- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Ashley Force Hood is in position to become the first female champion in the National Hot Rod Association's Funny Car class. But she's even more eager to become the second driver named Force to win the Funny Car title.
Force Hood lies just 13 points behind her teammate, Robert Hight, in the closest championship battle among the NHRA Full Throttle Series' four top classes. It's a true John Force Racing family affair; Force Hood is the oldest racing daughter of the legendary drag-racing star, who has won a record 14 Funny Car titles, while Hight has been associated with his father-in-law for 18 years as a crewman and finally a driver.
Both will square off in Ford Mustangs in the final two rounds of the NHRA's Countdown to 1, beginning this weekend at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But with the points race so close, it's almost certain that the Funny Car crown won't be decided until the NHRA season finale at Pomona, Calif., Nov. 12-15.
Female drivers have won NHRA championships in other top classes, most notably Shirley Muldowney and Angelle Sampey, who scored three overall championships apiece in Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle, respectively. But for whatever reason, women have never gravitated toward Funny Car, where until Force Hood broke through with event wins in the past two seasons (including the 2009 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis) Melanie Troxel was the only pilot to record a victory. Troxel remains the only female drag racer who has won in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
Now at age 26 and in just her third year of professional competition, Force Hood is poised to break that mold and potentially draw even more mainstream interest to drag racing.
"We are really pumped -- we've had a really great season," Force Hood remarked. "We are right where we want to be up there in the top couple of spots, but a lot can change in these final two races and obviously we are aware of that. So we're just going to try to do the best we can and enjoy this. It can get easy to get caught up in the stress of it all and get nervous about it and anxious, but we are really trying to look at it from another point of view and say that in our third year in, we are battling for the NHRA Championship. That's a pretty neat spot to be in, especially as a relatively newer team compared to a lot of the teams we compete with."
Force Hood is often compared to IndyCar Series starlet Danica Patrick and was voted AOL's "Hottest Female Athlete" in 2007. Yet she is quick to downplay the gender factor, despite the historic implications that would come from winning the Funny Car title.
"It's not such a big deal to me, and the main reason is I am a female driver, but I had nothing to do with that," she said. "God makes that decision, and my parents, and I also have a team of 10 men that work on my car. If you've ever seen me trying to work on an automobile, you know I would not be second in the points for the championship if I was working on it! But it's them and me together as a team. We are the ones going out for the championship, not just me as an individual.
"Now, someday, I think if we could get an all-female team, that would be pretty amazing -- mechanics, tuners and the driver," she added. "I hope that I get to see that in my lifetime, and I think it will happen. More and more women are moving up in the ranks."
John Force is in a unique position in several ways, not the least of which is the fact he will be presiding over a friendly family feud over the final two rounds of the NHRA Countdown. The 14-time Funny Car champion admitted it will be difficult to watch his daughter and son- in-law duke it out on the strip with the title on the line.
"It really is tough, but Robert really is my family," Force said. "I would love to see Ashley be the first female in the history of NHRA Funny Car to win a championship. That would be huge, and also she's my baby girl, so you know that I got a lot of preference there. Then on the other side, on the family side, I've got a granddaughter that is rooting for Ashley and she's always rooting for her dad, Robert. My emotions are pulled in both directions, but what I'm going to do is pray that one of them wins.
It's really more exciting to me right now than anything that I've ever faced in my whole career -- watching two young people, a male and a female, fight this thing out.
”-- John Force
"It's exciting for me as a father and an owner to come down here at the shop [in Yorba Linda, Calif.]," Force added. "Ashley and Robert are different personalities, totally. Robert and I talk every day about racing and how to win a championship, and Ashley has another style. Robert is radical, but focused, but yet Ashley is almost as calm and cool, almost like, 'It'll be what it'll be, Dad. I've watched you worry yourself sick for 30 years,' and it just isn't her style. But it sure is fun to watch 'em on that starting line get hungry and bear down and pound on those lights and do what they do to win. It's really more exciting to me right now than anything that I've ever faced in my whole career -- watching two young people, a male and a female, fight this thing out."
But it will be a friendly fight.
"I'm very excited about it," said Hight, who is married to Force's oldest daughter, Adria, the financial manager of John Force Racing. "It's probably less pressure when you're racing one of your own teammates than having to go out there and race another one of those cars. It probably made it easier having Ashley doing so well this year. She was kind of carrying the load for the whole team. But the way this whole team works is we help each other, we work together."
Force Hood agrees that competing with a family member and teammate with all the chips on the line is actually less pressure-packed than going up against competition from outside John Force Racing.
"It's the best spot that we could be in," she said. "That's always our goal at the end of the year when we are back in Pomona for the world finals. If we can have our own teammates battling for the championship, there's no better scenario because we are going to win no matter how the day ends up. Obviously Robert and I are not the only ones, but we are one and two. So they are going to have to catch up and go around us.
"It's fun and it's exciting for both Robert and I," she added. "He's been close so many years. This is my first time really being right in the mix of it coming down to the last two races, so it's exciting for both of us and for our team. All of the guys are pumped up and we are ready to head off to Vegas."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.