A ROOKIE NO LONGER, ASHLEY SEEKS MORE Force's Daughter Tied for Third in POWERade Points PHOENIX, Ariz. -- In her first season at the wheel of the 330 mile-an-hour Castrol GTXÂ® Ford Mustang, Ashley Force learned her lessons well, which is...
A ROOKIE NO LONGER, ASHLEY SEEKS MORE
Force's Daughter Tied for Third in POWERade Points
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- In her first season at the wheel of the 330 mile-an-hour Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang, Ashley Force learned her lessons well, which is why the 2007 NHRA Rookie of the Year is more contender this week than pretender as the NHRA POWERade tour moves to Firebird Raceway for the 24th annual Checker/Schuck's/Kragen Nationals.
Ms. Force, the 25-year-old daughter of drag racing legend John Force, demonstrated just how far she's come two weeks ago in Pomona, Calif., where she advanced to the semifinals of the season-opening CARQUEST Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway.
It wasn't so much the fact that she reached the semis that stamped her as a contender, it was more the manner in which she did so.
Paired with Bob Bode in a first round match, the former high school cheerleader reacted to an unexpected loss of traction like, well, the daughter of the most prolific winner in drag racing history.
Feathering the throttle (a technique known as "backpedaling") to regain traction, she recovered in time to win the round despite a pedestrian time of just 5.959 seconds. It was a rite of passage for the Cal State-Fullerton graduate, who last year became the first woman ever to race in an NHRA Funny Car final.
"That had never happened to me before," said an elated Ashley of her first round win. "Usually it's the other drivers beating me on a pedal-job."
A five-time winner in the Top Alcohol Dragster division in which she competed for three seasons, she acknowledged that the biggest adjustment for her has been learning that, despite portrayals to the contrary, Funny Cars require more finesse than she ever could have imagined.
"When I 'pedaled' in the (dragster), it just hooked right up and went," she said. "That's not the case with these Funny Cars. It definitely takes more finesse. I'm still working on that, learning that you need to take the time to let the tires settle down (before you get back on the throttle). That's what I was able to do at Pomona but, at the same time, you don't want to wait too long. It's something that you've got to learn from experience; that you have to get a feel for."
The other major lesson learned is that in Funny Car and Top Fuel, there is a definite racing "groove" that, at most tracks, is unforgiving.
"In Super Comp and (Top Alcohol Dragster), the car just kind of went right down the lane," Ashley said. "In Funny Car, if it's not in the groove, it'll smoke the tires or it will shake. I always heard dad talk about the groove. Now I know what he means."
Presently tied with her father for third place in POWERade points behind only her brother-in-law, Robert Hight, and Cruz Pedregon, Ashley returns to Firebird with a confidence that was lacking a year ago when, after qualifying sixth, she was ousted in the very first round by Phil Burkart Jr.
"I learned a lot (at the season opener) about how different this car is to drive than the one we had last year," she said, referring to the complete redesign of her team's cars following her dad's crash last September in Dallas and the fatal testing accident that claimed the life of rising star and close friend Eric Medlen in March.
"It was great to get to the semifinals," she said of her Pomona performance. "Naturally we wanted to win but to get to the semifinals again was a great way to start the season. We're pumped up that we're number three in the points and that we're going back to a track where we just tested just a little while ago (last month)."
PHENOMENAL FORCE FOCUSES ON FIREBIRD
Champ's Comeback Bid Moves to CSK Nationals
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Having already defied conventional wisdom simply by climbing back into the cockpit of his 330 mile-an-hour Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Ford Mustang, John Force tries to take his remarkable comeback one step further this weekend on a Firebird Raceway quarter mile on which he has gone to the final round 10 times in the last 14 seasons, more often than at any other track in the NHRA POWERade Series.
Although he still walks with a limp, the result of injuries suffered Sept. 23rd in a spectacular and widely-documented crash in Dallas, Texas, Force isn't merely a sentimental favorite in this week's 24th annual Checker/Schuck's/Kragen Nationals. He's the real thing: a threat to extend to 22 the number of consecutive seasons in which he has won at least one NHRA tour event.
