It took just four rounds of racing at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and only 16.604 seconds of actual work to transform Ashley Force Hood from fresh-faced pretender to seasoned contender for what may be the NHRA's most hotly-contested Funny Car championship.
In just her third professional appearance in the world's oldest, largest, richest and most prestigious drag race, Force Hood sped to a history-making victory that sends her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang into this week's second annual Carolina Nationals on a wave of momentum.
Even before her Indy victory, the 26-year-old daughter of racing icon John Force had demonstrated that she's more than just a racing novelty. In a breakout 2009 season, no one has gone to more Funny Car finals than has the graduate of Cal State-Fullerton (seven) and no one has started more races from the top of the qualifying order (five).
Nevertheless, what made her Indy victory so significant was that, in it, she showed off the complete package. Her car performed flawlessly, as it has for most of the season, her car control skills were typically creditable and her reaction times, a rare source of criticism, were excellent.
She left the starting line first in three of four rounds and, in a semifinal victory over points leader Tony Pedregon, considered the best “leaver” in the category, the reaction time difference was a scant .006 of a second.
The upshot is that the former high school cheerleader is at the very top of her game as the tour moves onto the all-concrete surface at zMax Dragway for the start the six-race series that will determine Full Throttle World Champions in Funny Car and four other categories.
Furthermore, she said she couldn't be more comfortable entering the Countdown to One, for which she credits her Castrol GTX crew and especially crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Ron Douglas.
“I can always count on my guys to stay loose and tell me jokes on the radio,” she said. “They keep me relaxed and don't let me get too nervous. Even when we had the explosion and fire (last month at Reading, Pa.), they made a joke of it. Now they call me Fireball Force.'
“Now the yoga and meditation starts,” she joked. “I was (talking) earlier during an interview about the pressures of being in the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and I said this is the last fun race of the season.' (This week) is when the stress begins. I love being a driver, but I'm jealous of the fans getting to watch all this go down – because it's going to be exciting.”
The former NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year likes her chances.
“If you look at all the drivers in our category, there's not one dominant person,” she said, “(so) it could be anybody's championship. You wouldn't think that going up against teams that have been racing longer than I've been alive, we'd be thinking about a championship, but we know that in this sport, anything can happen. I think we have a great shot at it.”