ASHLEY ALTERS FOCUS
AS TOUR MOVES TO BIR
With Countdown a Fading Option, Rookie Changes Direction
BRAINERD, Minn. -- Although her bid for a berth in the NHRA's new Countdown to the Championship has become a longshot, at best, Ashley Force remains the front- runner in the race for the Automobile Club of Southern California's Road to the Future Award that identifies professional drag racing's Rookie of the Year.
In fact, her fading Countdown hopes ultimately could work to her benefit in a Rooke-of-the-Year contest that moves this week to Brainerd International Raceway for the 22nd annual Lucas Oil Nationals.
"All year we've raced really conservative," said the 24-year-old driver of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang and daughter of drag racing icon John Force. "One reason is because almost all of us were new to Funny Car racing when the season started but another reason is because we didn't want to make any silly mistakes and beat ourselves.
"Now (that we're out of serious contention), though, I think Guido' (first year crew chief Dean Guido' Antonelli) is going to start pushing a little harder, especially if we come up against one of the drivers that can knock dad out (of his current position among the Countdown elite)."
Although she hasn't mathematically been eliminated from Countdown consideration, Ashley probably needs to win this week's race in order to breathe life into her bid for a top eight spot. She presently is 12th in points. More importantly, she is seven racing rounds behind eighth place Jim Head.
"It's been a little disappointing," she said of her stumble out of the Countdown as a result of consecutive qualifying failures at Denver and Seattle, "but it's just part of the learning experience. This is a new team from top to bottom and we're all learning together.
"Guido" is a rookie like me and most of the guys on the crew had never worked on a Funny Car before this season. So we started out with a new driver, new crew chief, new crew and new car and when you think about that, I think we've done okay."
Indeed, as the first woman to compete in Funny Car since Cristen Powell in 2000, Ashley has taken the Castrol Ford to the semifinals two times (Atlanta, Ga., and Madison, Ill.), qualified as high as second (Norwalk, Ohio) and become the first woman in history to beat her father (also at Atlanta).
Along the way, she has learned the lessons that only experience can provide.
She's hit the cones that delineate the center line; she's been on fire; and, three weeks ago, she crashed heavily into the guardwall at Seattle, Wash., while trying to run down veteran Kenny Bernstein.
She also has beaten three former series champions (Force, Bernstein and Cruz Pedregon) along with current points leader Ron Capps and has put up the best numbers ever for a female Funny Car driver, 4.730 seconds, 324.12 miles per hour.
Thus far, though, a final round appearance has eluded her, just as it did every other woman to have raced in the NHRA Funny Car division, from Shirley Muldowney to Della Woods to Paula Martin to Powell.
Based on her performance thus far, though, few doubt that Ashley ultimately will reach that plateau. Whether it will be as early as this week is subject to considerable speculation.
"I'm just trying to learn from my mistakes," she said. "I have a great team and they've been really patient with me. I'm finally starting to get better on the lights, which I'm sure makes the proud but they've never put any pressure on me and that's made it so much easier.
"It's been fun, but it's been an emotional time losing our teammate (2004 and 2005 Lucas Oil Champion and track record-holder Eric Medlen, who lost his life in a testing accident last March in Gainesville, Fla.)," Ashley said. "I think facing everything together has brought us a lot closer as a team and as a racing family."