- Bill Stephens
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Is Hillary next?
That's suddenly a question getting a significant amount of attention within the NHRA POWERade series following the Funny Car national event wins in rapid succession by Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel.
The ladies' angle throughout professional motorsports has been a hot topic from the NHRA to the IndyCar Series, and Hillary Will might be the next female drag racer to command the spotlight.
The gregarious, personable 28-year-old graduate of the Top Alcohol Dragster category is now in her third year in the Top Fuel ranks, driving for team owner Ken Black Jr. as part of Connie Kalitta's multicar outfit that includes teammates Doug Kalitta and David Grubnic.
With the tuning expertise of Jim Oberhofer behind her, Will has steadily matured as a driver and has maintained her positive outlook and upbeat expectations as she waits for that first excursion into the winner's circle.
"I think of how it's going to feel the first time we win a national event and it's hard to imagine how exciting it will be," said the native of Fortuna, Calif. "I've won in Top Alcohol Dragster and that was an amazing rush, but when that first national event win in Top Fuel finally arrives, I'm sure the whole thing will be an even bigger thrill than I can describe."
Will's emerging Top Fuel career could have come to a disastrous halt last year when she suffered a spectacular crash during testing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway prior to the beginning of the 2007 season. Her car was literally torn to pieces at high speeds as she was making a single run in her KB Racing dragster, tumbling down the quarter-mile until her driver's compartment and the race car's engine finally came to rest several hundred feet from each other. But the graduate of Wheaton College with a Magna Cum Laude degree in economics walked away from the devastating crash unhurt and was back aboard a new machine two weeks later for the season opener in Pomona, Calif.
"The one thing I remember about that accident was how my team was able to get our new car built and prepared for the Winternationals," said Will, who as an accomplished gymnast and collegiate springboard diver appreciates the importance of preparation. "We never would have been ready to race when the season began if the guys hadn't worked as hard as they did."
This year, Will has already shown impressive performances, setting top speed of the weekend at the schedule's first two races in Pomona and Phoenix and becoming the fastest woman in NHRA history with two passes at more than 334 mph.
She is currently holding on to the fifth spot in the standings -- a career-best -- by virtue of her three semifinal finishes out of eight national events in 2008. At her current pace, she's almost assured of landing one of the 10 available berths in the Countdown to the Championship tournament, which will be determined at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in September.
But in the meantime, she has her sights squarely set on her first Top Fuel event title as early as the next race, the O'Reilly Summer Nationals in Topeka, Kan., this weekend.
In the arena of major league motorsports, Hillary Will is the next Lady In Waiting.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
The exploits of first-time female winners have been the hot topic in racing recently. Next up? Top Fuel driver Hillary Will is poised to break through, writes Bill Stephens.