Topeka: Muldowney, Will - NHRA interview

NHRA Q&A: TOP FUEL ROOKIE HILLARY WILL REACHES DREAM WITH NHRA DRAG RACING LEGEND'S HELP JOLIET, Ill. -- Hillary Will was a baby when she got her first autograph from Shirley Muldowney. By 2002 Will had long since taken her father's advice and...

NHRA Q&A: TOP FUEL ROOKIE HILLARY WILL REACHES DREAM WITH NHRA DRAG RACING LEGEND'S HELP

JOLIET, Ill. -- Hillary Will was a baby when she got her first autograph from Shirley Muldowney. By 2002 Will had long since taken her father's advice and gotten into a dragster of her own. Still, she nervously waited for another autograph. She nabbed a third last year, shortly before earning her first career win in her Girl Power Top Alcohol Dragster in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series. She had no idea that just one year later her race career would get a shot of nitromethane by none other than Muldowney herself. With Muldowney's blessing, Will signed up as the second Top Fuel driver in the Ken Black-owned team that includes three-time and defending Pro Stock world champion Greg Anderson and his teammate Jason Line. Her operation is managed by Connie Kalitta, well known as the man who stood up for Muldowney in the 1970s when so few believed a woman's place was in a race car. In this Q&A, Muldowney and Will discuss racing then and now, and their friendship on and off the track.

Q: What has been the biggest change since the 1970s?

SHIRLEY MULDOWNEY: "The components are more reliable. The engine parts are definitely much more reliable. Not that we guessed, but fuel pumps, for example, the fuel pumps live a lot longer. Whereas before you could make a run that was perfect and the next run was a ball of flame. It was a hard thing to detect -- we didn't have the technology back then. People, too. They're falling out of the stands, the young people that want to get involved in the sport. The funding, the money, there's not just one thing (that's the biggest change)."

Q: Hillary lists you as one of her biggest influences. Did you know how big an affect you would have on her?

MULDOWNEY: "What serves her may not have been the way I would've done it, I just want to be of help to her if I can. I just want her to know that I will be there for her if need be. I like Hillary -- I think she's a lovely young woman. I like her personality. She comes across real well. She doesn't try to give the impression that she has complete control of what's happening. She just handles it as it happens. You kind of watch (young drivers) as they begin in the sport and run a couple numbers and all of a sudden their personalities change ... The sport is very unforgiving. When you think you've got a handle on it, that's when it'll turn around and bite you. You red light; you just don't have it together as well as you would think. It can hand you surprises every now and then. A DNQ will definitely bring you back to square one."

Q: What was it like to break down the gender barrier for women in motorsports?

MULDOWNEY: "So many people were against me. I dealt with so much jealousy and adversity. I'm thankful I had the friends and support that I did have; the people on my side. There weren't a lot of them, but they were there. Without them it would've been harder than it was. I just had a steadfast attitude and was strong. I just had to rise above all that, and I did because of the friends and the people that I had that were on my side. Just my will to win, love for the sport and attitude I carried around with me was what helped me survive."

Q: How do you think your career helped other young women interested in motorsports?

MULDOWNEY: "Even when I was match-racing and not competing in the professional categories, I think that I still set the stage and gave young women drivers something to aspire to -- gave them the idea that 'hey wait a minute, I can do this. This is something I want to do. I want to be like Shirley.' There are people like Melanie (Troxel) who were in the sport somewhat because of their families and had that initial opportunity, as did Hillary as well. But I get e-mails every single day. There are young women out there that didn't have a father who was a drag racer or someone who worked in the sport or a sponsor. I get young women and young people who want to be drivers that paid their way to sit in the stands that want to know how they can get involved in the sport."

Q: What was it like to see your life made into a movie? ("Heart Like a Wheel," 1983).

MULDOWNEY: "(Bonnie Bedelia, who played Muldowney) wasn't my pick, but I thought the movie was great for the sport. I would've made some changes. I thought Bonnie was kind of soft. She was more of a Hollywood actress than a racecar driver, but overall it was a good effort and good for the sport. I had a lot of fun with it. It continues to live 23 years later."

Q: If you wouldn't have started racing, what other career would you have pursued?

MULDOWNEY: "I can't imagine what I would have done without the sport. I didn't have any money. Looking back now, I probably would've had a home for abandoned animals. I didn't have any money for anything like that."

Q: What is the biggest change from the dragster Shirley drove to yours?

HLLARY WILL: "The big difference is she used to be able to see everything around her. She would look over at her opponent and the starting line."

Q: Describe your relationship with Shirley now.

WILL: "Before they hired anyone for this job, they had to have Shirley's approval. I had gotten her autograph. I used to get nervous just getting her autograph. At Indianapolis Raceway Park in 2002 I stood as close as I could get to the starting line when she raced against Don Garlits; as close to the car as I could be without getting in trouble. I stood in line for her autograph the next day. I've read her book about three times. She knows so much about dealing with the media. She has helped me with that and with driving ... I listen to every word; everything she ever tells me because there is so much she can help me with. The more I do this, the more I realize what she would have gone through."

Q: What is the best advice you've gotten from her?

WILL: "I get so much advice and so much help. The biggest thing she reminds me of is just be who you are. Drive the car the way you know you can. For somebody like Shirley to have confidence in me means so much."

Q: What career would you have pursued if you weren't racing?

WILL: "I would've tried economics, but I just didn't like it. I knew I loved drag racing and I wanted to do something I loved. I like to win and I like competing. Hopefully I would be doing something I loved, and competing."

Q: How did your father factor in to your decision to race?

WILL: "I thank my dad for getting me involved. I love it when I see fathers with their daughters at the track. I tell the daughter, 'make sure you thank your dad for bringing you here.' I tell the dad she'll appreciate it later."

Q: What advice would you give young drivers who want to follow your steps into the POWERade Series?

WILL: "The biggest thing is don't give up. Go after what you want. There will always be things that will happen, but don't ever lose sight of what you want. Believe in yourself."

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , Greg Anderson , Don Garlits , Jason Line , Connie Kalitta , Hillary Will , Ken Black