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CLERMONT -- En route to an historic repeat victory Monday in the 56th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Ashley Force Hood left more in her wake than just her famous father, 14-time NHRA Champion John Force, whom she defeated in an all-Ford, all-John Force Racing final round at O’Reilly Raceway Park.
If a rearview mirror had been mounted in the 27-year-old’s Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, she not only would have seen her father’s Ford growing smaller and smaller as she accelerated through the 1,000-foot course in 4.141 seconds at 308.07 miles per hour, she also would have seen a season of frustration scattered like so many discarded candy wrappers.
After struggling through the 17-race regular season without a win, the woman who finished second in points just a year ago thrust herself prominently back into contention for a Full Throttle Funny Car Championship by winning the world’s oldest, largest, richest and most prestigious drag race in dynamic fashion.
“This has just been an amazing day,” Force Hood said. “This win might be bigger than last year’s because we’ve struggled this year. Last year, at this point in the season, we were on a roll. We had been to finals and we had won some races. We were up high in the points going into the Countdown.
“This year, we have been at the complete other end of the spectrum. We have struggled. We got into the Countdown in the eighth spot,” said the woman who won AOL Sports’ inaugural World’s Hottest Athlete poll in 2007, “[but] my team has stayed positive. We were hating the points structure last year, but we’re loving it this year. You get a second start to your season.
“We went into this race saying, ‘let’s put the past behind us. Let’s see what we can do here and kick off the Countdown [the way] we want the rest of the season to go,’” she said. “[And] it happened, which shows when you are positive about things and you really believe in yourself, it can pay off.
“At one of the races [this year], Guido said we are not going to win the championship on luck. We are going to win it on consistency and doing our job from one end of the track to the other,” Force Hood continued, referring to crew chief Dean Antonelli. “Today, we didn’t have any luck. We had hard races and tough conditions.We had a consistent, good-running car [and] my lights were better than they have been. When you put those two things together, you have a really good shot to win. Today was our day.”
“It doesn’t matter if we were in Indy or Charlotte or Dallas,” said co-crew chief Ron Douglas. “Whatever the first race of the Countdown was, our goal was to win that race. We had a good weekend and a good car [and] we are very happy.”
“[In the NHRA’s Countdown format], it’s two seasons,” Antonelli said. “It doesn’t matter where the win was, it just happened to be the granddaddy of them all. Obviously, it is an awesome feeling, but it’s all about the points chase and the Countdown.
“Our guys have been together all season [and] it has been a trying season. The car has run good, she has driven good and we just haven’t been able to put it all together. The guys believed in Ron and I and Ashley and kept giving us a good Mustang. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Her first win of the season moved her from eighth to fourth in the driver standings, enabling her to leapfrog, among others, JFR teammate Robert Top Gun Hight, the reigning Full Throttle Champion, who, after a solid No. 3 start, was victimized by the failure of an $8 part in the opening round.
“We had a clutch malfunction and it got a lot of clutch all at once and it couldn’t take it,” Hight said. “It doesn’t make a difference when it happens. A first round loss is a first round loss. It is not good. Points are points. When you add the points up it doesn’t matter where you lost first round, whether it was the first race, the middle race or the last, it doesn’t matter.
“All we can do is get ready for Charlotte. I have all the confidence in Jimmy [crew chief Jimmy Prock] and my guys,” said the 18-time tour winner. “We will be ready for Charlotte.”
Force Hood came in having failed to advance beyond the second round in seven straight events, a streak that began last June. She left on Monday having done something not even her dad had done and that is to win back-to-back titles at the U.S. Nationals.
NO LAYING DOWN
Force, who took his High Mileage Mustang to the finals for a category-best eighth time this season and for the first time at Indy since he won in 2002, was never a factor in the final round in which his 8,000 horsepower hybrid slowed to a pedestrian 7.246 seconds at 91 mph after an undetected mechanical problem.
In all honesty, the 130-time tour winner probably was lucky just to reach the final for an unprecedented 210th time in his spectacular career. While Force Hood was claiming her final round berth with a solid 4.156 second performance, Force got his by managing to upset No. 1 qualifier and track record holder Matt Hagan in a race in which both cars lost traction mid-course, sending their respective drivers scrambling for control.
Force was able to recover a little more quickly than his rival and lit up the win light in a troublesome right lane with a time of 4.710 at only 244.65 mph. Hagan trailed in 5.302 seconds in a Die Hard Dodge that had lowered the track record to 4.039 seconds during qualifying.
Unfortunately, in the semifinal chaos, a lever that allows the blades on the injector to open and close apparently was bent, a problem that went undetected in the scramble to get Force’s hot rod ready for the final.
“When we looked at the video replay of the final round, the injector was only part way open,” Force said. “It looked like I wasn’t stepping on the gas. [Apparently] it was bent on the run before against Hagan, when I had to pedal it [feather the throttle to regain traction].
“The car was real weak when it went out there and it just shut off,” Force explained. “The [TV] cameras showed that the injector that was attached to the throttle was broken. It’s just one of those things. It was bent leaving [the starting line] but it would let the injector open [slightly]. Then [it] broke off.”
DON’T LOOK BACK
As a result, the final was no contest. For Force Hood, all the pent-up anxiety of a season of lost opportunities evaporated in a standout performance on drag racing’s biggest stage. It was no fluke.
After struggling all season to improve her reaction times, the former high school cheerleader was solid all day long at .080, .094, .084 and, against her father, .061, a number that earned her a .034 of a second advantage at the start. She never looked back.
