Englishtown: Q&A with Jim Oberhofer

Q&A WITH JIM "O" Hillary Will at midpoint in 2006 season Hillary Will, driver of the KB Racing-owned, Kalitta Motorsports-managed Top Fuel dragster, is rapidly approaching the mid-point of her rookie season. Her crew chief, Jim Oberhofer,...

Q&A WITH JIM "O"

Hillary Will at midpoint in 2006 season

Hillary Will, driver of the KB Racing-owned, Kalitta Motorsports-managed Top Fuel dragster, is rapidly approaching the mid-point of her rookie season. Her crew chief, Jim Oberhofer, known to most as Jim "O", took the time to answer questions regarding Will's progress during the first half of her rookie season.

Q1: You began testing with Hillary right after she was named driver of the KB Racing LLC-owned dragster, managed by Kalitta Motorsports. Take us through that testing period.

Jim "O" 1: After naming Hillary as driver of the car after Brainerd last season, we put her in Scott Kalitta's dragster. We kind of retrofitted Scott's car for Hillary, our goal being that we wanted to get her in the car, make some laps at the Indy test session before the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and hopefully get her license. On her first full pass, she went 4.67 (seconds) at 321 (mph). From that point on we made a few more laps and she ended up getting her license at the Indy test session.

After that we stayed after a few more races -- Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas -- to give her more laps in the car. During that period, every time she did another lap we would push the car a little bit harder to get her to feel the difference between a mid-4.60 and a mid-4.50 run. At Las Vegas, she ended up running a 4.56 at 326.

Q2: During that testing period (from Indy to the end of the year) was there anything that impressed you about your new driver?

Jim "O": Hillary handled herself very well in the car and it became apparent that she was going to become a very consistent driver as far as her routine. That's one of the things that really sticks in my mind about her. She repeats the same routine over and over again, whether it's the length of her burnout, backing up, rolling in and staging, and so on.

Q3: What happened after the end of the season until Hillary pulled to the starting line at her debut race at the NHRA Winternationals in February?

Jim "O": Over the winter, we basically built a car around Hillary, utilizing her size. This gave us the ability to build a better working race car that we hoped would have an advantage on hot, slick race tracks. With that done we went out and started testing at Las Vegas in January.

We picked up where we left off last season. We began getting after it more and more. Hillary was up for the task. The car went in the 4.40s a few times. Some of the runs were over 280 (mph) at half-track. It told us that as a driver, Hillary could handle this car. We knew that we wanted to treat her and the car like it was any other Kalitta Motorsports driver -- Doug Kalitta, David Grubnic, or Scott Kalitta -- in the car. Hillary reacted well to everything we threw at her. Her runs were straight run after run after run. It was a pretty cool deal. I wasn't worried about who was sitting in the seat and I didn't need to back the car down just because we had a rookie driver in the seat. Hillary proved that she could drive this race car and she was ready for the Winternationals.

Q4: Now that you have gone through testing last year and preseason testing this year, what now have you added to your list of things that impressed you about Hillary?

Jim "O": Other things that impress me about Hillary, both as a driver and as a person, is her determination and the focus that she has to accomplish goals. Also, as a driver Hillary has no ego, this makes it easy to talk to her. Hillary is also always asking questions to expand her learning curve. For example, during testing we had a problem with a break in the clutch linkage. It happened in the staging lanes, so we didn't make the run. Hillary asked me what would have happened if that broke on the burnout. I use that one example, of the many sound questions that she's asked, to point out that she's always thinking ahead to learn and better her driving skills.

Q5: Testing is one thing, racing competitively is another. How did she do as a driver in her first competitive national event -- the NHRA Winternationals?

Jim "O": I think she did very well. Simply because there was a lot of media hype about her debut before and during the race. She was under a microscope. There were a lot of people wondering how she was going to handle herself in this racecar and considering how many directions she was being pulled by the media and other things at the track, she did excellent. During qualifying she made three consecutive runs of 4.51, including the run she found Pomona Beach.

Going in we knew that Pomona was a short race track. There was always the possibility that the car was going to wind up in the sand and it did during qualifying on the last run. It was a mistake and we as a team learned from it. Hillary learned from it. We laughed about it and went on.

Q6: How has she progressed in the races since that debut race?

Jim "O": She's done very well driving the car. The only thing that she is struggling with is her reaction times but I know that Hillary is working very hard to get better and I know she will. The one thing about Hillary is that she is so hard on herself and wants to be the very best that she may try too hard. Hillary has a tree set up here at the shop and she practices constantly. At Topeka, she made a step forward with her reaction times in qualifying. She is making small steps each race and once she figures it out, look out.

I think from the Winternationals until now Hillary has learned a lot. She still doesn't have that many runs under her belt. We try to test as much as we can after National events. We have made a lot of runs where we have not suffered tire smoke but when the car starts to lose traction, Hillary has been very quick to react and get off the throttle. I think down the road that's really going to pay off, if we do get into a pedaling match. She's an athlete having competed in gymnastics and diving, as well as her previous racing experience, so she is quick to react to situations. She is also starting to offer feedback to me and the team that is helpful toward tuning the car for the next run.

Q7: Hillary had what some called a rookie mistake during qualifying at Columbus. What is your take on that particular qualifying pass? Has that run or any run during the nine races thus far in the season done anything to shake your confidence or your crew's confidence in Hillary's ability to drive a Top Fuel dragster?

