Indy ORP: Ashley Force preview

ASHLEY IN SPOILER' ROLE AS TOUR MOVES TO INDY A Winner Off-Track, Force Aims for On-Track Breakthrough INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Sizzling hot off the track after beating IndyCar driver Danica Patrick and softball star Jennie Finch to win...

ASHLEY IN SPOILER' ROLE AS TOUR MOVES TO INDY
A Winner Off-Track, Force Aims for On-Track Breakthrough

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Sizzling hot off the track after beating IndyCar driver Danica Patrick and softball star Jennie Finch to win AOL's "Hottest Female Athlete" competition, Ashley Force tries to ramp up her on-track heat quotient this weekend when the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series moves to O'Reilly Raceway Park for the 53rd annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.

Despite the recently erratic performance of her 330 mile-an-hour Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, the daughter of 14-time NHRA Champion John Force is looking forward to her first Funny Car appearance in the world's oldest, largest, richest and most prestigious drag race.

She expects good things and why not? It was at the 2004 U.S. Nationals that she first burst onto the national stage as a Top Alcohol division rookie. Driving a car owned by veterans Jerry Darien and Ken Meadows, she earned a Top Alcohol Dragster victory that propelled her onto the fast track to becoming just the 10th woman licensed to compete in a nitromethane-burning Funny Car.

Three years later, she's back at ORP to try and replicate that success at a much higher level and, at the same time, strengthen her bid for the Automobile Club of Southern California's 2007 Road to the Future Award (the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year).

Although she failed to earn a berth in the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship playoff system, Ashley relishes her new role as a potential "spoiler."

"Since we're not in the Countdown, no one really expects us to do anything," she said, "but we still have a job to do. With Robert (brother-in-law Robert Hight) and dad racing for the championship, our job is to line up against Ron Capps and Gary Scelzi and Tony Pedregon, our former teammate, and beat them whenever we can. That's what being a team is all about."

Of course, there is a big difference between knowing what to do and doing what you know. That will be Ashley's challenge this week as she resumes her quest to become the first woman in Funny Car history to reach an NHRA final round.

As the first female Funny Car driver since Cristen Powell in 2000, she twice has reached the semifinals. Furthermore, at Norwalk, Ohio, she earned the highest starting position ever for a woman in the Funny Car class when she qualified second behind Hight.

Despite her growing celebrity, the 24-year-old admits that she is more comfortable in the cockpit of her 8,000 horsepower race car than anywhere else.

"I'm really shy," she said. "In high school, I was the only cheerleader who never got out in front to lead a cheer. In choir, I was the only one who never (performed) a solo. I get more nervous when I come back from a run (because) there'll be a big crowd cheering and my face will turn bright red. I can feel it. I'm actually relieved when I climb into the car (because) there's familiarity there."

Nevertheless, Ashley credits the A&E Netwok TV show, Driving Force, in which she stars with her father, mother and two younger sisters (Brittany, 21, and Courtney, 19), for preparing her for the media circus that sprung up around her after she announced last January that she was moving up in class.

     "It's been one of the most up-and-down years in my life," she said.  "I was pretty
prepared for the driving, but that's just a small part of this job.  You also have media,
fans, sponsors and appearances.  It's definitely the kind of job that's not routine at all.

"It's been fun, but it's been emotional, especially losing our teammate (Eric Medlen, who last March succumbed to injuries suffered in a testing accident at Gainesville, Fla.). Facing everything together, I think, has brought us a lot closer as a team and as a racing family."

All that's left is to turn those "family ties" into another championship.

-credit: jfr

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Ron Capps , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Ashley Force , Robert Hight , Danica Patrick , Cristen Powell