The No. 6 qualifier behind both of her teammates, Force Hood unloaded the quickest time of eliminations in a round one win ahead of veteran Del Worsham (4.059 seconds), applying an exclamation point by setting a track speed record for the 1,000 foot distance at 313.07 mph.
In round two, she dispatched journeyman Paul Lee, the beneficiary of Hight’s first round misfortune, and then turned back Fast Jack Beckman in a classic Ford versus Dodge, Force Racing versus Schumacher Racing, student versus driving instructor semifinal.
In the final, she was confident in spite of her father’s resume.
“We felt a little bit of an advantage going into the final,” she admitted. “We had been running good all day [we knew that] if we just kept doing what we had been doing we had a really good shot at a win. It was our day.”
It was the second straight all-John Force Racing final at the race known as The Big Go and it insured the team’s sixth win at Indy in nine years with four different drivers; its third in succession. In addition to Force Hood’s back-to-back gems, Hight won in 2006 and ‘08, Gary Densham won in the Auto Club Ford in ‘04 and Force scored in ‘02.
Overall, it was the 33rd time that JFR Funny Cars have monopolized a tour final. The last time it happened was May 16th when Hight beat Force Hood to win the Summit Southern Nationals at Commerce, Ga.
Even though he lost the Indy final, Force will send his Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang to the starting line at the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Charlotte, N.C., with a 69-point lead ahead of his daughter; a 60-point lead ahead of second place Beckman and a 61-point advantage to Hagan.
As for the building personal rivalry between father and daughter, Force Hood evened it at 6-6. It was against her father that she earned the first of her four tour victories when she won at Atlanta in 2008 to become the first woman ever to win an NHRA Funny Car race.
“I know no woman has ever won two in a row and if you’re doing what [Don] Prudhomme accomplished, [well] he was my hero; he is the man,” Force enthused. “I am just proud of her as a driver. I am proud of [crew chiefs] Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas. What they have put together is special as a team.
“She had a .061 light against me in the final,” said the 2008 inductee into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame of America. “Credit goes to that team and to the driver on a day when it needed to get done. If you won no other race, Indy is the one to win.
“I am tickled pink,” Force said of having three cars in the Top 5 after the first race of the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs. “Robert Hight is still my hottest hot rod. You saw the numbers out there this weekend. Something malfunctioned. Jimmy Prock doesn’t make mistakes. We’ll move on from there.”
Her second Funny Car victory on the big stage was Force Hood’s third in nine years at the U.S. Nationals. Her first came in 2004 when she won the Top Alcohol Dragster title in a car owned and prepared by veteran Jerry Darien who, for the last two seasons, has been fielding cars for her younger sisters, Courtney, 22, and Brittany, 24.
Force Hood scoffed at those trying to label her “the premier female racer in the country.”
“Obviously, I am a girl driver and I love girl power and all that stuff,” she said, “[but] I have 12 guys that work on my team. They are just as important to this win as I am. I drive the car but they are the ones back in the pits that put this car together. They are consistent. They don’t make mistakes.
“Ron and Guido get the tune up just right, round-after-round,” she continued. “I think it’s because of them that I have success. We are a great team [and] I am lucky to be in this spot. I think any driver that jumped in the Mustang would look good. They give me a really good consistent race car [and] I do my best to work on my reaction times and keep it in the groove. Each round is really a learning lesson. I just try and get better and better.”
Of her fourth all-JFR final, Force Hood said “the pressure really is off when you run your teammates—when you run them later in the day, that is. Robert and I were able to get to the final last year here and this year it was me and dad. We went up there and we were having fun.
“The hardest part was the semis. We were so excited to win that round. It is just fun. It takes off all that pressure. That team [Force’s] taught me; his crew chiefs helped me. It was fun to race them.
“[Beating Beckman] was big for me,” she said. “He was my teacher back when I was 16 and I went to Frank Hawley’s drag racing school. He taught me in a Super Comp car. He’s a good family friend of ours [but] to have him and Hagan against me and dad, that is one of those ideal stories [because] that Schumacher team is our arch rival. It could have gone either way. It just happened to fall on our side.”
Now, she is focused on Charlotte and the next race in The Countdown.
“It’s going to be interesting,” she said. “It’s going to be exciting. That is what the fans want to see and that is what we want to be a part of. When I was sitting up there getting ready for the finals and I was getting a little nervous and anxious, I remember thinking ‘this is going to be nothing like the pressure at the end of the year. Pressure will be in a few weeks when the Countdown is coming down. I am going to enjoy this and who knows what the next two months will bring.’
“At least we can say we did well here and we turned our season around, hopefully. There are a lot of good drivers in this class and I think reaction times will be a big deal. I am just trying my best to keep up with everyone [else].”
“I finally feel like I am one of the guys. It’s not so much about the girl thing. There are a lot of good guys racing out here. I have had many, many days here watching my dad, 27 years. I am sure I have been to every Indy since I was born. It is special to be of the other side of things. I’m not the kid in the winner’s circle watching dad [any more]. I am racing my dad in the final and I am in the winner’s circle. It is pretty surreal, actually.
“I can look back and I have so many memories and I have bad memories of dad’s fires and being in the tower with tears in our eyes. There are so many highs and lows here at Indy because it is such a big race. Today was a high and however the rest of the years go, we will always remember this one. This one is pretty special.”