A National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racing event is a weekend automotive playground for speed freaks.
The main draw, besides the exciting quarter-mile races that last for seconds, is the pits (garage) area. Fans can stand within 10 feet of dragsters and watch pit crews rebuild an entire engine in the 75 minutes between runs down the drag strip. The drivers show up there, too, and are more accessible to fans for autographs and photos than in any other motorsport.
Often, the most crowded pit belongs to the 7,000-horsepower nitromethane-fueled Funny Cars of California-based John Force Racing, especially if fans can see Rookie of the Year Ashley Force with her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.
One of the fastest-rising women in motorsports, the 24-year-old Force won five Top Alcohol Dragster races in 2004-'06, including the prestigious U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. She was chosen on November 11, 2007 for the Automobile Club of Southern California's "Road to the Future" NHRA Rookie of the Year award in her current Funny Car division, recognizing her impressive semifinal race finishes in Atlanta, Dallas and St. Louis. Her standard day at the track includes ESPN interviews and mobbed autograph sessions."I think a lot of people don't realize how big a role the fans and the media play," Force told us. "You think you're just a racecar driver, and that's such a small portion of what we do."
Things were different for her father, 14-time Funny Car champion John Force, before drag racing became the spectacle it is today. "With Dad, he went for years and never had an interview," she said. "He started to have fans because he's so personable, but it's nothing like how it is today. People everywhere; it's insane.... You learn how to handle that, too."
The Family Business
Force is one of several drivers in a legendary racing family. In addition to her father's legacy, sisters Brittany and Courtney also race, and team member Robert Hight is married to Force's sister, Adria. The 2006-'07 A&E reality TV series Driving Force attempted to capture the loving but occasionally high-octane relationships between John Force and his crew of strong-willed daughters.
The Force girls grew up with the traveling circus lifestyle that racing demands. The teams move from race to race in homey RVs that are parked together in packs. At the track, rows of displays are set up by dozens of companies that build parts for the cars: oil pans, distributors, engine blocks and pistons. There are merchandise haulers full of luridly colored flame-motif T-shirts, ball caps and die-cast model cars. Many race drivers and mechanics are "track kids" like Ashley, following a multigenerational path down the quarter-mile.
Media and fan interest in the Force clan heightened dramatically in 2007. In addition to the buzz generated by Driving Force, Ashley earned her license to drive 300-mph, 2,400-pound beasts called Funny Cars. These are essentially dragsters with a car cover on top and are notoriously difficult to handle, but Ashley had already raced for four years in two other classes (Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster), so she felt prepared for both the challenge of racing a Funny Car and the extra buzz from fans and news organizations.
The attention is significant and often overwhelming. It ranges from the usual — more than 100 fans jammed around the Force pits on a Saturday race weekend morning, cameras and cell phones all raised to take her picture — to an appearance on The Tonight Show after winning this year's AOL Sports Hottest Athlete contest. There's even an Ashley Force Barbie doll.
Force would rather deflect attention to her close-knit support crew.
"[As drivers] we're only in the car a total of a few minutes a day. We have a lot of other stuff we do, but the [team] guys are out there, pouring sweat, from 6 in the morning till 10 at night, not with their families, on the road, working so hard, and then you're the one who gets all the attention. Of course, when we do badly, we get all that side of it, too."
The Bi-Polar Express at 300 MPH
Force's profession brings strange juxtapositions, and it has sometimes been tough to balance her varied interests. When she was a student at Esperanza High School in Yorba Linda, California, she would sometimes be dressed for pep rally cheerleading while turning wrenches in her auto shop class.
"I got picked on by some of the guys, of course, but some of them I'm still friends with to this day. They loved drag racing. At the track I'd run into them. They'd come to [the races at] Pomona every year. Despite the cheerleading uniform, I had more in common with the auto shop kids."
Her 2004 radio/TV/film degree from California State University at Fullerton doesn't get as much of a workout as she'd like, but she does enjoy making spoof videos for the company Christmas party. Her dad played Scrooge in her recent A Christmas Carol remake, titled The Bi-Polar Express.
On the whole, Force comes across as less mercurial than the notoriously excitable John Force. Her tactic is to be more focused and calmer than her opponent. That proved to be a winning strategy in April 2007, when she faced her dad in the first father-daughter pro drag race in history: She beat him at 317.05 mph.
Nothing Funny About Funny Car Safety
Every team wants to win championships, but safety engineering became a major focus of John Force Racing after the tragic death of team member Eric Medlen, who was killed after crashing head-on into a concrete barrier when his car blew a tire during a test run at Florida's Gainesville Raceway in March 2007. John Force calls Medlen "the leader of my new generation of drivers and the son I never had."
Out of respect for Medlen, the team announced it would not participate in another major NHRA event until its cars were modified for added safety based on the accident data. In addition, the team has initiated the Eric Medlen Project, which will conduct research to make future dragsters even safer. It is led by Eric's father and crew chief, John Medlen. Initial improvements included extra padding, a restraint system to reduce head movement (Medlen died of head injuries), high-tech data acquisition devices and a seven-point seatbelt system.
These efforts probably saved John Force's life when he and driver Kenny Bernstein, another lion of the sport, were in a catastrophic crash in September 2007 during the NHRA O'Reilly Fall Nationals in Texas. Bernstein walked away, but the Force car chassis split in half and John Force was airlifted out with numerous injuries — none to his head, however. Team engineers worked again to make safety improvements, including strengthening the chrome-moly chassis and building more protection for the driver's legs.
Ashley Force's Funny Car was not modified in time for the next race, so she stayed with her father and helped with physical therapy and general morale-boosting. John Force said from his hospital bed, "My little girl's gonna be back.... Racing's all that we know."
Though the tragedy set them back, Force knew the show had to go on despite the dangers. "With racing, sometimes people lose their lives out here," she said. "You need to be sure about what you want to do."
For more on Ashley Force, including videos, see the Inside Line feature, "Ashley Force: The New Face of Drag Racing."
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