Flames from a violent explosion engulfed Hillary Will.
She wasn’t rattled a couple of weeks ago when her 7,000-horsepower engine became a volcano during a race near Houston.
A year ago, she might have been more unnerved.
No reason to fear a fire-breathing dragster at 300 mph if you survived 10 days in a war zone the month before.
Will, 28, joined an expedition to military bases in Afghanistan with former NASCAR drivers Ricky Craven and Randy LaJoie.
They ate with troops, they signed autographs, posed for pictures.
Most important, they listened to troops.
“The troops were so appreciative of us for being there,” she said.
It was life changing, especially late in the mission when the base on which she was staying became a beehive after a suicide bomber drove into a dining facility on a U.S. base a few miles away. Several soldiers were injured, and the cowardly attacker likely was stood up by 72 virgins he believed Allah would hook him up with.
The wounded were brought to the base where the racers were staying. “It was hard to see the injured,” Will said. “It was moving.
“We felt safe and complacent until that happened. The whole experience changed my life.”
Will carries a different attitude about racing coming into this weekend’s NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s dragstrip.
She hasn’t won an NHRA title in her first 50 events and has advanced to the semifinals only four times. In February, she became the fastest woman in drag racing history by reaching a speed of 334.65 mph.
Her new outlook sees a title on the horizon.
“Before the trip to Afghanistan, I’d sit in the staging lines waiting to race, and my heart would beat really fast, and I’d get nervous,” Will said. “When I got back into the car, it was like, ‘This is fun; racing is awesome.’
“A race is not something to get so nervous about; being in a war zone is.”
Wearing a racer’s fire suit and helmet is like being wrapped in the cashmere cocoon of a robe at a spa compared to sleeping in a Kevlar vest under lockdown on a military base.
The experience of spending a night hunkered down after the attack has calmed her in the cockpit.
“I didn’t know it would change my life,” she said.
A Top Fueler owned by Evan Knoll was painted last year as a tribute to Vietnam vets and a reminder of continuing POW/MIA efforts. It promoted a belated “welcome home” message instead of selling beer, tools or car parts.
Veterans of the Southeast Asia debacle were scorned or ignored after military service, and their heartfelt appreciation wasn’t hidden when thanking the team for caring.
A year ago, Will’s dragster — owned by Las Vegans Ken and Kenny Black — carried a “Support the Troops” message.
“Some of the guys came over to me with tears in their eyes, especially the ones who served in Vietnam,” Will said. “It’s beyond my belief how they couldn’t be appreciated. It doesn’t matter whether or not you supported the war.”
The wave of patriotism in motor sports is nothing new. Racers regularly salute troops in media interviews. They venture overseas and to hospitals to let them know people care.
Patriotism in the National Hot Rod Association goes beyond its red, white and blue logo. Drag racing’s roots are buried in post-World War II America.
Will and others bravely have carried those colors into war.
Racers like Will aren’t heros for what they do on a racetrack.
They are heros for what they do off it.
Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or email@example.com.