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A force in her own right atop NHRA standings

'Track brat' upbringing helps Force Hood follow her father into drag

October 11, 2009|Liz Clarke | Clarke writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — The lexicon of motorsports is riddled with peculiar turns of phrases.

Among them is "track brats," which refers to kids of racecar drivers whose childhoods are played out in the infield, whether boys racing Matchbox cars or girls clambering atop their father's shoulders in Victory Lane.

A decade or so ago, Ashley Force Hood was among them.

Today, at 26, she has forged her own place in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), a sport that for decades has been defined by the booming voice and hot-shoe bravado of her father, John Force, 60, who boasts a record 14 Funny Car championships.

Force Hood, the second of four Force daughters, not only competes against her father in drag racing's elite ranks but is currently outperforming him -- as well as every other driver in the Funny Car class.

Heading into this weekend's NHRA Virginia Nationals in Petersburg, she sits atop the Funny Car standings, with three races remaining before the season's champion is crowned. And if the laws of physics and decorum allowed, it could be Force Hood hoisting her father atop her champagne-soaked shoulders at the Nov. 15 season finale, rather than the other way around.

Her quest to become the first woman to win the NHRA's Funny Car title, and its $500,000 prize, is far from over. In a hotly contested championship race, Force Hood holds a three-point lead over Robert Hight, her teammate and brother-in-law, with three others within 90 points. Her father lurks in seventh place, 124 points in arrears.

"My whole life growing up, we went to a lot of banquets and got to celebrate, and I almost thought, well, this can't be so hard! Dad wins it all the time!" Force Hood said this week, laughing at her naivete. "Now that I'm involved, I see it's not an easy thing. These cars can be really unpredictable. And there are days you're going to struggle."

To refer to either of the NHRA's nitro-powered classes -- whether the needle-nosed Top Fuel cars or stubbier Funny Cars -- as a "car" represents another peculiar turn of phrase.

They are closer to rockets on wheels, accelerating from zero to 100 mph in 0.8 of a second. With roughly 10 times the horsepower of a NASCAR engine, they cover 1,000 feet (roughly the length of three football fields) in four seconds. Even during a poor run, nitro-powered dragsters routinely top 300 mph.

Force Hood holds the record for top speed in a Funny Car, clocked at 312.13 mph in her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang at Atlanta in April.

"There are things that happen on a run that I won't remember until a half hour after I get out," says Force Hood, who earned a communications degree from Cal State Fullerton. "You're not really thinking about what you're doing; your body is just reacting. And your mind has to take time to catch up with that your body did."

The start is so violent it's called a "launch," slamming the driver back in the seat with five times the force of gravity. Force Hood tethers her helmet with a chinstrap to keep her neck from whipping back during the burst. Still, she loses her vision for a split second.

"It's not that you can't see anything," she says, "but there's a moment before you can re-focus and see where you're at." Ideally, that's in the middle of the lane, with the car's snout pointed straight and just ahead of the rival in the adjacent lane.

And the stop, achieved with the help of parachutes that deploy at the rear, is nearly as violent. The skill lies in the four seconds in between, as drivers try to control the car, which invariably yanks to one side like a deranged, rocket-fueled bull.

In the Top Fuel class, given its long wheelbase (300 inches), it's a question of finesse, with deft wrist movements enough to tame the car.

In Funny Car, with a wheel base less than half that, drivers wrestle the car, frantically sawing the wheel back and forth to keep it in the narrow groove where it performs best.

"It's an ill-handling beast," says Dean "Guido" Antonelli, 45, who shares crew-chief duties on Force Hood's car with Ron Douglas, tuning its engine to the brink of failure for maximum performance before each run, then tearing it down and rebuilding it between runs.

At 310 mph, there's no margin for error on the part of driver or team.

"Everything is magnified 100 times, as far as a mistake," Antonelli says. "If you make a mistake, it's over."

Force Hood wasn't simply handed the keys to an 8,000-horsepower Funny Car. She wanted to be a crew member first and took auto shop and welding in high school, earning A's not because of any innate gifts, she says, but because she tried so hard.

She soon turned her focus to racing and progressed through the minor leagues, tackling more powerful classes in succession.

Antonelli says he's convinced there's something in the family's blood.

Still, the personalities of father and daughter couldn't be more different.

John Force is as bellicose as a late-night infomercial pitchman. Ashley Force Hood is as humble as he is brash; methodical where he is impulsive. But both have a fervent following.

"For drag-racing promoters, the end of the world used to be the day that John Force would announce his retirement because nobody sells tickets like he does," said Jeff Byrd, president of Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway. "But now, the future seems a little brighter because she has come along."

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