An interview with: DEL WORSHAM DAVE CONNOLLY HILLARY WILL MICHAEL PADIAN: NHRA would like to welcome the members of the media participating in today's teleconference to mark the halfway point in the 18-race Countdown to the Championship regular...
An interview with:
MICHAEL PADIAN: NHRA would like to welcome the members of the media participating in today's teleconference to mark the halfway point in the 18-race Countdown to the Championship regular season.
The Countdown to the Championship has been tweaked slightly in 2008 and the following are the key changes: There will only be one cut, so this year's format includes an 18-race regular season, and a six-race playoff. There will be 10 drivers who qualify for the playoffs in each category, up from eight in 2007. Finally, the first-place drivers at the end of the regular season will receive a 20-point bonus.
Joining us on today's call are two of the drivers who were central figures in last year's inaugural season of the countdown, and later in the call we'll be joined by Hillary Will, who won her first race Sunday and became the 11th woman in NHRA history to win a POWERade Series race.
I'd like to introduce first Del Worsham, who was the 'last man out' last year, after a close race the last several races of the regular season. At the final race in Reading, he controlled his own destiny: win and he would get in. He was beaten in the semis by eventually race and series champion Tony Pedregon, to be eliminated right at the finish line.
Del, can you bring us back to that final week of the regular season, the emotions of contending for that final playoff spot.
DEL WORSHAM: Came down to the very end. Like you said, points meant everything at that point. We showed up at Reading, qualified No. 1, felt pretty confident going into the whole weekend that things might work out our way. If everybody remembers, it started raining. We sat around for days and days. Basically just raced one round of racing per day. Got to the point where we had to win the race.
Either Wednesday or Thursday, we were finally eliminated in the semifinals by Tony Pedregon. It was a letdown but taught me a lot about this whole Countdown, how to race it, how important every point is going to be.
PADIAN: Del has had a similar position this year as last year. He was in 10th place going into last weekend's race in Topeka where unfortunately he got his third DNQ of the season. On the flipside, he also won once this year. That adds up to a 12th-place spot in the current standings heading into the second half of the regular season which starts this weekend in Chicago with the Torco Racing Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Chicago.
I'd also like to introduce Dave Connolly, who drives the Charter Communications Chevy Cobalt. After missing the first five races of this season due to sponsorship issues, Dave returned with a runner-up and a win in his four races, to move up to 12th place in the current Pro Stock standings. He's right now 83 points behind Warren Johnson for the final playoff berth.
Dave, what are your thoughts about the season to date? Crazy first half of the season for you. Then looking forward to the second half of this regular season.
DAVE CONNOLLY: Definitely has been a pretty crazy season. With losing the sponsorship, missing basically the first five races, I'm just ecstatic about being back out here and racing. Due to the new format, the countdown format, it's really working in our favor this year. It enables us to still make the countdown. Even though we missed five races, there's still a good shot we can go out there, get in the top 10, have a shot at the big trophy at the end of the year.
Our whole team is really looking forward to that right now. We're actually out testing again. We have a brand-new Chevy Cobalt we brought out when we return to the Pro Stock chase here in Atlanta, basically the car only has three or four races on it, and just needs a little fine tuning. The guys keep plugging away at it. We're getting the thing better and better. We have had to play catch-up to Warren and the rest of the guys, but we're definitely up for the challenge.
PADIAN: I'll open it up to questions at this point.
Q: Del, I guess you learned a lot in the Countdown last year. A painful experience for you. You made a comment, you were talking about you learned how to race the countdown. Explain that to me. Also, do you like the newer format with six races going to the end, going a little deeper?
WORSHAM: First question is, learn how to race the Countdown? I guess to really be truthful, I really haven't because I put myself back in the same situation I was in last year last weekend by not just trying to get qualified in the show. Funny Car this year, last three years, has become extremely difficult. The pains that Pro Stock guys, Dave Connolly went through for the last 10 years, I watched these guys race in these close fields, I know what they've gone through now.
We have learned how important qualifying position is, just qualifying for the show, not always having to go for the top spot.
Next question was about changes in the format. Absolutely, I think the format this year is great, especially compared to last year, which I didn't get a chance to participate in. But I think by giving everybody a chance at Indy to kind of tighten the field back up and race for this thing, not bringing it down to four cars again, it's going to enable the fastest cars and best cars to probably win this thing.
I think it's a great format. I think it's going to be work out great. There's going to be great racing, especially later in the year. It added a lot of pressure to us. It seems like with the new qualifying format, they only qualify 12 cars on Friday, now we have to get to Indy and try to make the top 10 by Indy. If you're lucky enough to do that, you can go to the race for the championship.
