ENCOURAGED BY FLORIDA VICTORY, ASHLEY AIMING HIGH AT HOUSTON Next Generation Driver Among Top Alcohol Contenders HOUSTON, Texas (March 29-April 2) -- Ashley Force's victory two weeks ago in the ACDelco Gatornationals at Gainesville...
ENCOURAGED BY FLORIDA VICTORY, ASHLEY AIMING HIGH AT HOUSTON
Next Generation Driver Among Top Alcohol Contenders
HOUSTON, Texas (March 29-April 2) -- Ashley Force's victory two weeks ago in the ACDelco Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway ended three years of frustration at a Florida track on which she always had excelled, but never won.
This week, the 23-year-old daughter of drag racing icon John Force will try to effect a similar reversal of fortune in her return to Houston Raceway Park where she'll contest the Top Alcohol Dragster championship in the 19th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Spring Nationals.
Although she has reached the semifinals every time she has raced at HRP for California car owners Jerry Darien and Ken Meadows twice in the Spring Nationals and twice in the track's Lucas Sportsman Series race that's as far as she has advanced.
Now, however, with her Castrol dragster pounding out consistent 5.20 and 5.30 second quarter mile times, she believes she has a car capable of going the distance.
"We finally got a win at Gainesville," she said, "where it seems like we always were losing in the final (twice in three appearances), so maybe that's a good sign (for the Spring Nationals)."
The oldest of Force's three racing daughters, Ashley won't lack motivation at HRP where she has a chance to reclaim the national points lead in her ongoing battle with rival Aaron Olivarez, who currently leads by 42 points.
After winning three times in 2004 and finishing fourth in the final driver standings, the former high school cheerleader suffered through a disappointing 2005 season, one in which she failed to win a national event and prevailed only once at the regional level.
Those performance problems, which began with the NHRA's decision to restrict the amount of volatile nitromethane in the fuel mixture, finally may be behind her.
Nevertheless, while 2005 was disappointing from a won-lost standpoint, it provided invaluable experience for Ashley, who didn't begin racing full time until 2004 after she earned a degree in communications from California State University-Fullerton.
"I learned so much more last year than I did my first year," she said. "In 2004, everything went right and I guess I thought 'this isn't so hard.' Then last year came along and everything changed.
"I was used to the car going A to B, every run," she explained, "but last year it never just went A to B. It shook the tires. It smoked the tires. It dropped cylinders. It ran to the center line. It ran to the wall.
"Dad told me that anyone can drive a car when everything's perfect. It's what you do when things aren't perfect that separates the drivers."
While her primary focus this year is on helping Darien and Meadows win their first series championship, Ashley also will continue to test a Castrol Ford Funny Car in anticipation of eventually moving up in classification and, ultimately, racing against her father, winner of more races (119) and series championships (13) than anyone else in history.
"There's no schedule," Force said. "She'll move up when she's ready, whether it's next year or the year after that or whenever. There's no rush. She needs as much seat time as she can get. When Eric (Medlen) and Robert (Hight) started driving, they already knew about (Funny Cars) because they had worked on them as mechanics.
"Ashley is starting from scratch so she still has a lot the learn. But I'm proud of her. I always said that all I wanted was for her to love this sport as much as me -- and I think she does."
In a perfect world, Ashley not only would earn a breakthrough victory this week at Houston, she also would share the winners' circle with her dad. That's happened just once since she began driving (at the 2004 Automobile Club of Southern California Finals in Pomona, Calif.), but the two came close at Gainesville where the elder Force was runner-up to Ron Capps in Funny Car.