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Paula Murphy, pioneering race car driver, has died at 95

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The world of motorsports has lost the race car driver once known as the fastest woman on wheels. Record-breaking trailblazer Paula Murphy died last week. From driving a jet car across the Utah desert to racing nitro-powered cars on a drag strip, Murphy made a name for herself in a sport dominated by men.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Murphy first visited a track while living in California in the 1950s. Some work friends offered to take her to her first race. Here she is in a documentary released earlier this year called "Paula Murphy: Undaunted."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PAULA MURPHY: UNDAUNTED")

PAULA MURPHY: My friend said, you should come out to the races with us. I said, no, I don't think so. I'm not really interested. So finally, they talked me into going. And I watched, and I thought, this has got to be the most boring thing I've ever seen. It's like watching the grass grow.

SUMMERS: But once she learned there were women's races happening, she had a change of heart about races being boring. She borrowed another driver's car and got on the track. And from there, she was hooked.

SHAPIRO: Murphy honed her racing skills, landing first-place finishes up and down the West coast. An early turning point came for her when she and fellow driver Barbara Niland took a cross-country ride. Their goal - to set new speed records.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Surrounded by a group of Los Angeles well-wishers, Mrs. Barbara Niland and Miss Paula Murphy are ready with their Avanti to take off in an attempt to establish a new cross-country record to New York City.

SHAPIRO: The duo went on to set four transcontinental speed records.

SUMMERS: Murphy was also the first woman to earn a license to drive nitro-powered cars. That's a class of cars designed for drag racing. She drove what's known as a funny car, ripping down short tracks in head-to-head races at over 200 miles per hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And now the race between the two American funny cars - Don "The Shoe" Schumacher and Miss Paula Murphy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINES)

SHAPIRO: In 1964, Murphy set the record for the fastest land speed ever achieved by a female driver. Strapped into a jet-powered car, she zoomed across the Utah desert in a car that wasn't even designed for a driver of her size.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PAULA MURPHY: UNDAUNTED")

MURPHY: They had to stuffed pillows behind my back because I couldn't reach the pedals. So I'm up there flapping in the breeze, not hiding down behind the big windshield.

SHAPIRO: Her career had an early end following a 300-mile-an-hour crash in the early '70s, but record-breaking achievements earned Paula Murphy a spot in the Motorsports Hall of Fame.

SUMMERS: Paula Murphy died last week. She was 95 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
Kathyrn Fox