It's basically brought like three races in one. It seems like every single round is almost like a final round, and every single race is like being at the finals right now trying to gather up points.
I look forward to it and I definitely think it's a great system.
Q: Ratcheted up the pressure ...
WORSHAM: It has, every week. First round today feels like a final round from five years ago.
Q: Dave, you had a remarkable comeback, missing five races, being up in the 12th spot. Feel you can be a serious contender for the Countdown this year?
CONNOLLY: I'd definitely like to think so. Basically my whole team from last year, everybody involved with our team, it's the same group of guys we had last year that got us to the final phase of the Countdown last year, got us a third-place finish.
I do definitely feel we are a Top 10 team. It's whether we have enough time to play catch-up on these guys. We come out and we struggled a little bit the first race, then we went to the finals, then won there in Bristol, picked up a No. 1 qualifying spot last week.
I know we have a good enough car to do it. It's just, you know, whether the cards fall in our favor. We made up all that ground in a matter of a few races going to two finals like that. Then again last week, with us going out in the second round, the 10th-place guy, Ron Krisher, going to the race, we can lose those points just as fast as we gain them.
We really have to keep our head on our shoulders and keep plugging away at the task at hand and just try to go those rounds on Sunday. Like Del said, qualifying is the main thing right now. You've got to get in the show to be able to go rounds on Sunday. Last Sunday, the Pro Stock field all together was basically separated by four hundredths of a second. It's basically going to be tough, but I definitely think we have a good shot at making it.
Q: Handling the ups and downs of racing at this level, does that get easier with experience? The tough challenges you've been talking about, are they just a constant?
WORSHAM: I'm in my 18th season right now. I would say the challenges right now are bigger and tougher definitely than they were when I started, even more so than they were back in early 2000. Yeah, they're tough. There's a lot of good cars, a lot of well-funded cars, a lot of very talented people that make this is a very tough sport. It's definitely a lot of fun and I definitely wouldn't trade it for anything.
Q: Dave, would you answer the same question?
CONNOLLY: I've only been in this sport for five years. I definitely have had a lot of ups and downs with losing the major sponsor twice on my car already. Yeah, I think like Del said, it's definitely a lot tougher than even when I started just five years ago to go out there and bring new marketing partners in each year, get their money's worth what they're spending for these cars. It costs a lot to be out here. Without the proper funding and sponsorship, that's the only way you can contend for a championship.
What is kind of exciting, we just did this about two weeks ago, one of our major sponsors LifeLock on the side of the car, with the new format to the Countdown, they're doing a new promotional deal with LifeLock Identity Theft. It's given them a chance to go out there and promote themselves a little better. Anybody that signs up from the time we start racing all the way through the Indy race, they're doing a special promotion where they get a free T-shirt, first month free, like a 20% discount on annual fee.
We got a lot of things like that going on and it's making it worthwhile for the sponsors to be out here, let all of us get to do and enjoy what we all love to do, that's drag racing.
Q: Dave, could you talk about your feelings, what your mindset was whenever you found out the sponsors were leaving I believe in January. Did you ever consider looking outside of Cagnazzi when that happened?
CONNOLLY: You know, it was really shocking. Right there, probably the second week of January, everything was good to go. We were still full steam ahead preparing for the 2008 season. When it did come, it was quite a shock. Obviously my first thought process was to figure out what we had to do at Cagnazzi Racing to get out there and find the proper funding. Luckily it worked out that way.
I mean, there were other offers on the table, some other things that I could approach. I had all the faith in the word that Cagnazzi and his marketing guys would find the proper funding, which they have. I'm grateful for that.
Yeah, I don't know, there's a group of people and team chemistry we have here at Cagnazzi, we're like one family still. Obviously that was my first choice.
I guess my answer to your question was, you know, yeah, there were some other opportunities, and I kind of did look outside the box. At the end of the day, I'm thankful everything worked out with Cagnazzi Racing and Charter Communications.
Q: You talked earlier as far as your position in the points. Realistically, how do you feel your chances are? Aside from that early setback, what do you feel your biggest hurdle from this point forward is?
CONNOLLY: From this point forward? Right now this new Chevy Cobalt is giving us a little trouble. It's hard for me to say that after coming up a runner-up and a win, No. 1 qualifying spot (laughter). I guess I'm nitpicking, fine tuning the car we have. I know what we're capable of, what our previous car from last year that Ron Krisher has been racing so well with in the last few weeks, what that car's capable of, where we stand.
