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Force Hood Wants Title For Team, Not Gender

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 27 2009
Ashley Force Hood could be headed toward a Funny Car championship and a place in history.(Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Ashley Force Hood could be headed toward a Funny Car championship and a place in history.(Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Don’t fault Ashley Force Hood if she is underwhelmed by the prospect of emerging as the NHRA’s first female Funny Car world champion.

“It’s not such a big deal to me, and the main reason is I am a female driver. I had nothing to do with that – God makes that decision, and my parents,” said Force Hood, 26-year-old daughter of Funny Car icon John Force. “And I also have a team of 10 men that work on my car. It’s them and me together as a team. We are the ones going out for the championship, not just me as an individual.”

Still, Force Hood will enter Round 5 of the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs this weekend chasing history. Force Hood trails John Force Racing teammate Robert Hight by only 13 points – less than one round of racing – heading into the ninth annual NHRA Las Vegas Nationals. Round 23 of the 24-race Full Throttle Drag Racing Series is scheduled for Thursday through Sunday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The season ends with the 45th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., Nov. 12-15.

Two-time/reigning series champion Cruz Pedregon was the event winner in Funny Car at Vegas last year. The other returning event champions are Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Chris Rivas (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Drag racing’s glass ceiling was first shattered by Shirley Muldowney, who won Top Fuel titles in the less gender-friendly environments of 1977, 1980 and 1982. The latter season saw Muldowney and Lucille Lee face-off in the first all-female pro category final during the Springnationals at Columbus, Ohio. More recently, Angelle Sampey won consecutive Pro Stock Motorcycle championships from 2000-02.

Since then, Erica Enders (Pro Stock), Melanie Troxel (Top Fuel and Funny Car), Peggy Llewellyn (Pro Stock Motorcycle) and Force Hood have authored gender-breaking moments. In 2008 – dubbed “The Year of the Woman” – Top Fuel driver Hillary Will became the 11th female in NHRA history to win a professional category race.

“I really think the whole gender thing is kind of old news. We have a lot of women in our sport,” said Force Hood, who in 2008 became the first female to win a national event in Funny Car – famously defeating her father in the final at Atlanta Dragway – as well as hold the points lead. Ashley also became the first female to qualify No. 1 in Funny Car.

“I happen to be the one in Funny Car right now,” said Force Hood, a two-time winner this season in the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. “With a great team, we have, you know, all of the variables that we need to go after a championship. But I think if it wasn’t me, there will be another girl that will come along over the years, and I think it will happen eventually. It’s just a matter of when, and hopefully it will happen for us this year.”

Force Hood has advanced to seven final rounds this season, tied for second-best in the class. Among the 10 Funny Car drivers who qualified for the Countdown, only Ashley’s father (14 titles) and Tony Pedregon (two) previously have won championships. Heading to Vegas, only Tony P. is ranked among the top six in points. In other words, five of the top six drivers within 86 points of the lead have not previously won a championship.

Furthermore, all 10 Funny Car drivers who qualified for the Countdown remain mathematically eligible for the championship – right down to JFR’s Mike Neff, who is 159 points behind teammate Hight. The other three pro classes have had at least one Countdown qualifier eliminated after four races.

Enter Ashley, who earned her Funny Car license in April 2006 at LVMS. “We are really pumped. We’ve had a really great season,” Force Hood said. “We’re right where we want to be up there in the top couple of spots, but a lot can change in these final two races and obviously we are aware of that. We know that we are second, Robert is first and we are only a few points behind him, yet there are a handful of guys that are right behind us.

“So we’re just going to try to do the best we can and enjoy this. And it can get easy to get caught up in the stress of it all and getting nervous about it and anxious. But we are really trying to look at it from another point of view and say, our third year in, we are battling for the NHRA championship. That’s a pretty neat spot to be in.”

The irony in the script is that Hight – Ashley’s teammate/brother-in-law – stands between herself and history.

“It’s the best spot that we could be in,” Force Hood countered. “At the beginning of the year when we have our big team meetings and we get ready to head off to the (Kragen O’Reilly NHRA) Winternationals, that’s always our goal. At the end of the year when we are back at Pomona for the World Finals, if we can have our own teammates battling for the championship, there’s no better scenario because we are going to win no matter how the day ends up.

“Obviously, Robert and I are not the only ones, but we are the ones – we are (Nos.) 1 and 2.  So they are going to have to catch up and go around us. So if we can just keep doing what we have been doing and not have anything go wrong – no mistakes, no mess-ups, the tuners get Vegas and Pomona figured out and how they want to set up the car – we just better our chances of getting the championship.

“This is my first time really being right in the mix of it, being down to the last two races, so it’s exciting for both of us and for our teams.”

A title contender in each of his five full Funny Car seasons, Hight said he typically does not worry about the driver in the other lane. That rule, however, does not apply to teammates “Brute” Force, Neff and Ashley.

