When Ashley Force Hood begins to mentally prepare for the intense challenge of a 300-mph side-by-side race in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, part of her routine is to evaluate her competition. She analyzes her opponents’ strengths and examines their tendencies during their pre-race routines at the starting line. Ultimately, she will try to exploit any weaknesses that she sees.
Though that process works well for the majority of her rivals in the ultracompetitive Funny Car category, she thinks that she may know two of them just a little bit too well: her father, John Force, and her brother-in-law, Robert Hight.
Both are at the top of their game and among the drivers whom Force Hood may have to defeat to win the 41st annual NHRA SuperNationals, June 10-13 at historic Old Bridge Township Raceway Park. Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Tony Pedregon (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock), and Craig Treble (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event.
Force Hood, driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang and the first woman to win a Funny Car race in NHRA history, said that though facing one of her teammates on the dragstrip can be a tough chore, ultimately it is more of a stress-free race, knowing that no matter the outcome, the team is going to advance to the next round.
“When I run against them, the pressure is off,” said the three-time tour winner who has earned 10 No. 1 qualifying positions. “I feel when I run Dad or Robert, we can have some fun, not make ourselves nervous or sick, but may the best car win. It’s a different feeling than running another team, the [Don] Schumacher [Racing] teams, [Cruz or Tony] Pedregon, [Del] Worsham, all the other teams we compete against. You do feel different going against them.”
Force Hood said that the strength-in-numbers philosophy gives her a reason to cheer even after her day may be over at the track. If her teammates are still in competition, she has the opportunity to turn from driver to cheerleader and wave the team flag.
“When you go out, it’s a saving grace for you that even though you lost, you still have people to go up on the starting line to root for and cheer on,” she said.
Last season, Force and Hight did a lot of cheering for Force Hood early in the season. She had her best season, winning twice in eight final rounds and finishing second in the season standings. Her father had his worst season in more than two decades, and Hight struggled early before a late rally gave him the season championship. This year, both Force and Hight are off to very strong starts with three wins apiece, and Hight just overtook Force — the season-long points leader — atop the Funny Car standings with his fourth straight final-round showing. Force Hood has been in a couple of final rounds and is tied for third place entering this weekend’s second race in a grueling stretch of seven events in eight weeks.
“Last season around this time in the year, through the spring and summer, my team, everything kind of came together for us, and we were running really good,” Force Hood said. “We were winning races, going to final rounds, leading the points a few times during the season. It was very bittersweet because we were so excited to be a newer team and be doing so well, yet our own teammates were both struggling. My dad and his team, who won so many years, had such success, who we learned from, and also Robert’s team, who came so close year after year to that championship. Those were the two that we really felt would be the ones going after the No. 1 spot, yet we found ourselves in that position.”
As the trio is once again 1-2-3 in the standings (Matt Hagan is tied with Force Hood), Force Hood said that she would like to see that be the final Funny Car order. She would be happy if any of the three secures the No. 1.
“But the thing I can say about that is both of those teams [last year], they never showed that they were envious or upset,” she said. “They were just a hundred percent supportive. They cheered us on. They were on that starting line whether it was a semi’s or final that we were in. Even if it was them that we beat the round before, they would come over and help us out. They really did feel at the end of the day, we were one big team. It was great to know they were happy for us. Now when the tables are turned, we can give our support as well. If we struggle, we’ll be there cheering them on. Coming November, we want any of these cars to be in the No. 1 spot. To be 1-2-3 would be amazing.”
In Top Fuel, five-time Englishtown winner Larry Dixon, fresh off his win in Chicago, is in a tight championship battle with archrival Tony Schumacher and veteran driver Cory McClenathan. Each has won multiple races this season and led the points standings. Others to watch in the 7,000-horsepower category include Doug Kalitta, Brandon Bernstein, Antron Brown, Morgan Lucas, and Shawn Langdon.
Mike Edwards continues to have the car to beat in Pro Stock competition; the defending world champ has opened the season in impressive fashion with six wins and eight No. 1 qualifying positions. His biggest challengers include past world champs Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Greg Anderson and Team Mopar’s Allen Johnson. Young Rickie Jones has proven to be a serious upset threat on the starting line at recent events in his Elite Motorsports Pontiac GXP.
A talented mix of Pro Stock Motorcycle racers will challenge for the two-wheel title, including defending world champ Hector Arana, past Englishtown winners Matt Smith and Andrew Hines, and former Raceway Park general manager Eddie Krawiec, also the 2008 NHRA Full Throttle Series world champion.