Right now we're just trying to get our car better. Like I said, I'm just happy to be back in the car again and getting to race with these guys every weekend, trying to pick up the event trophies, just go rounds. Right now that's kind of my main focus. If we make the Countdown, that's just icing on the cake. If it wasn't for the new format, we wouldn't even have a shot at the championship.
Everything's kind of working in our favor right now, going well. With everybody being so close, we've had I think eight different winners already in nine races. You never know. That's kind of been a bad deal for us because everybody has been getting points instead of just a few racers taking off and going to the top in the points system and leaving a lot of room for the bottom half, for us to make up that ground real easy.
We're just doing the best we can. We're trying to go round by round. The points will come to us if we can just get the job done, beat the other guy in the other lane. I'm pretty open-minded about everything. We're just trying to do the best we can. We'll just see what happens from there.
Q: With the three ladies (Ashley Force, Melanie Troxel and Hillary Will) winning races recently, that seems to create a lot of buzz for the sport. How can NHRA as a whole capitalize on that, gain more fans, TV viewers?
CONNOLLY: I think they've actually done an excellent job with Melanie Troxel and Ashley Force. She (Ashley) represents the sport so well with being on national television, and they did the show (Driving Force on A&E) there for a little bit. She's gotten a lot of exposure with the Internet and TV and everything else.
I guess it diversifies the sport a little bit and kind of opens us up to a lot of different female fans, a lot of different fans in that aspect.
WORSHAM: I've noticed already in the 18 years I've been racing, probably the first 15 years I was the youngest driver out here. It's just recently in the last five to eight years that there's been some younger drivers out here. I've noticed the age of the fans, the kind of fans that have been coming out since the girls and the younger guys have gotten involved.
It just seems like it's really opened up the sport to not just car mechanics or guys that are kind of gear heads or motor heads. It's become a lot more mainstream. Hopefully by doing that, the sponsors will see it's a pretty efficient way to spend your dollar, you can get a lot of bang out of your buck in NHRA drag racing.
With all the new fans, the new buzz with all the girls winning, now with Hillary Will winning last week, it's amazing the momentum that takes over with the girls. We see Danica, Ashley, Melanie, now Hillary Will. I'm thinking, man, I'm not sure the next time a guy's going to win a race.
It's there and people are very excited. I can definitely see it myself. Hopefully the sponsors will see that and it will filter down to us.
PADIAN: Thanks so much, Dave and Del, for joining us today.
Hillary (Will), last Sunday (June 1), as everyone knows at this point, became the 11th female to win an NHRA POWERade Series race when she drove her KB Racing dragster to victory at the O'Reilly Summer Nationals in Topeka.
Hillary, another interesting note, had nine round wins last year. She already has 13 round wins this year. She's up for fourth place in the Top Fuel POWERade standings.
Hillary, what, of those statistics, is the most impressive ... the win, fourth place, or 13 round wins already this season?
HILLARY WILL: I can't even believe you're talking about me when you're saying all those stats. It's so cool.
I couldn't pick one. All three of those are awesome. Hopefully we'll just keep getting better. Especially because of the struggles that we've had, I mean, to finish 13th last year was not acceptable. We started off last year with the pre-season crash in testing (in Las Vegas). Our car went into a thousand pieces. There was nothing that we saved on that car. Last year we got out-ran. I got left on. I got out-pedaled. I lost races by inches. It was just such a hard year. My rookie season was only a little bit better in '06. It was really tough.
But nobody on my team gave up on me. Everybody stayed positive and kept on believing in me when I didn't believe in myself. I'm just thankful to be where we are and to have those stats. To have you read off those stats and be talking about me is kind of amazing right now.
I knew we had it in us. When I was hired on this team to start driving in '06, it's Kalitta Motorsports and KB Racing, Ken Black's Pro Stock team (with Greg Anderson and Jason Line) has won multiple (four) world championships. It was really overwhelming and kind of intimidating to come on a team like this because I knew how good we could be. It's finally awesome to be living up to our potential I guess you could say.
PADIAN: We'll open it up to questions.
Q: When you think about where you are now, when you think back to when you got into this sport, if you could put into words the opportunity that you faced. Initially did you think it would come together that you could race? Now that you've won, how far women have come in this sport, compare that to some other racing circuits.
WILL: I never imagined I would make it this far. The first car I raced was 99 miles an hour. It ran the quarter mile in 15 seconds. I didn't think much of, 'Oh, I'm a girl, the only girl racer out here.' I didn't even realize that I was different. My dad -- we used to go together all the time -- said, 'Hey, do you want to try this?' I loved it. I just loved drag racing. It was something I wanted to continue to do as a hobby my whole life.
