andy Granatelli didn’t think that was a good idea, as STP was a major sponsor, and pretty soon afterwards I go my licence back.
My first funny car was a Mustang. A lot of different people helped to put that car together, and it proved to be a successful combination. After that, I got a new car about every three years. We moved to a Barracuda and then to the Duster we eventually brought to England and sold.
While I was driving funny cars I got to go to Talladega in 1971, to drive the STP Dodge stock car of Freddy Lorenzen. I broke the NASCAR women’s closed course record.
What do you remember of the UK trip?
We had so much fun in England and everyone was so nice to us. We raced at Santa Pod twice, and we also went to HMS Daedalus in Hampshire, but I seem to remember this event being a bit of a washout due to the weather. My mechanic was a little sneaky at Santa Pod - I rolled up to the line to do a burnout and suddenly noticed a great ball of fire around me – we were doing a fire burnout, but someone forgot to tell me! I think everybody fell out of the grandstand. It must have been an incredible sight.
I remember it was hard to get a cold drink over there. In fact, I got a soda and asked the vendor if he could put some ice cream in the cup, and he looked at me as if I was crazy. I remember the late Alan Herridge – I really liked little Alan. He had such an accent I could hardly understand him.
My race suit was made up in the STP colours 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 paddock and saying to me, “Excuse me, but are you a clown?”. We sold the Plymouth in England and it was renamed Houndog.
Paula at Santa Pod in '73 complete with frills - photo by National Drag Racer magazine
Unfortunately, that car was rolled three times and written off at Santa Pod in 1977 in the hands of Owen Hayward.
What did you do when you got back to the US?
I got into a rocket car in 1973, after returning from England, and then I crashed and broke my neck! The idea was that we would go to Bonneville with the rocket dragster to set some ¼-mile acceleration runs. It was built by one of Walt Arfons’ associates and the car was called Pollution Packer – I can’t see that name being popular today! Soon after this, a second Pollution Packer was built and I was scheduled to drive it at Sears Point. It seemed an easy prospect, with no pistons coming out of the block to worry about, no transmission failure to ponder, or most of the other downsides of funny car racing – what an easy car to operate, I thought to myself. Well, that was a big mistake.
The rocket car she'd rather forget
On the first full pass I made, 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, up in the air to about 90 ft, and then came down and went end over end. I didn’t roll it, but the car was doubled up, as it had been brought to a screeching halt from around 300mph. I knew I was dead, and remember seeing blue sky, and then I was knocked out.
Normally, your helmet should be 4 inches below the roll cage, but my helmet was right on the cage – it was too low. My helmet had kind of twisted, it had a big gash in it where I hit the roll bar. I was knocked out momentarily, and when I came round I was upright and the firemen were running around saying, “Get out, the car’s on fire!”. I thought I’d sit there a little bit, though, and compose myself. When I got out, they loaded me in the ambulance and took me off to hospital. I was in a full body cast for four months and, needless to say, I didn’t get back in a rocket car again. I made a good recovery, although I still have residual problems – I don’t have the mobility I once had.
Most racers would have thrown in the towel at this point, but you decided to carry on? Yes, in 1976, I made a comeback. Through STP, I got to drive Richard Petty’s Stock car – that was quite a thrill. I didn’t have much experience of driving stock cars on banked tracks, but I managed 172.336 mph, which I was pretty pleased with.
Richard Petty (left) and Bill France Jr. congratulate Paula after her record breaking run
I got back in to drag racing that same year, with a B Modified Compact Datsun (Nissan), again sponsored by STP, which we raced all over the country in NHRA. It was a lot of fun, and then I thought to myself, “well, that’s about it,” and I sold the car.
back on the strip in a Datsun
Soon after, I was approached by National Car Rental and Pontiac to undertake the US Bicentennial Global Record Run – a world tour by car – which was possibly the highlight of my career. Such a tour had never been undertaken before, and there were some amazing sights and stories all along the route. We got to see stuff you wouldn’t have dreamed about. No one had ever done it. We had a USAC observer who read me novels as I drove along.
We started at Daytona and met up with Johnnie Parsons Sr, who was driving a Pontiac Grand Prix while I drove a Sunbird. We went south through to Mexico, Guatemala and carried on down deep into South America. We were airlifted across to North Africa, and then travelled north into Spain and Central Europe before heading east to India. We were then airlifted to Alaska, and drove through Canada and back into the USA.
The trip was completed in 104 days, although it was supposed to be 80. We experienced so many delays that we dubbed it “Around the World in 80 Delays”!
Have you been to England since you quit racing?
I went back a couple of years ago to the Crufts dog show, and I was amazed. It makes our Westminster dog show look like a “puppy mash”. I got lost every day driving around Birmingham, but I had a great time.
What was it like working with Andy Granatelli?
He is the PT Barnum of the automotive world. I see him every once in a while, and he looks just the same. He’s a great man. Without him or his sponsorship, I would have never been what I am today – particularly as it happened at a time when women didn’t do this sort of thing.
Paula at the 2004 California Hot Rod Reunion, where she was named Grand Marshal for the event in recognition of her outstanding achievements
Have you achieved everything you want to in motor racing?
If I won the lottery, I would be back in drag racing in a flash because I think this is where you can compete equally with a man. There will never be a female AJ Foyt or Richard Petty, but Shirley Muldowney has won three top fuel championships. Not many guys have achieved that.
Story: Andy Kirk
Photos: Paula Murphy & Andy Kirk