ASHLEY SHINES BRIGHTLY AS FUNNY CAR ROOKIE

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One thing that has become apparent this season is that Ashley Force is more than just a novelty.

As the first woman in the last seven seasons to drive a Funny Car in the POWERade Drag Racing Series few expected the 24-year-old to be a legitimate contender for one of the eight spots in the NHRA's new NASCAR-inspired Countdown to the Championship.

Nevertheless, entering this week's 10th annual Torco Racing Fuels Nationals at Route 66 Raceway, the graduate of California State University-Fullerton leads such straight-line luminaries as Del Worsham, Cruz Pedregon, Tommy Johnson Jr., Gary Densham, Kenny Bernstein, Scott Kalitta and, oh yeah, her father, reigning series champion John Force.

In fact, while her dad is languishing in 17th place in the standings after the worst start of his career (five first round losses and a DNQ in seven races), Ashley is coming up sevens: seventh place after seven races having won seven rounds in what widely is regarded as the most competitive category in NHRA Pro Racing.

Ashley credits her team and especially crew chief Dean "Guido" Antonelli for her early success at the wheel of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.

"My team and crew chief have been great about not pushing me," she said. "They have given me time to get used to the car before I start worrying about things like reaction time. They've told me, 'you have to be comfortable in the car before you can work on the smaller details,' but after last week (when she lost to race winner Mike Ashley despite a quicker track time) I am definitely going to starting working (on improving my reaction times).

"In Super Comp, it took me some time to get good at it and, then, in A/Fuel (driving three years for Jerry Darien and Ken Meadows), it was the same thing.

The former high school cheerleader, who has gone to the semifinals two times this season, is especially comfortable with the "less is more" strategy adopted by Antonelli and assistant crew chief Ron Douglas.

"One big advantage my team has is we don't go out and try crazy things to run low ET (elapsed time)," she said. "We're very consistent. We're never No. 1, but we are the car that gets down the track every time and my dad taught me that you win by being consistent.

"If I can just get better on my lights, I think we have a good package going into the summer races when the weather isn't going to allow many high speeds and quick ETs. The weather is going to level the playing field and if you have a driver and a team that are working well together, like we are, I think you can win."

If she does reach the winners' circle, she would become the first woman in NHRA history to accomplish that feat in a nitro Funny Car. She already has gone as far as any other female Funny Car driver, losing in the semifinals at both Atlanta and Madison, Ill.

All of that has put her on the fast track to follow in the footsteps of brother-in-law Robert Hight. Currently second in Funny Car points in the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford, Hight was the 2005 winner of the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award. Ashley is the front-runner in the race for 2007 version of the award that identifies the Rookie-of-the-Year in NHRA Pro Racing.

For his part, Antonelli considers Ashley advanced for a rookie of any gender.

"She's got natural ability," he said, "but it also helped her to race for three years for Darien and Meadows (for whom she won five NHRA national events). That's where she learned to backpedal' (a drag racing term for the ability to regain traction by feathering the throttle, a skill for which he father is renowned).

"She made probably 500 runs in the Darien and Meadows dragster," Antonelli said, "and she's been aBle to put that experience to good use in Funny Car."

NOTE: Information provided by NHRA

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