Pomona: Ashley Force preview

TOP ROOKIE SEEKS MORE IN SECOND PRO SEASON Ashley Force Faces a New Test at Pomona POMONA, Calif. -- Coming off a spectacular 2008 season that culminated in her acceptance of the Automobile Club of Southern California's Road to the Future Award...

TOP ROOKIE SEEKS MORE IN SECOND PRO SEASON
Ashley Force Faces a New Test at Pomona

POMONA, Calif. -- Coming off a spectacular 2008 season that culminated in her acceptance of the Automobile Club of Southern California's Road to the Future Award as the professional Rookie of the Year in the NHRA POWERade Series, Ashley Force rolls into the 48th annual CARQUEST Auto Parts Winternationals this week facing at least as much uncertainty as she did a year ago.

This time, though, the questions aren't about her ability to compete in a class dominated by men like her father, 14-time champ John Force.

After finishing 10th in points, becoming the first woman to race in an NHRA Funny Car final and handling every challenge -- including the catastrophic loss of teammate Eric Medlen -- with the composure of a veteran, the 25-year-old phenom is happy to "shed my rookie stripes and move on to the next phase."

This time, the questions revolve around the design of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang Funny Car she'll put through its paces for the first time during Thursday, Friday and Saturday qualifying at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Completed just days before the start of the Winternationals, the new car represents the first major re-design of the Funny Car in more than 20 years. In addition to being sturdier and heavier (by more than 100 pounds) than its predecessor, many of the levers and controls in the new car have been relocated..

"We didn't get the car until last Saturday night," Ashley said, "and the guys worked all day Sunday just putting it together. We didn't have time to make any full runs (during testing last week in Phoenix, Ariz.), but dad ran a couple of 4.70s in his car, which was pretty awesome, and I'm sure 'Guido' (crew chief Dean Antonelli) and Ron (Douglas) will use that data to set our car up this week."

A former varsity cheerleader at Esperanza High School (Yorba Linda, Calif.) and a graduate of Cal State-Fullerton, where she earned a degree in communications, Ashley packed a little bit of everything into her first season at the wheel of one of the world's most powerful race cars.

She dealt with a major engine fire at Joliet, Ill., a spectacular crash at Seattle, Wash., and qualifying failures at Bristol, Tenn., Denver, Colo., and Brainerd, Minn. Undaunted, she also qualified No. 2 on three separate occasions, went to the semifinals or beyond four times and won 16 racing rounds. At the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the world's oldest, largest and richest drag race, she lost her bid to become the first woman ever to start a Funny Car race from No. 1 to Jeff Arend on a top speed tie-breaker after the two had matched 4.754 second quarter miles.

At Atlanta, Ga., she became the first woman ever to beat John Force in an NHRA drag race and, after missing a chance to reach the final round at Dallas, Texas, when her car was withdrawn from competition following her dad's second round crash, she made gender history at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a final round loss to Tony Pedregon.

"It was a really bizarre season," she said, "with lots of ups and downs. Losing Eric was the worst because he was more than just a teammate to all of us. Then to have dad get hurt in Dallas. I'd seen him crash a lot of times, but he was always fine so to see him like that was pretty dramatic.

"But I think we all learned from those situations and hopefully, the sport will be better because of it."

With a new car to deal with, the talented brunette is hoping to avoid the drama of one year ago when, on the final day of Winternationals qualifying, she was bumped out of the 16-car starting lineup by her father only to drive her way back into the field in her final attempt.

-credit: jfr

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , John Force , Ashley Force , Jeff Arend , Eric Medlen