MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Award-Winning Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of Paula Murphy Archives
Published 1.17.2024

Murphy with her Plymouth funny car National Drag Racer Magazine RESIZED 4Paula Murphy with her Plymouth funny car (National Drag Racer Magazine)

Paula Murphy (June 16, 1928 - December 21, 2023) was a great race car driver. Some people called her the fastest woman on wheels.

Unfortunately, Murphy passed away just before Christmas at the age of 95. She leaves behind a great legacy of being a competitive and skillful race car driver.

Paula Murphy during the 1960s Paula Murphy Archives RESIZED 1Murphy during the 1960s (Paula Murphy Archives)

Murphy was born in Ohio and earned her degree in Physical Education from Bowling Green State University. Later, she would relocate to the state of California in 1956.

Murphy’s trailblazing racing career began during the 1960s when she set records for women in both drag racing and stock car racing. She was the first female to drive a jet-engine vehicle on the salt flats and the first female to operate a fuel funny car with a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA).

Paula Murphy in the 1970s NHRA Archives RESIZED 2Paula Murphy in the 1970s (NHRA Archives)

Automotive historians have said that Murphy entered her first drag racing event in Orange County with the LA Dealer Association. Murphy also established a women’s land speed record with a Studebaker Avanti automobile.

In 1968, Murphy broke the 200-mph barrier. She also broke the NASCAR women’s closed track record in 1971 driving the STP Dodge stock car. She also set new records for US Trans Continental driving, both east and west from coast to coast as well as from north and south. Murphy would go on to tour the country in her supercharged Chrysler fiberglass-bodied car, which most of her fans thoroughly enjoyed.

Paula Murphy with her funny car Muscle Car UK Archives 3Paula Murphy with her funny car (Muscle Car UK Archives)

For many years, Murphy was known as “Miss STP.” For many years, she owned and raced many great looking cars, like the “Miss STP 1969 Plymouth Cuda NITRO” funny car.

Murphy also made news when she appeared as a guest on a December 1963 episode of the popular TV series “What’s My Line,” introduced as a “Test Car Driver.” Being one of the pioneers of women in auto racing, Murphy set an example as not only a talented driver, but also as a class act.  Paula Murphy RobbReport.com RESIZED 5Paula Murphy (RobbReport.com)

In 1973, Murphy visited England accompanied by Don Schumacher for a series of races over three weekends. After concluding her visit to England, she returned to the United States and became a rocket-car driver for Ky Michaelson.

More Murphy milestones include being one of the first female drivers to drive alone at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the first woman licensed to drive a funny car. When it came to drag racing, the first car she drove was prepared by popular driver Dick Landy.

Paula Murphy RobbReport.com RESIZED 6"Miss STP," Paula Murphy (RobbReport.com)

It was Don Garlits along with Tom McEwen who signed Murphy’s NHRA license. Unfortunately, after about six months, she received a notice from the NHRA that they were rescinding her license because they felt that competing was unsafe for female drivers. However, after much consideration and comments from Andy Granatelli, she got her license back.

Paula Murphy dragster My Classic Garage RESIZED 8Paula Murphy with her dragster (My Classic Garage)

In conclusion, Paula Murphy’s exciting career drove her into our auto racing history books. She will always be remembered as one of the first female race car drivers and as a positive role model for everyone.   

Bibliography

New York Times. “The Fastest Woman on Wheels in Male-Dominated Racing Era.” December 27, 2023.

Scherr, Elane. “STP Racer Paula Murphy (Finally) Celebrated in a New Documentary.” Car and Driver, August 6, 2023.

Trota, Michi. “Paula Murphy (1928-2023) Record-Breaking Race Car Driver.” December 28, 2023.