Reading: Round 17 preview

WILL MARCHES TOWARD FIRST PLAYOFF BERTH STRONGER FROM CONSTANT EMOTIONAL CHALLENGES READING, Pa. - Hillary Will remembers standing on the vault runway, staring down the toughest skill she'd ever tried in practice - a twisting series of quick, ...

WILL MARCHES TOWARD FIRST PLAYOFF BERTH STRONGER FROM CONSTANT EMOTIONAL CHALLENGES

READING, Pa. - Hillary Will remembers standing on the vault runway, staring down the toughest skill she'd ever tried in practice - a twisting series of quick, powerful motions that would send her, hopefully, to a stuck landing on the other side of the apparatus.

As a young gymnast not even yet 13 years old, Will practiced the Tsukahara, a half-twist onto the vault with a back flip and twist on the other side, again and again. With the help of a spotter, an equivalent of a crew chief, she learned each piece of the skill until she could put it all together.

She never used it in competition.

Now, at 28 years old, she's mastering quite a different sport, and different skills. No less extreme, no less intricate, and no less mental - but now her career, and her love of the sport, depends on using those lessons she learns expressly for the high-level competition that still sometimes makes her nervous.

Will and the rest of the elite drivers of the NHRA POWERade Series come to Maple Grove Raceway Aug. 14-17 for the 24th annual Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals, the next-to-last event in the 18-race regular season before the Countdown to the Championship fields are set, and the six-race playoffs begin.

Will should enter the event with a comfortable hold on a playoff position, if her card hasn't already been punched. But this season has been the opposite of easy for her.

Two years after her pro debut Will earned her first Top Fuel win, in Topeka, where she piloted her KB Racing dragster to a 4.744-second pass at 304.53 mph after beating veteran driver Larry Dixon off of the starting line. She was one of three women to win NHRA POWERade Series events within a five-week span. Ashley Force became the first woman to win in Funny Car in Atlanta, while Melanie Troxel, the other female in the category, followed quickly behind with a win in Bristol, Tenn.

On June 1, Will stood in her first pro winner's circle. A media crush immediately followed and maybe for the first time, Will truly saw what it was like to see her face and her words everywhere.

Then, just as she had gotten into the rhythm of checking items off of the schedule, her season turned 180 degrees beneath her, throwing her off balance. Her Kalitta Motorsports teammate Scott Kalitta, her mentor, died from injuries sustained in a racing accident in Englishtown, N.J.

In one month, Will negotiated the most difficult experiences of her life. She's handling the pain like a driver, she said. She feels no less pain, but is learning how to focus on tasks, and let go of the sadness or nerves when she needs to.

"I think drivers do have the ability to just turn off emotions, because you just have to get in the car and drive, and sometimes the less you think, the less emotion you have, the better," Will said. "Sometimes the first rounds makes you really nervous and your heart's beating really fast, but you can't let that affect your driving. I remember it was hard after Eric (Medlen) died (in a testing accident in March 2007). I remember it was hard to get back in the car when Cory McClenathan crashed in front of me in Bristol.

"For a second, you think 'why do I do this?' Then it just kind of reinforces how much you love to drive. So you get back in, turn off your emotions and just do it. I think the more you do it, the more you love it, and that allows you to do it, because you love it, regardless of whatever might happen."

Will proved her team is a genuine threat and not a one-race luck story when they put together a runner-up finish in Sonoma, Calif. at the end of July. There she lost a close contest to category dynamo Tony Schumacher and his Alan Johnson-led U.S. Army team. She's convinced that her team's solid performance thus far this year will continue and lead to more success, even as changes to the Kalitta Motorsports racing stable continue. Driver Jeff Arend was just tapped successor to Scott Kalitta, and a few crew chief changes have been made to the four-car team as well. Jim Oberhofer, Will's current-day equivalent of her spotter, will continue on her dragster.

"I'm hopeful that more good things are in store for our team," Will said.

After Sonoma, Schumacher held a 396-point lead over surprise contender Antron Brown. Will sat seventh in the points, with Doug Herbert and her Kalitta teammates Dave Grubnic and Doug Kalitta behind him in ninth and 10th.

In Funny Car, independent driver/team owner Tim Wilkerson continued his shocking success with a total of four wins so far for the year and his invitation to the playoffs already delivered. John Force Racing's Robert Hight was second with three victories so far this season, with Tony Pedregon behind him in third behind the power of two trips to the winner's circle in 16 events. Ashley Force, daughter of team owner and driver John Force, was fourth after her Atlanta win.

Five Pro Stock drivers have already clinched their spots in the Countdown after 16 events. Greg Anderson, his Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line, Kurt Johnson, defending champ Jeg Coughlin and Allen Johnson have all secured their spots. Dave Connolly has charged back from missing the first five races of the season to win a pair of events and put himself into playoff contention.

Andrew Hines leads the Pro Stock Motorcycle category with two wins, and is followed closely in the standings by reigning NHRA POWERade Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Matt Smith, who won his third race of the season last weekend in Brainerd.

* SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 15. Qualifying continues at 11 and 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 16 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 17.

* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals. Call (610) 856-7200 or check maplegroveraceway.com for details.

* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 16. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 17. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 10 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 17.

* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in six categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA POWERade Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 14, with eliminations starting on Aug. 15 at 8:45 a.m.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Kurt Johnson , Tony Pedregon , John Force , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Scott Kalitta , Tim Wilkerson , Ashley Force , Melanie Troxel , Allen Johnson , Jason Line , Andrew Hines , Jim Oberhofer , Matthew Smith , Jeff Arend , Robert Hight , Hillary Will , Dave Connolly