Hillary Will admits that for a little while, she wasn’t sure if she would ever get the chance to drive a Top Fuel dragster again. But at this weekend’s Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals presented by NAPAFilters.com, she is going to be right back where she belongs — in the driver’s seat.
It has been four very long years for Will since she last drove a Top Fuel car — she won the Scott Kalitta Memorial Trophy at a special event at West Sydney Int’l Dragway in Sydney, Australia, in 2008, but after returning home to America, she didn’t quite have a place.
Will competed in nearly every category from Super Pro to Top Alcohol Dragster before debuting as a Professional Top Fuel pilot behind the wheel of the KB Racing/Kalitta Motorsports rail in 2006, and she found her comfort level — and her home — in the next three years.
In 2008, her final season with the team, Will became the fastest woman in NHRA history with a 334.65-mph run at the season opener in Pomona. She earned her first Wally as a Pro in Topeka and finished fourth in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series standings that year, the best finish of her career, but the upward swing was not enough to stop what would quickly become something of a downward spiral.
When a cruel economy vaporized the funds needed to keep her behind the wheel, Will initially determinedly charged ahead and started knocking on doors. She knocked and knocked, she moved home to save money, she took on whatever jobs she could to stay afloat, but the door back to drag racing never seemed to open — until she contacted the Dote family.
The union is initially for 11 races in 2012, and if enough additional sponsorship is procured, Will and the Dote family will race together for the remainder of the season. “Our whole team has high hopes,” said Will. They mean to win — and to contend for the championship.
“Before the Dote family came along, there were days when I thought, ‘It’s time to just forget about drag racing and move on,’ ” admitted Will. “But I’d been watching it on television and the Internet, my family still races, and it’s just something that I love. I can’t not race, so to be able to get in a Top Fuel car again and go down the track, oh, it was awesome. I’m so thankful to be back on a team and to have this opportunity.”
The newly reformulated team headed down to Palm Beach, Fla., for testing and so that Will could relicense in a Top Fuel car just a few weeks ago, and getting back into a 7,000-horsepower dragster definitely came with a case of the tremors.
“I was so nervous,” said Will. “But once they started the car and I was all strapped in, it just felt right, and I knew that I was right back where I was supposed to be. I just wanted to give the Dotes a big hug, and I went up to each person in the family and thanked them face to face for giving me the opportunity. I assured them that I would do the best I possibly could this year, and I want to make sure that they know they made the right choice in hiring me as a driver.”
She will have the opportunity to prove her value very soon, and the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals will allow Will the first chance to remind the drag racing community of her abilities as well. Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville seems an ideal venue to make her return; it’s where she licensed in Top Alcohol Dragster in 2004.
“That experience was so awesome, but that day, I really put a lot of pressure on myself,” recalled Will. “I said to myself, ‘I’m either going to do well and love this, or I’m not going to do well, and I’ll just need to forget about racing.’ But I came away with my license after the first try, and I just loved it. I loved going that fast. Going to Gainesville that first time was one of the turning points for me, and it made me realize that this is something I have to do; there is no way around it.
“I’ve had a rough three years, but I feel like things are looking up. Through it all, the fan support has been amazing. Honestly, that’s what kept me encouraged all this time. I thought that if I was out of sight, I’d be out of mind and people would forget about me. But that wasn’t the case, and a lot of these people have become my personal friends. I never thought it could be like that, and I feel so fortunate that I’m doing what I love and I get to make friends on top of it. I really couldn’t be happier with life.”