Although a majority of her accolades last season came away from the track (including her coronation as AOL sports’ “Hottest Athlete” (a designation earned at the expense of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady), the 25-year-old daughter of drag racing icon John Force showed enough promise at the wheel of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang to win the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Road to the Future Award as the Rookie-of-the-Year in the NHRA POWERade pro series.
Based on what she initially learned in the harnesses of one of the world’s most powerful race cars, one capable of zero-to-330 mile-an-hour acceleration in just 4.6 seconds, the Cal State-Fullerton graduate is optimistic about a sophomore season in which she hopes to build on 2007 success that included a runner-up finish in the ACDelco Nationals at Las Vegas, Nev.
“I’m so excited about getting rid of my rookie stripes and going into the 2008 season with basically the same guys and same team I had last year,” she said.
In between appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and ABC’s Good Morning, America, photo shoots for ESPN The Magazine, Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness and Penthouse (in full firesuit, by the way) and work as a spokesperson for the Auto Club, Oakley, BrandSource and Ford Motor Co., Ms. Force proved last season to be more than just another pretty face.
Even though she missed two races in the 8,000 horsepower Castrol GTX Ford, one to honor the memory of fallen teammate Eric Medlen; the other because of temporary safety issues, the former high school cheerleader managed to finish in the Top 10 in POWERade points ahead of such notables as six-time series champion Kenny Bernstein, 1992 Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon, former U.S. Nationals winners Tim Wilkerson and Gary Densham and veteran Tommy Johnson Jr.
The first woman to race in an NHRA Funny Car final, she qualified No. 2 three different times last year in a car prepared by rookie crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli.
Still, it was the attention she attracted away from the track that most significantly boosted drag racing’s mainstream image.
One of the stars of the A&E Network series Driving Force, which ended a two-year run last season, she distinguished herself as a public speaker, delivering a motivational speech to a crowd of 5,500 at the 2007 convention of Dallas-based cosmetics giant BeautiControl, Inc., appeared in national print ads for Oakley, was featured in Ford’s corporate brochure for the Mustang and was a popular newspaper, radio and television interview subject at every stop on the POWERade tour.
As a result, she was one of Yahoo’s most popular internet search topics in the sports category, the only individual race car driver in a Top 10 that also included soccer star David Beckham, the Chicago Bears football team, the Boston Red Sox, tennis stars Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams and NASCAR.
That’s pretty heady stuff for an admitted tomboy who once seriously considered a career as a race car mechanic, the basis for her decision to take elective courses in auto shop and welding while attending Esperanza High School (Yorba Linda, Calif.).
Ashley’s “need for speed” is all in the genes.
Her father is the 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion and only drag racer in any category to have won as many as 100 NHRA tour events (125). Her sisters, Brittany, 21, and Courtney, 19, are moving up this year to drive in the Top Alcohol Dragster class after two seasons at the wheel of Super Comp dragsters sponsored by BrandSource. Even mother Laurie is licensed to drive competitively.
The irony of all that is that Ashley isn’t motivated by a desire to replace her father. She’d rather just beat him, which she did the first time they raced side-by-side last season at Atlanta, Ga.
Even though she’s had to develop her driving skills in a fishbowl, Ashley’s transition has been almost seamless due in large part to her relationship with Antonelli, who moved over from her father’s team, and with assistant crew chief Ron Douglas, who worked previously for 1992 champ Cruz Pedregon, among others.
“It has been perfect how it’s worked out,” Ashley said. “When I first tested in dad’s Funny Car, I had the best people in the sport working on the car in Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly. They’ve seen my dad through all his championships and Austin has been with him for all of his wins, but I was always so intimidated by them.
“Even as big a goofball as dad is, he’s still a great driver. He knows how to do it. How hard it must have been for them to have me involved because I knew almost nothing and I always felt scared that I was going to mess up and make them mad at me.
“They never did (get mad), but as a new driver you always thought of that,” she said. “With ‘Guido’ I feel more relaxed and a lot less nervous because we’re both kind of in the same situation. He’s going through the same thing on the tuning side of things as I am on the driving side and I think it helps both of us understand each other.
“When you have two people that are both kind of new to it, I think it makes it flow a little better and when problems do occur they aren’t such a big deal,” she continued. “There were mistakes that I was going to make and there were mistakes he was going to make, so at least he knew the feeling. I knew he wasn’t looking at me going ‘why doesn’t this girl just get it'’ or ‘why is she making this mistake'’”
"She has a unique feel for the car,” Antonelli said, something he attributes to her apprenticeship in Super Comp and Top Alcohol. “She’s a quick study. You tell her something and she picks it up right away. There’s no doubt that she has a big future in this sport.”
Despite her success, Ashley never seriously considered a driving career until her father sent her to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School as a 16th birthday present.
Even though she began racing upon her high school graduation, her mother insisted that before she embarked on a full-time career, she had to earn her college degree. As a result, she spent her weekends racing and her weekdays in school, ultimately graduating in 3½ years with a degree in communications.
Her father could not be more proud, nor more surprised by her career choice.
“I’m a typical father who always wanted his son to grow up and drive his race car,” said the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection, “but I don’t have any sons, so I
always hoped one of my girls would have an interest – but I didn’t expect it.”
As for hobbies, Ashley admits she’s a movie fanatic, just like her dad. However, she has taken her love for the cinema a step further. She not only likes to watch movies with fiancé Danny Hood, she has demonstrated a talent for producing them. Each year at the company Christmas party, she introduces a new film that spoofs events and individuals in the sport, herself included.
Now, though, she finds she spends a lot more time in front of the camera than behind it. Admittedly shy, it’s not a role with which she is totally comfortable. Fortunately, she has a father from whom she can glean a tip or two.
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