Bristol: Ashley Force preview

RECENT RESULTS MAKE ASHLEY A FORCE TO WATCH AT BRISTOL Small Steps Put Champ's Daughter in Funny Car Contention BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For Ashley Force, the 24-year-old daughter of drag racing icon John Force, the 2007 season was to have been ...

RECENT RESULTS MAKE ASHLEY A FORCE TO WATCH AT BRISTOL
Small Steps Put Champ's Daughter in Funny Car Contention

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For Ashley Force, the 24-year-old daughter of drag racing icon John Force, the 2007 season was to have been about proving that she belonged behind the wheel of a 330 mile-an-hour Funny Car.

After all, women haven't exactly established gender equality in Funny Car the way they have in, say, Top Fuel (think Shirley Muldowney and Melanie Troxel), Pro Stock (Erica Enders) and Pro Stock Motorcycle (Angelle Sampey).

In fact, entering this week's seventh O'Reilly Auto Parts Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway, Funny Car remains the only NHRA pro class in which a woman has yet to race in a single final round.

Will Ashley be the first? Perhaps. She is coming off her best personal qualifying effort and the best ever for a woman in the Funny Car division (No. 2 behind teammate Robert Hight at last week's Summit Nationals at Norwalk, Ohio).

Moreover, when she drove her Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang into the semifinals at Atlanta, Ga., and Madison, Ill., she became just the second woman in drag racing history and the first in 22 years to reach the semis in a category widely considered the last bastion of male dominance.

Even if she doesn't win this Sunday, however, the graduate of Cal State-Fullerton already has proven that she belongs.

She's beaten her dad in the first father-daughter match in professional sport, become the winningest female driver in Funny Car history, firmly established herself as the front-runner in the race for the Auto Club's 2007 Road to the Future Award that annually identifies the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year.

Furthermore, if you look at the driver standings, she is the only Force among the current qualifiers for the Countdown. Even though she missed a race to honor the memory of fallen teammate Eric Medlen, who succumbed to injuries suffered last March in a testing accident at Gainesville, Fla., she is seventh in the standings, eight positions ahead of her famous father.

Under the direction of rookie crew chief Dean "Guido" Antonelli, who learned the trade working on John Force's car as understudy to Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, Ashley has been the season's most pleasant surprise.

"We're not trying to set any records," she said, "but we are on kind of a roll because we've been able to get down the track in a lot of different conditions."

For his part, Antonelli considers his driver advanced for a rookie of any gender.

"She's got natural ability," he said, "but it also helped her to race three years for Jerry Darien and Ken Meadows in Top Alcohol Dragster (a category in which she won five NHRA national events including the 2004 U.S. Nationals)."

That experience has manifested itself in Ashley's skill in "backpedaling," a drag racing term referring to a driver's ability to feather the throttle and regain lost traction.

"She made probably 500 runs in the Darien and Meadows dragster," Antonelli said. "That's where she has an advantage, I think."

By contrast, her dad, the sport's most prolific winner; and Robert Hight, who's driven the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford to a pair of 2007 victories, never drove anything else before they first climbed behind the wheel of a Funny Car.

In spite of the fact that she's been at the center of a media storm since announcing that she was moving up in classification, Ashley has handled the pressure with a self-effacing charm.

For instance, instead of celebrating after winning her first racing round, she told the media: "all I know is that for the first time, I haven't hit the guardwall, I haven't hit the cones (that delineate the center line) and I haven't hit the fire bottles (while) sitting in the pits. For me, that's progress."

Apparently progress, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

-credit: jfr

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