Jim "O": The unfortunate thing is that when she does make a mistake it's like she is the first and only person in drag racing history to ever make this mistake.

On that particular run, the car made a hard move toward the centerline about half-track and Hillary tried to bring it back. Unfortunately after she lifted off the throttle the car darted over into the other lane. I think Hillary did a fantastic job of recovering and avoiding what might have been a disaster for both cars and drivers. She reacted very well to what happened and did a great job getting around (Bob) Vandergriff (Jr.). Not everybody would agree with where she should have driven the car, but under the circumstances, as a rookie driver she did a great job.

My team and I came back after the 'incident' and we didn't give it two thoughts. Our whole team has 110 percent confidence in Hillary. Every person associated with this team agrees Hillary is the only driver for this car.

Hillary is a team player and we are one team. Ken Black happens to be the owner of this team. Hillary happens to be the driver for this team. I happen to be the crew chief for this team and Troy Fasching happens to be the assistant crew chief. Kent Carley, Jason Davis, Scott Finnis, Chris Glass, Chris Rose and Mac Savage complete the crew. Mickey Schultz handles the team's public relations. She cares about each and every one of the persons I named and each and every one of the persons named cares about Hillary.

I don't know that we would want anybody else to drive this car. If they lined every Top Fuel driver up and said "pick one." we would still pick Hillary just because we know what she's all about. I, along with Ken Black, and our crew, knew going into this deal that mistakes were going to be made. No one on this team has complained about anything that has happened.

Q8: What are your thoughts about the critics and their opinions following the Columbus incident?

Jim "O": Everyone is entitled to their opinion about Hillary and about this team and I try not to concern myself with what others say. Some of the people that I'm talking about, you respect their opinions and others you don't. Some of the drivers that have made some pretty dumb mistakes in their career are among the critics and somehow seem to have forgotten those mistakes. One in particular feels he has the right to cast criticism on Hillary, all the while never once mentioning that in 2001, he too crossed over the center line and ran into the back of another driver past the finish line. At least Hillary had the skill and presence of mind to miss the car in the other lane. One of the things about Hillary is that she is honest and when she makes a mistake she doesn't make up excuses like some of the other drivers do. Nobody out here is perfect and everyone has made mistakes in the past and will continue to make mistakes in the future. Hillary is among that group. Her job, my job and the job of everybody on this KB Racing LLC team is to minimize the mistakes and give her and this KB Racing LLC team the opportunity to win races, and in the future championships.

Rather than talk too much about the critics, I would rather thank the many people that have come by to support Hillary and this team. While I can't name them all, I would like to mention team owners, Kenny Bernstein, John Force, and Don Prudhomme, crew chiefs like Ed McCulloch, Richard Hogan and racers like the driver in the other lane, Bob Vandergriff Jr., her teammates from the KB Racing side Greg Anderson and Jason Line, her Kalitta Motorsports teammates Dave Grubnic, Doug Kalitta and Scott Kalitta and NHRA's Graham Light. On behalf of KB Racing and Kalitta Motorsports we want to thank all the named and unnamed individuals who have come by our camp to support Hillary and us, it means a lot.

Q9: Since the days of Shirley Muldowney, women have been welcome in ALL classes of NHRA drag racing. What do you say to all the naysayers that have jumped on the bandwagon to say that females, in general, should NOT be driving in NHRA's four professional classes?

Jim "O": Those people are living in the Stone Age. Get a life. Obviously starting with Shirley, the female drivers in NHRA drag racing have proved they belong. I told many people that growing up "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was my hero in the drag racing world. Since I got to know Shirley Muldowney over the last few years, had I known then what I now know about Shirley, she would have replaced "Big Daddy," as my hero, because that's how much I think of her. The women that are driving on the pro circuit today -- Hillary, Melanie Troxel, Erica Enders, Angelle Sampey , Karen Stoffer and soon to be Ashley Force -- they all deserve to be out here.

I look at all of the stuff that Erica went through last year and what she's doing this year. She's doing a great job. She's putting the pressure on the big boys, that's for sure. Melanie leads the points. She a good driver and it shows in what she is accomplishing this season. Angelle's record speaks for itself. All the female drivers belong out here because they're drivers and are just as capable as the men. When I see Hillary in the car, I don't think of her as a female or a male, she's a racecar driver. So are Melanie, Erica, Angelle, Karen and Ashley. That's what Shirley Muldowney was -- a racecar driver, maybe the best ever.

Q10: In closing, anything else you would like to add regarding your driver Hillary Will.

Jim "O": The bottom line is that we're very happy with Hillary and everything she has done this year. I can tell you this, when Hillary wins her first race you will see a "mosh pit" like no other and wouldn't it be fun if some of the "critics" were in the pit with us.

Team owner Ken Black added the following comments to Jim Oberhofer's Q&A:

"I back up 100 percent what Jim O has said in this Q&A. In fact for me you can boil it down to this: We have built this team around Hillary. We hired Hillary because we felt she could drive a Top Fuel car and hired the highest quality crew chief and crew to give her the opportunity to do so. To date she has proved that she can drive a Top Fuel car and I will park this car before I will change drivers. Hillary has a great future as a Top Fuel driver and at KB Racing LLC."

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , John Force , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , David Grubnic , Don Garlits , Scott Kalitta , Don Prudhomme , Karen Stoffer , Ashley Force , Melanie Troxel , Jason Line , Jim Oberhofer , Hillary Will , Ken Black