I went away to college (Wheaton College in Massachusetts where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Economics), tried to get a good job where I could make a lot of money to support my expensive hobby. One day I just kind of decided, 'Why can't my hobby be my career?' It's just been unbelievable the way things have worked out. I'm on the best team in drag racing. I'm thankful that there's been women racers before me who kind of paved the way. Maybe that's a big reason why my dad even brought me to the racetrack in the first place, is because he saw there were women succeeding in motorsports.
I was his first child. I happened to be a girl. But he still brought me to the races. My team gives me such a great car that this year I became the fastest female in drag racing (334.65 mph at the 2008 CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals at Pomona). But that doesn't mean a whole lot. It's awesome and I'm thankful for it, but we don't race just to be fast, we race to win. That's why it's even better now obviously that we're winning.
There was a lot to that answer. I don't know if I answered it.
Q: Do you think it's reaching a point, because women have a history of succeeding in this sport, that maybe that explains why there hasn't been as much buzz as opposed to Danica Patrick in the IRL?
WILL: Yeah, I don't think it's as big of a deal. I think women racers kind of maybe fit in more in NHRA drag racing. I'm not around other motorsports as much so I don't know what it's like obviously as a woman to compete in other motorsports.
I know most everybody in NHRA drag racing just thinks of me as another competitor. That's how I want to be thought of as, is another competitor. I mean, I was in business. I used to be a financial analyst. There were times when I was the only woman sitting at a table full of suits. That was tough. I know I feel a lot more comfortable in the drag racing world than I did in the business world.
I know there are still women out there in business, women in politics, still struggling in those male-dominated fields. We just have to stay at it and be determined. If it's what we love to do, then women can succeed in male-dominated fields, too.
NOTE: Hillary's father's name is Steve Will and the track they attended in her youth was Samoa Drag Strip in Eureka, CA.
Q: What do you attribute the change in your performance this year to as opposed to last year, the first half of the season?
WILL: You know, I went to Afghanistan this year on a goodwill Support-the-Troops tour. It was an amazing experience. I saw soldiers with blown-up faces. We were in danger at one point. We had to wear Kevlar vests as we slept. I thought we were going to get bombed. There was a bombing near us. I mean, I was in a war zone for 10 days.
When I came back from that, we went to a race. I used to get so nervous for races and so amped up and try so hard. Racing wasn't even fun because I worried about it so much and just tried so hard. After being in a war zone, then you go for a race, it's like a race is nothing to worry about. I have no reason to get nervous or anything.
I could finally just kind of relax and enjoy racing, do what I do, just get in the car and drive because I love it, not get in the car because I have to do it for certain reasons or whatever. It was just like racing became peaceful again, if that makes sense.
Q: That more relaxed atmosphere has allowed you to perform better then?
WILL: Absolutely. I actually do better when I relax when I drive, which kind of doesn't seem right when I'm talking about driving (a 7,000) horsepower dragster. I really, yeah, just kind of have to relax. That's what I did in the finals against Larry Dixon (to win the O'Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals). The last thing I thought was, 'Wow, this is so cool, I'm finally in the finals.' My whole team is up here supporting me. The KB Racing Pro Stock team was up there. I thought, 'This is really cool, I love this.' It made my job a lot easier.
Q: To win at top NHRA levels takes persistence, patience, maybe digging deeper than others at times. What does digging deep mean to you?
WILL: Thank you for asking me that. I think a lot of people doubted my desire to win. That's what hurt me the most, is that people doubted my desire to win. I always had the desire to win. I kept thinking, 'I've got to dig deeper. I've got to try harder, try harder, try harder. There reaches a point where you can't try harder. I couldn't dig deeper. I already wanted it.
What it came down to is me knowing that I had the ability to drive the race car. God put me in the car. God gave me the gifts to be a good driver. And I have to accept. I just accepted that I could drive the car, I can drive, I can be a good driver.
So it was actually more about acceptance than trying harder.
Q: As far as your confidence, finding that confidence, do you think that's a key to every successful racer?
WILL: Yeah, because you have to have so much confidence in those cars because you don't have time to doubt yourself. If I need to pedal the car and take my foot off the throttle or leave the starting line, I can't think about it, I just have to do it. You just have to react to the car and trust yourself. If you don't have confidence, you don't trust yourself, there's not time in a four-and-a-half second car. You just have to react.
PADIAN: Thanks, Hillary. Thank you to the media for joining us on today's call to discuss the Countdown to the Championship and Hillary Will's win on Sunday. We'll see some of you this weekend in Chicago. If not, we'll see you down the road.