FUNNY CAR TITLE CONTENDER FORCE HOOD CAN JOIN STRONG FEMALE LEGACY OF WINNING AT TRADITION-RICH WINTERNATIONALS
POMONA, Calif. - Ever since Shirley Shahan raced past Ken Heinemann for the 1966 Stock Eliminator victory and became the first female winner of a national event in NHRA history, the Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals has become a race that's known for the girls beating the boys.
In Top Fuel, four women have visited winner's circle at the tradition-rich event at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. The legendary Shirley Muldowney was the first female to win a Top Fuel title and raced to two victories here, in 1980 and 1983. She was runner-up in 1982. Lori Johns won in 1990, Shelley Anderson in 1994 and most recently Melanie Troxel opened with a Winternationals victory in 2006 There has never been a female in a Funny Car final round at the Winternationals, but that could change this season. Ashley Force Hood, who finished second in the Funny Car point standings last year with two wins in eight final rounds, comes into the much-hyped 50th anniversary event Feb. 11-14 as a heavy favorite to win the race, as well as the pre-season favorite for many to win the world championship crown
Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.
Force Hood, who has claimed many firsts during the past three seasons, including first female in her category to go to a final round, win a race, lead the point standings and hold the national speed record, to name a few of her accomplishments, seems poised to make more history in her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. She understands what it would mean to be a part of the great Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals legacy.
"It's just a huge event," Force Hood said. "The first race of the year kicks off everything. Everybody new out there, new sponsors, new fans, it's the race you want to do well at and start your year strong. It definitely gives you a great confidence boost if you are able to start your season on such a great note. And I think it's going to be a big deal. I know that NHRA is promoting a lot and doing a lot of special events and activities. It's going to be exciting. I hope we can do well there. It is a tough one to win because you are coming back after a few months off. You might have a change in crew members or changes with your car. But we're all out there. That's what's on everyone's mind in their off season is to go out and win that race. Especially this year. It's such a special one, it's going to be cool."
While she's heard the rumblings that she may have the car to beat this season, she puts it all in perspective. It may be an overused cliche, but she's taking them one race at a time. Her car may top 310 mph, but her focus on the season is slow and deliberate.
"We've got to go out there for the Winternationals and we've got to qualify," she said. "We've got to utilize every qualifying run. Get that info that we need. I need to get my experience in the car and then go out there hopefully on Sunday and have a strong race. That is the way that we believe, and every team might have a different philosophy for how they do it. But we try to not even get so far ahead to where we're thinking of the championship points. For now we want to win the Winternationals. We want to qualify and win the Winternationals. So that's where our goals are set as of today."
After finishing 10th in points in her rookie year and sixth in 2008, her second-place run last year came up a few points short of teammate Robert Hight, who claimed his first championship title. Hight's Auto Club Ford Mustang will be just one of the very tough competitors she'll have to face in order to win the Winternationals and the season title.
In addition to Hight, other top contenders in Funny Car include her father, 14-time champ John Force, last year's third place finisher Ron Capps, 2008 champ Cruz Pedregon in his Snap-on Tools Toyota, fellow-Ford drivers Tim Wilkerson and Bob Tasca, two-time champ Tony Pedregon and the always tough Del Worsham.
"I believe in Funny Car the competition has gotten so close," Force Hood said. "That's why the fans love to see the Funny Car category. There are so many different teams, every pair that goes up there is a car that can run a great time. There is nobody really dominating anything. So it's exciting to watch, and obviously, it's exciting to be a part of that."
And in terms of the Full Throttle Series championship hunt, Force Hood isn't putting any extra pressure on herself or her race team. "Maybe the championship will be ours, and maybe it won't," Force Hood said. "You know, the talent, the skill, all those things are so important. Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck, and that is part of this racing thing as well. We can just do the best that we can do. And not let the pressure that media or fans might want to put on us on this championship, not let it get to us because it doesn't help you at all. Every time you go up to run that car, we're all doing the best that we can do. Whether it's your day to win or not, you know, it's how it's going to be. You can't get too ahead of yourself."