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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.

Kai McNamee
Kathyrn Fox