“I’ll be honest with you, it’s hard to race your teammates,” said Hight, 40, and driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang. “You can go back and look at my averages on my lights and everything else, I don’t do as good a job when I’m racing teammates, especially John. He has given me this opportunity to drive one of these cars _ probably no one else would’ve – so you don’t have the same go-for-the-throat/want-to-beat-the-other-guy-so-bad when you’re against your teammates.

“And it’s honestly really hard to race Ashley right now, because her crew chiefs fixed my car. It almost doesn’t seem fair, but that’s how John Force Racing works. “

Hight’s drive to the 10th and final Countdown slot was accelerated after Boss Force swapped cars with his son-in-law at Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pa., en route to the cutoff race – the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. Hight qualified No. 1 at Indy and finished as runnerup to Force Hood.

“My crew chief, Jimmy Prock, has always been very aggressive, trying to be low ET every round,” said Hight, Funny Car points-runnerup in 2006-07. “We’ve got a lot of No. 1 qualifiers because of that, and we’ve also smoked the tires because of that. In all honesty, I give John a lot of credit for what he did on all of this big switch because it wasn’t about the tune-up, or John changing the tune-up per se.

“The situation here with Jimmy Prock… when he (John Force) would pull that car to the starting line, he knew his boss was in there driving, and maybe it’s just a little different mind-set and it worked. I’m definitely glad John did it, and I wouldn’t want to go back. Maybe it would have worked if John didn’t do it, but I’m going to give John credit on this one.”

Furthermore, Prock was encouraged to collaborate with Force Hood’s tuning braintrust of Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Ron Douglas on Hight’s problematic engine combination.

“I’ve been saying all year that we’re not that far off, and it was just a little tweaking here and a little tweaking there that got us,” said Hight, winner of the opening two rounds of the Countdown and 25-18 (.581) overall this season. “Our clutch application for the most part was great, we didn’t change anything there. What we had problems in was inconsistencies with our engine. It would burn up, it would drop cylinders and there was no happy medium. That’s where Ashley’s crew chiefs, and (John Force tuner) Austin Coil, talked Jimmy into switching to their engine combination, and they helped us out.

“The biggest thing is components on the engine, manifolds and camshafts and injectors, but Ashley has run the same thing the last couple of years so they have a lot of runs on that combination. My team had a lot of different parts and at times Jimmy Prock was able to make it work. But for whatever reason it was not friendly this year with what we had and how we were trying to run it. We’ve now adopted her engine combination.

“My car now will run 309-310 miles an hour.  When it runs a big speed like that, it means the engine is happy and all the parts are still together and working at the end of the racetrack. It was little things, but I’m definitely pleased jimmy listened to those guys, and couldn’t thank them enough for helping us and getting us to where we are.”

Force Hood noted, however, that winning rounds is not always about having the fastest hot rod.

“It’s about who has the car that’s getting down the track consistently and still running good times,” said Force Hood, whose round-record is 36-20 (.643). “Ron and Dean, they’ve really figured it out.  They worked a lot with Jimmy when he kind of got into a slump. They’ve held records, they’ve really pushed it, but there are times when these cars get finicky and don’t want to get down the track, so they struggled with that this year.  I know Ron and Guido talked with them and worked on how they can get all four cars running consistent, but it was definitely a team effort.  None of these crew chiefs want to ever give themselves any credit and they really should because it’s just amazing to see when things all come together and you have a car that’s running really, really fast also getting down the track every run. You have a recipe for success there.

“I’m really glad to see that Robert’s team has come around, that they didn’t give up on themselves.  To see them struggle this year, we just tried to keep them motivated and be there to support them.  They really are a strong team, I think they showed that this year.  It’s paying off now.  You can see the grins on their faces, they’re so glad to have their good old car back.  The rest of us just better watch out though, because now that car is running good.”

Still, Hight acknowledged that Force Hood has had the better car all year long. Force Hood said that put the onus on her to examine her game-day contributions during each 1,000-foot pass.

“Am I getting better at my driving? Am I messing up in my driving? My team, how are they performing together?” Force Hood asked, rhetorically. “I know even looking back and reaction times have been a big part of my year and working at how do I get better at that.  It was interesting to me that a lot of people that I had talked to, my crew chiefs, even other drivers – Jack Beckman, he taught that at Frank Hawley’s Racing School.  If you can find your certain level where you perform where you’re focused and you’re concentrated – you’re not tired or anything like that, but you can find that perfect spot – that’s when you give yourself the best chance. It was just an interesting thing to me that I learned about myself.  It’s a balance that I’m still learning, that’s for sure.

“For any driver, whether a female or a male, it’s tough in motorsports.  It’s not an easy thing to win races and I know the pressure has been put on a lot of new drivers that are getting into the sport.  The ‘Why aren’t you winning?’ or ‘Why aren’t you winning more?’ or ‘Why are you messing up on your reaction times?’ We’re all trying our best, it’s not going to be an easy journey for any of us.  I’ve just been really fortunate that the car that I’ve been put into, the team that I have, they really have their stuff together. Certainly made me look probably better than I really am, but it is the learning curve and if you can stick through it and stick through the critiquing that all of people give athletes in any kind of sport, then you will become a better one.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 27 2009