Ashley Force, driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang Funny Car, is in first place in the standings going into this weekend's Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. Ashley Force, who has reached the finals in each of...
Ashley Force, driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang Funny Car, is in first place in the standings going into this weekend's Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. Ashley Force, who has reached the finals in each of the last two events, is the first woman in NHRA history to lead the Funny Car point standings. Her father, John Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang Funny Car, will be participating in his 500th NHRA event this weekend, and also has the opportunity to become the first professional drag racer to win 1,000 competitive rounds. (He is currently at 996.) John Force has won a record 125 events and 14 championships. Both Force drivers participated in an NHRA teleconference Tuesday afternoon.
LESS THAN SIX MONTHS AFTER YOUR CRASH IN DALLAS, YOU'RE BACK IN THE CAR AND ON THE VERGE OF TWO MORE MILESTONES.
JOHN FORCE: "It is satisfying. I just came from the gym here about an hour ago. I'm excited that my therapy and now work in the gym continues on a regular, daily basis. I'm still not back, what's the percentage, I gave a quote the other day, 75 percent, 80, but I'm able to drive my race car A to B. I'm not the driver I was because I don't have the strength yet, but I will a time when I continue now to build muscle because I have most of my motion back, and that's what's important. But I'm excited that I just got a second chance and I'm allowed to race. I'm out here with my children, with Ashley and watching her evolve as a driver, I'm very proud of her taking the points lead with the NHRA POWERade circuit. But she's gonna have to fight to keep that lead. Because her dad, starting in Atlanta, I hope I can get back in the game. Ya'll know I didn't qualify at Vegas, it moved me down to eighth in the points, or I was eighth in the points, I stayed it. The dream is to win. The dream is to win more championships. Safety has become a big thing in our life. It's what we do everyday as well, is try to win. To go after 500, hey, I got to show up, I guess I get it. One thousand, that's something. I was never really much about records. If you think about them, they don't seem to happen, but I'm excited that I'm just gonna get a chance to continue, to set those records. I like to do that in front of my children to show them the old man's still got it. At least for a while."
HOW GRATIFYING IS IT TO KNOW THAT YOU'VE REACHED THE TOP OF THE STANDINGS AFTER JUST 26 RACES, QUICKER THAN YOUR FATHER AND FORMER POWERADE CHAMPIONS LIKE TONY AND CRUZ PEDREGON AND GARY SCELZI.
ASHLEY FORCE: "It's been a real exciting time for my team and I. They're the same exact group that I started out with when I first moved into Funny Car. For us, too, we've come a long way. We knew at the beginning we struggled and we had ups-and-downs, but we got through that and now we finally have a very consistent car and [I'm} becoming a more consistent driver. We've just kind of gotten into the groove of things and it's showing in that we're able to keep going rounds each race. But we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves because we know that pack we're competing against. You get thinking about these things and then you're not thinking about what you need to be thinking about, which is racing, doing everything right with the car and in the car and trying to win. We're really trying to stay focused on that but it's tough because we're all new at this and it's an excited thing to be leading at the time. So, we just want to keep that lead."
IN THE LAST TWO RACES, WHEN YOU'VE REACHED THE FINALS, IT LOOKED AS F ITHE CAR HAS GOTTEN OUT OF THE GROOVE...
ASHLEY FORCE: "It's definitely all about experience. No one is going to climb into one of these cars and be perfect in it. It takes all the mistakes and getting out of the groove and hitting walls and crossing center lines to really realize the boundaries and realize what these cars a capable of. I know that I've come a long ways since last year, but I'm sure by next year, the more runs that I make, the more I seem to kind of get the hang of it. And I still have a long way to go, but it seems that the length of time that it takes for your mind to process what's happening and for your body to react to it, that space is becoming smaller. Where before, when I first started, the car got out of the groove, in my mind you're thinking, 'the car's out of the groove, not what do I need to do' or whatever the process is. Where now, your body is already doing it before you mind is even realizing what's happening. I think that's the biggest part of it. With experience you know that whole 'I don't know much about all stuff,' but I know that there's times I have no memory at all of hitting my parachutes and shutting off my fuel, yet they're always done at the end of the track. That's just experience, where last year at this time, I was still really needing to remember when I would come through the lights at the end of the track, 'remember your parachutes, remember your fuel.' Soon your body just kind of naturally remembers those things for you. I'm getting to that point. I still have a long way to go, but it's seeming to be a little easier that where I want to keep the car, I'm able to keep it at."
WHAT ARE YOU DOING, IF ANYTHING, THROUGH SIMULATIONS TO IMPROVE YOUR REACTION TIME?
ASHLEY FORCE: "I've really been working and talking a lot with my crew chief, Dean Antonelli, and the other drivers, with Dad and with Robert [Hight] and Mike Neff about reaction times. It's seems the more experience I get driving the cars, I'm getting better getting from A to B on the track, but now my reactions I'm struggling with. I kind of gotten the same story from everyone -- 'you're thinking about it.' When you first climbed into the car, you could care less what your reaction was, you wanted to get down the track and not hit anything. Where now, you're getting the hang of hat and now starting to think more competitively of wanting to cut the lights and not lose on holeshots. It seems like you're adding, from what everyone tells me, adding more steps in mind. So, I think the more I can practice on my practice tree and Robert has actually given me some tape that he uses for focus. Just learning to train, just like you train yourself to do any kind of athletic skill. You need to train your eyes and your body to react to things that you normally wouldn't react at. I'm not the type, some drivers are, but I'm not the type at the streetlight, as soon as the light's green, tearin' off through the intersection. I'm the one that always worries about the guy who's red lighting or who's going through the red light who's going to hit me. The only way really to practice that is on the track in testing and also on reaction trees and just when you're going up to the line being the best you can be; that you're awake, you're alert, that you're focused. That you're not tired because you didn't get enough sleep or you ate a big lunch or anything like that. You're really feeling like an athlete and ready to compete the best you can. I'm working on all those things, but I have a long way to go. You try different things and you see what works for you and what doesn't. I think every driver is different. I just kind of got to find my groove in it."
CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE ON THE ROAD COURSE IN UTAH LAST WEEK?
ASHLEY FORCE: "Robert and Mike and I went to Salt Lake City at Miller Motorsports Park, there's a Ford Racing course that we took part in. I've never done any kind of road course racing of any type; I've only done drag racing. I've only ever gone straight or wanted to go straight. This was a completely new experience for me and I was truthfully terrified. Robert and Mike, they were just jumping for joy. They could not wait to get on the track in those Mustangs and I was much more nervous. They instructors were real patient with me and they knew a ton about these cars and really taught me a whole other world of racing that I knew nothing about. I came out of it; I'm still not going to make any career changes in anyway. I still like my Funny Car and drag racing, but it was really interesting to see that as different as the two types of racing are, there are a lot of similarities. I think the biggest one I found that I can kind of relate and use in my world of racing is that you're always kind of looking ahead. When you go into a corner, they taught us don't be thinking of where you're at now, be thinking of where you're going in the next few turns. And that's where you're gonna kind of set up where you're going to be. That's the same thing with drag racing. You can't be thinking just where you're at right then on the track, because it's only a five-second run. You've really got to be ahead of it and ready for whatever happens; the tire shakes, dropped cylinders. Be prepared to react to all that without having to think about. It was similar to when I first moved to Super Comp and it was all just new to me. I only had the experience of others to learn from, I didn't have my own experience. It was a long couple of days; I was exhausted at the end of it. My body was sore; I was tired. Same as when I first went to Frank Hawley's [drag racing school], but it was a lot of fun."
RACERS IN OTHER SERIES, WHEN THEY REACH MILESTONES, ALWAYS SEEM TO TALK ABOUT HOW MUCH THEY STRUGGLED EARLY IN THEIR CAREERS. DO YOU HAVE ANY STORIES LIKE THAT?
JOHN FORCE: "It's funny. We're working on a book right now. We've signed with a book company in New York. And to go back, some of the stuff that we wrote over the years that we kept, it almost makes you want to laugh, how we got here. How we struggled through. We didn't really realize how pathetic we were as race car drivers 'till I heard Don Prudhomme and McEwen tell the stories of what I actually looked like when I raced, when I showed up at the race track. But we had no money, we hustled everything we could. It wasn't about trying to win a race; it was trying to do something that we loved. Just to be a part of it. To say I did a burnout next to Prudhomme or Kenny Bernstein and was able to stage and go down the race track. How I survived Australia, when I look back, I've seen some of the videos now that have come. I should have lost my life there. Our safety equipment wasn't good. Our cars, the parts were just junk that we put in them, but we were chasing a dream. I just wrote an article for National Dragster that will come out in a week, that we forget why we came to race because we really loved it. But I had all the struggles of no money, being locked out of the house. Laurie and I came home; they locked our cat inside our house. I kicked the door down to get her Persian cat because we couldn't pay the rent. We went to Indy and the cops arrested me. They don't care that your cat was in there, you can't kick down doors. It was a lifestyle that we lived. It was funny that I never realized, until I started reading this book, how much my wife Laurie was a part of my whole history of racing. When I had met her, it was basically when I was starting. It goes back way before that, but nothing was even close to being professional. And what she brought to the plate, mixing the fuel, packing the parachutes, driving the truck through the night when we had a pickup truck and trailer and then writing the contracts for the sponsors. You get a real wake-up call on how you got here. Maybe I didn't give you a real cute story, but there's so much stuff that I've learned and it's waking me up to the mistakes I made in life with my own family. And I'm getting a second chance here to really try to get it right the next 50 years. And about the sports that I love. The fight that we have every day, you go to the race track and it's like 'I don't want to go, it's another meeting, it's another PRO board, it's another NHRA' and it's like this stuff goes on and on. Nobody's right but nobody's wrong. They all have their reason. Yet, it's a battle that you say, 'God, it's not even fun' but then you get those few moments to see Ashley try to get that final round and that look on her face. And my daughter Brittany that made a run, like I said, she barely qualified for A/Fuel on Friday night. It was a late Friday night under the lights, nitro-methane coming out it. And she said, 'Dad, I'm scared' and I said 'Baby, you've got to be scared, if you're not scared, you won't respect it.' But watch her go down there in the dark and when I got to her, she had that big smile on her face like her mom and she drove that hotrod and she was just yelling that she did it, and she was still scared. But I felt that feeling that I felt 30 years ago, or maybe in the last 20 years, maybe in the last six months, my whole life kind of just took a mental thing for me like 'why am I doing this.' And the safety issue has become the reasons why. And I want to win and my sponsors get mad sometimes, 'all you talk about is safety, you forgot to think about winning,' oh no, I'm gonna get back to winning when my body's right. I'm gonna get back where I can do the job. I put out enough bull-jive talk. I don't want to say that I can go after a championship today, because I'm not physically fit to do it. I don't have the strength to hold the clutch pedal down. All the things that I took for granted in my young years, I'm fighting to get that back, that strength. But I tell you the love of my family around me, Ashley carrying the ball for me, Robert. To know that our family is in this game, and let me tell you, it's going to take four good race cars to win this championship, but I think I have three of the best on my side. They're young, they're inexperienced but they've got a lot of heart. I'm just watching Ashley evolve like Robert did and Mike Neff, he's gonna step up to the plate here, any day. His car is going to break stride and win a race. I'm excited. New players are coming, Old Spice, sorry I rambled on, I got side tracked."
Continued in part 2