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NHRA WINTERNATIONALS / Through Sunday at Pomona in the series' last meeting of the year : DRIVING FORCE : Ashley Force Hood is a marketing marvel in NHRA circles, but she also is a contender and a key figure in the sport's future

November 14, 2009|Kate Linthicum

LAS VEGAS — The display of merchandise at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway had something for everyone: Ashley Force dolls, Ashley Force rhinestone-encrusted key chains, Ashley Force neoprene beer coolers.

Pink Ashley Force socks also were available, as were Ashley Force hats and Ashley Force hair scrunchies.

For other memorabilia -- say an Ashley Force 100% cotton throw -- fans would have to visit her website.

A 26-year-old drag racer from Yorba Linda, she is quickly becoming one of the most potent brands in American motor sports. With her good looks, a gutsy reputation on the track and a racing legend father who has mastered the art of modern marketing, she is the new, and decidedly feminine, face of drag racing.

But she is more than just a top seller of merchandise licensed by the National Hot Rod Assn. Last year she became the first woman to win an NHRA race in Funny Car, one of the sport's most physically demanding categories.

Now she's Ashley Force Hood after taking her husband Dan's last name when they married last year, though most fans still know her as Ashley Force.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 15, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Drag racer Ashley Force Hood: A label over a Sports article Saturday on drag racer Ashley Force Hood said "NHRA Winternationals." The event, in Pomona this weekend, is the Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.

After another season stacked with wins, Force Hood has a shot -- albeit a long one -- at becoming the first woman to win an NHRA Funny Car championship at this weekend's season-ending event in Pomona.

NHRA President Tom Compton said Force Hood has helped attract new fans -- especially valuable since the recession led ticket sales to drop by 10%. "She appeals to women and young people," he said. "She's very important to the future of this sport."

Consider Logan Pergance, who had traveled to Las Vegas from Colorado Springs with her family to watch Force Hood race and get a photo with her idol. Logan is 5.

Logan, who competes on a dirt bike (with training wheels), had dressed as Force Hood in a miniature racing suit and fingernails painted red and green and white -- the colors of Force Hood's major sponsor, Castrol Motor Oil.

Another of the dozens of fans waiting outside Force Hood's trailer was Evelyn Delaney, 44, of Anchorage. Delaney, whose husband was a longtime NHRA fan, said she had always tuned races out -- until Force Hood started driving.

"It's something I can relate to," she said. "You know, it's a girl-power thing."

Force Hood may excel at a man's game, but as Logan's dad, Jason, put it, she's still a "girlie girl." The former high school cheerleader showed up at the track here in makeup and with freshly painted nails. She brought Halloween candy for her 10-man crew -- it was Oct. 31 -- and told of folding their clothes when they leave them lying around the pit.

Other Funny Car drivers sell merchandise, but you won't find any Cruz Pedregon or Tim Wilkerson hair scrunchies.

An AOL poll found her to be the "world's hottest athlete," but Force Hood said, "The gender stuff is kind of old news." Yet, as some of her male fans made clear, her gender is so much the allure.

"She's very pretty, if you know what I mean," said Gerald Salazar, 55, who had driven from Albuquerque with Bob Deal, 64, to watch Force Hood race in her 7,000-horsepower Mustang.

"For such an attractive girl to be doing such a dangerous sport -- wow!" Deal said.

Force Hood spent time between qualifying races hanging out in her trailer with her mom, her sisters and her cat Simba (who has a fan following in his own right). Force Hood feels at home on the track.

While growing up, she and her three sisters often attended the drag races of their father, John Force. Beloved by fans for his record on the track -- 14 NHRA Funny Car championships -- and for his breathless, boisterous personality off it, John is still racing at age 60.

Ashley's two younger sisters race for the team in an amateur class, and her older sister's husband, Robert Hight, competes in Funny Car. Ashley's husband is a mechanic for her father's car.

This can all lead to some familial awkwardness. In Las Vegas, Force Hood learned that she would have to face Hight in the first elimination round.

At that point in the season, Hight led all drivers in points. Force Hood trailed by only 13 points and the winner would have the upper hand going into Pomona.

Force Hood began racing 10 years ago, when her father bought her drag racing lessons for her 16th birthday after she had signed up for an auto shop class at Anaheim Esperanza High.

After she announced that she wanted to race professionally, her mother, Laurie, insisted she first attend college. Force Hood earned a bachelor's degree in communications at Cal State Fullerton, taking classes that would prepare her for her future celebrity, including public speaking and a course on reality TV.

In 2004 she started racing in the NHRA in the Top Alcohol division, an amateur class. Two years later she moved up to Funny Car.

Drag racing looks simple -- what's so hard about a race with no turns? -- but it requires strength and skill to keep the car under control. In 2007, one of Force Hood's teammates, Eric Medlen, died in a crash. That year she had a fiery crash of her own.

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