DNQ in 2007, Shorter Track, Altitude Among Challenges
DENVER, Colo. – Ashley Force rolls into Bandimere Speedway for this week's 29th annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals occupying the lofty No. 3 position in Funny Car driver points. That places her ahead of both her father, drag racing icon John Force, and her brother-in-law Robert Hight.
Nevertheless, there is ample reason for the new face of high performance, her crew chief, Dean "Guido" Antonelli, and his cohort, Ron Douglas, to be more than a little concerned.
As if it wasn't enough that their Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang failed to qualify in its first Denver appearance just a year ago, there are a number of additional challenges this year beyond the obvious: Bandimere's 5,280 foot altitude.
For one, there's the new Goodyear 2550 tire which becomes mandatory this week. For another, there's a racetrack 320 feet shorter than normal to address safety issues raised by the accident that claimed the life of two-time World Champion Scott Kalitta. And, as if that wasn't enough, there's also the new "cooling system" that runs beneath the first 660 feet of the track surface.
For a team making just its second turn around the NHRA POWERade circuit, that's a lot to overcome.
That said, Ashley and her young team have made a habit over the last 18 months of defying the odds.
"Each track that we go to, Guido' will come to me and tell me things that are unique to that particular track," Ashley said. "There are bigger changes for the crew chiefs (here) than anywhere else because of the (5,280 foot) altitude. That's especially challenging for our team since we only have last year's info (for a baseline) and considering that we didn't even qualify, there's probably not that much there.
"That's the great thing about a multi-car team," said the NHRA's 2007 professional Rookie-of-the-Year. "We can use the data from dad and Robert and Mike Neff's teams and learn from all their years of experience."
Ashley has proven to be a quick learner herself. The 25-year-old phenom has gone to three final rounds this season, earned a breakthrough win at Atlanta, Ga., and held her own against her father with whom she has split four head-to-head match-ups.
That's pretty heady stuff for a woman who three years ago climbed behind the wheel of an 8,000 horsepower Funny Car for the first time.
Still, her position as one of the 20 drivers in the NHRA's Countdown is not yet assured. It depends upon how well she and her Castrol GTX team perform in a grueling stretch that begins this weekend and encompasses five races in six weeks. However, Ashley believes that competing every week (the team also runs a non-series event on the lone off weekend) is more advantage than liability.
"You just get set in race mode and you don't get out of it for two months," she said. Besides, the three races comprising the Western Swing (Denver, followed by Seattle, Wash., and Sonoma, Calif.) means she's back home.
"It makes for easier travel (because) you aren't spending two days getting to and from the race," she said. "Plus I like all the tracks in the Western Swing, especially Denver and Sonoma. Hopefully, we'll do good."
* * * *
Did You Know:
– Ashley is nominated for the second Hummer Like Nothing Else award to be presented Monday at ESPN's annual ESPY Awards at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. The Like Nothing Else award recognizes athletes whose accomplishments within their respective sports are considered special or exceptional. Other nominees are Boston Red Sox outfielder Manny Rameriz, Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and former NHL player George Martin. "I'm really excited and surprised to be nominated," she said. "It's neat to be in a category with athletes from other sports and I'm glad (the ESPY nominators) thought of me. I hope this opportunity will bring more awareness (of) NHRA drag racing, which is just an incredible sport that has a great mix of competitors of different ages, gender, ethnic backgrounds and personalities."
* * * *
Off the Track:
– Ashley appeared last year on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and on Good Morning, America and was a featured speaker at the national convention of BeautiControl, Inc., the Dallas-based cosmetics giant.
– The 1:24 scale die-cast Castrol GTX Ford Mustang Funny Car created by Motorsports Authentics to commemorate Ashley’s 2007 NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year season is now available on-line through the John Force RaceStation store. “I’m excited about my Rookie-of-the-Year die-cast,” Ashley said. “Not only will I have the die-cast, but we will be racing that car (a special pink version of the Castrol GTX Mustang) at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the biggest race of the year. That will make this die-cast even more special. This is my first speciality car. I love the color pink (but) I did ask my team about having a pink car and they were fine with it. They actually thought it would be intimidating.