A semifinalist two weeks ago in the season-opening race at Pomona, Calif., one in which he posted the quickest race day time of 4.805 seconds, Force returns this week to the track where he first mashed the gas on his reconfigured Funny Car during last month's pre-season test.
"I can't run; can barely walk," acknowledged the 58-year-old racing icon, "but that's what the race car is for. It does the running for me."
Although rival Ron Capps and teammate and points leader Robert Hight both have called him Superman, Force plays down the superhuman aspect of his recovery from serious injuries including a compound fracture of the left ankle, severely dislocated left wrist, broken fingers on both hands, broken and mangled toes on both feet and tendon and ligament damage resulting from a deep laceration to the right knee.
"Racing is what I know," Force said, "so I committed myself to doing what the doctors told me. I had great doctors who understood racing, who understood what needed to be done to get me back in a race car. I did the therapy, every day for four months. I'm still going."
After spending 27 days at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Force continued his physical therapy in California. Although he didn't drive in the season's final three races, resulting in a seventh place finish in driver points, his poorest since 1984, Force did attend the season's last two events.
He said that being with his team at Las Vegas, Nev., and Pomona, Calif., re-energized him and made him more determined to be back in the car to start the new season.
"Best therapy I had was being at the races and then getting in the car (at Firebird) for testing," he said. "It was very emotional, especially after all we've been through (with his crash and an earlier testing accident that claimed the life of rising star and teammate Eric Medlen)."
Beginning his 31st season on the NHRA POWERade tour, his 22nd with Castrol as his primary sponsor, drag racing's most prolific winner finds himself behind the wheel of a redesigned Mustang that doesn't look like anything he has driven before primarily because it represents the first major re-design of the basic Funny Car in more than 20 years. The most obvious differences are three frame rails along each side instead of just two, more braces and cross members, bigger, thicker tubing and more padding.
Less apparent are changes to the parachute releases, the brakes, the steering, the fuel shutoff levers, all dictated by data developed after his crash and the earlier Florida accident involving Medlen. In short, everything that Force once managed without even thinking has been reconfigured.
"They put a push brake in the car," he said, "which I really don't like. Mike Neff (the newest member of the Force driving team) loves it. My daughter Ashley and Robert (Hight) are learning it, but I'm old school. I didn't think I'd have the strength in my fingers to pull the brake handle, but I knew I could shove it with my palm. But I still don't like it. I may still change it back."
For Force, the biggest problem has been adjusting to the new location and operation of the parachute release. He missed the lever on two test runs at Firebird and almost ran out of road before stopping. Then, at Pomona, trying to dodge the shrapnel thrown into his lane by the exploding car of reigning series champion Tony Pedregon, he was late deploying the chutes and went into the sand pit.
"(None of the incidents) had anything to do with my injuries," Force said, "but had everything to do with moving all the levers and switches. You do something one way for 30 years, it takes a while to get out of the habit."
Despite his seventh place finish last season, the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection did manage to win three tour events which extended another obscure -- but very impressive -- streak. Force has won at least three races every year since 1989 and he'd like to get an early start on extending it to 19 straight seasons.
Spotlight on BERNIE FEDDERLY:
-- If John Force qualifies his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang for Sunday eliminations in the 24th annual CSK Nationals, as he has in each of his previous 23 appearances at Firebird, it will mark the 500th time that co-crew chief Bernie Fedderly has had a car in the starting lineup of an NHRA national event.
-- Fedderly's drivers have won 1007 competitive rounds (in both Top Fuel and Funny Car) and have finished seventh or better in points for 27 consecutive seasons dating back to 1981 when he was crew chief to fellow Canadian Terry Capp on a Top Fuel dragster.
-- He is one of only two crew chiefs to have won NHRA titles in both Top Fuel (1983 with Gary Beck) and Funny Car. The other is Dale Armstrong, who won in both categories with one driver Kenny Bernstein.
-- Fedderly, who lives in Hemet, Calif., with his wife Mary, has collaborated with Austin Coil on Force's Castrol-backed Funny Cars since 1992.