REINVENTING HEART LIKE A WHEEL

A DVD release provides Shirley Muldowney and Anchor Bay Productions to opportunity do just that

 

Apparently, you can re-invent the wheel. At least, if it's the feature film "Heart Like a Wheel," to be more specific.

The movie, which chronicles NHRA legend Shirley Muldowney's rise to the top of the drag racing food chain, was released in DVD format this week by Anchor Bay Productions. The DVD is available in most stories and retails at about $19. A limited edition, with a Hot Wheels Muldowney pink dragster included, is available through Walmart stores for about $14.

"I've been waiting for this for years," said Muldowney from her home in Michigan. "Only because they stopped production of the video, and people have contacted me all the time, even from Europe and Australia, about how they could get a copy. They keep asking, 'Where can I buy this movie?' My collection is down to my last 20 original videos and I stopped letting go of them. I just didn't want to part with them, so when they called me about the DVD, I was thrilled. I was happy.

"The movie was always so popular, and it hasn't been available for 10 or so years, but it was popular from day one. People love it. I can't tell you how many people didn't know what a drag race was all about who saw the movie and became interested. It continues to open the doors for the sport. It's quite a compliment."

 

 


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The Connie Kalitta stunt driver was none other than 1978 NHRA Top Fuel World Champion Kelly Brown. This was the car that crashed in the movie. Of special note, look at the lead photo and you will see that Kalitta's name was shortened to C-O-N-I-E to accomodate the sheetmetal and cameras.

 

The film, originally released by 20th Century Fox in 1983, stars Bonnie Bedelia as the NHRA icon and Beau Bridges as Connie Kalitta, who today, as owner of Kalitta Motorsports, is one of NHRA's biggest personalities. It was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, whose other films include "The Accused." The screenplay was penned by David E. Peckinpah and Ken Friedman.

Muldowney, who recently was inducted in to the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame, is one of the top five NHRA drivers of all time. She was the first woman to be licensed to drive a Top Fuel dragster, the first woman to win a major motorsports series title and the first NHRA competitor to score multiple championships in Top Fuel, winning titles in '77, '80 and '82.

The film, which covers Muldowney's career from her teen years, to her fight with NHRA to obtain a competition license, to her volatile relationship with Kalitta and her success in the Top Fuel ranks, cultimates in her winning the second of her three series championships.


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Shirley and members of the Heart Like A Wheel cast. From left to right: Kelly Brown, actress Bonnie Bedelia (who played Shirley), Top Fuel racer Marvin Graham, Tommy Ivo (who drove Shirley's dragster) and Shirley, who was present as an advisor. Muldowney was quoted once as saying she thought Bedelia played the role a little soft, an opinion she still sort of believes today.

 

There are also some nice racing scenes, including some shots of famed Orange County International Raceway, which in sort of an ironic twist was in its last year of existence when the film was released in theaters in 1983.

"I was a little bit afraid of it (when it first came out) because I wanted a little more racing," Muldowney said. "I wanted more drag racing than what appeared in the movie. But Hollywood wanted a love story. Connie and I weren't in love too much back then...we were really at each other's throat. But I thought they did a good job in showing how we went our separate ways."

Bedelia, also known for playing Bruce Willis' wife in the first two "Die Hard" films, was nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actress Award for her portrayal of Muldowney. She won the role from such stars as Candy Clark ("American Graffiti"), soap opera mainstay Susan Lucci and Shirley's pick, Jamie Lee Curtis.

Muldowney was quoted once as saying she thought Bedelia played the role a little soft, an opinion she still sort of believes today.

"A little bit," Muldowney said. "That was my opinion. I thought she could have been stronger, but when you're dealing with Hollywood you don't always get everything you want. I thought she was a little soft in some areas. In terms of the race car, I thought she played the part as good as she could have. A lot of people liked her in the part."


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The film was originally released by 20th Century Fox in 1983.

 

But there were exceptions. Muldowney did have some reservations with the actor's performance in a pivotal scene where the supercharger on her Funny Car ignites, resulting in a massive fire.

"Bonnie expressed how she was scared when the Funny Car was on fire and she was crying," Muldowney said. "That was not the way I responded to the up and downs of what I was doing. That wasn't the way it was. That was Bonnie being the movie actress that she was."

Muldowney also didn't particularly like the fact that the producers used alcohol in all the Top Fuel and Funny Car scenes. Tommy Ivo, who was Bedelia's stunt driver, later stated that it was so they could make multiple runs and keep costs down. Kaplan fixed the sound problem by recording repeated thunder sounds during the racing scenes.

"It's something a lot of people wouldn't pick up on because of the way they put in sound and effects," Muldowney said. "But when they ran the cars, they used alcohol cars rather than nitro...that was a disappointment to me."


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"It's quite ironic how it all turned out, with my husband (Rahn Tolber, crew chief for Doug Kalitta) going to work for Connie, some 27 years later. It all came around in a full circle. It's very interesting the way this whole thing turned around. I wouldn't say we're back to square one, but there was a time when I didn't think I would ever speak to Connie again, and vice versa. But we're pretty good friends today. Time is a good healer." - Shirley Muldowney

 

As was the portrayal of her first husband Jack Muldowney and Kalitta, who today is one of Muldowney's closest friends, Shirley felt the film was a little hard on both characters

"It's quite ironic how it all turned out, with my husband (Rahn Tolber, crew chief for Doug Kalitta) going to work for Connie, some 27 years later," Muldowney said. "It all came around in a full circle. It's very interesting the way this whole thing turned around. I wouldn't say we're back to square one, but there was a time when I didn't think I would ever speak to Connie again, and vice versa. But we're pretty good friends today.

"Time is a good healer. Connie has been there a number of times as a friend over the years. When I had that bad accident (in 1984) he was very helpful flying me from one hospital to another, and a lot of other things. But it's not just with me. If you're a friend of Connie's, you can call him for almost anything, and I think he will be there for you."


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"I was a little bit afraid of it (when it first came out) because I wanted a little more racing. I wanted more drag racing than what appeared in the movie. But Hollywood wanted a love story. Connie and I weren't in love too much back then...we were really at each other's throat. But I thought they did a good job in showing how we went our separate ways."

 

The DVD should also be a treasure for most drag racing fans. Due to the DVD format, many other features are included. One bonus extra is a must-have for a straight-line enthusiast. It's titled "Friends-Rivals-Champions." It features a nice conversation between Muldowney, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and Kalitta, who trade old war stories and how the sport has changed from when they began, to the time of the making of the film in 1981, to the present day of 8,000-horsepower fuel machines.

There's also a very good behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. "Shirley: Behind the Wheel" is a good account of what went into making the film and features some good interviews with Muldowney, Kalitta, Garlits, Ivo and others.

Overall, Muldowney still gives this racing classic a thumbs up.

"I'm am satisfied with it," Muldowney said. "There's not too many people who could say they've had a movie made about their life, at least people who are alive and walking around. Again, I think it was great for drag racing. I cherish all the friends I made. It was wonderful for the sport.

"I have no complaints. What can you say? It is what it is, and if people paid to go see it and they buy the DVD, I have no problem with it."

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