Topeka: Ashley Force preview

RECENT RESULTS MAKE ASHLEY A NEW FORCE FOR THE FUTURE Small Steps Put Champ's Daughter in Funny Car Contention TOPEKA, Kan. -- For Ashley Force, the 24-year-old daughter of drag racing icon John Force, the 2007 season was to have been about ...

RECENT RESULTS MAKE ASHLEY A NEW FORCE FOR THE FUTURE
Small Steps Put Champ's Daughter in Funny Car Contention

TOPEKA, Kan. -- 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.

The fact is, women haven't exactly established gender equality in Funny Car the way they have in, say, Top Fuel (think Shirley Muldowney and Melanie Troxel) and Pro Stock Motorcycle (Angelle Sampey and Karen Stoffer).

In fact, entering this week's 19th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Summer Nationals at Heartland Park-Topeka, Funny Car remains the only professional category in NHRA POWERade drag racing in which a woman has yet to reach the final round.

Will Ashley be the first?Perhaps.After all, she has driven her Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang into the semifinal round at each of the last two races in series, becoming the first woman in the last 22 years to reach the penultimate round in the a Funny Car division widely considered one of the last bastions of machismo.

However, even if this isn't the week she makes racing history, the graduate of California State University-Fullerton already has proven that she belongs.

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

Furthermore, if you look at the current driver standings, she is the only Force among the current qualifiers for the NHRA's new Countdown to the Championship. Even though she missed one race to honor the memory of fallen teammate Eric Medlen, she is seventh in the standings, 11 positions ahead of her famous father.

Under the direction of rookie crew chief Dean "Guido" Antonelli, who learned the trade working on Ashley's dad's car as understudy to Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, Ms. Force 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 even when there are big weather changes."

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

"She's got natural ability," he said, "but it also helped her to race for 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 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis)."

That Top Alcohol 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, "and she's been able to put that experience to good use in Funny Car.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 last January that she was moving up in classification, Ashley has handled the pressure with a self-effacing charm.

Instead of celebrating after winning her first round, for instance, 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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Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , John Force , Karen Stoffer , Ashley Force , Melanie Troxel , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight , Angelle Sampey , Austin Coil