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Driving Force

Newbie Ashley Force races in the same division as her dad John, the 14-time Funny Car champ. Only she's not intimidated by him.

John Force always expected one day he would turn his multimillion-dollar drag racing empire over to his son. There was just one snag in his perfect plan.

He didn't have a son.

Daughters. The 14-time Funny Car champion is up to his tail pipe in daughters. But the fast-talking Force didn't let that stop him. When 24-year-old Ashley Force made her NHRA Funny Car debut last month, it felt completely natural.

Just like the famous racing sons in the Earnhardt, Petty and Andretti families, Ashley Force sees nothing unusual about following in her father's tire tracks.

"I'm in racing for the same reasons sons get into racing," Ashley said. "I grew up around it. It's not so much a job as a lifestyle. We love the speed; we love the cars."

In her first two events of the season, Ashley qualified for the finals but was eliminated in the first round. Next stop on the NHRA circuit: the 38th annual Gatornationals, Thursday-Sunday in Gainesville. There will plenty of spectators gathered around the John Force Racing pits to catch a glimpse of the sport's popular newcomer.

Drag racing has a legacy of women racers. Shirley Muldowney, subject of the movie Heart Like a Wheel, broke barriers in the male-dominated sport and won three Top Fuel championships in the late 1970s and early '80s. Twenty-five years later, women are competing in all four NHRA categories: Top Fuel, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Bike and, with Ashley's debut Feb. 8 at Pomona, Calif., hard-to-handle Funny Car.

It is believed to be the first time a father and daughter have competed in professional sports.

"The Funny Car is an animal," John Force said. "You're talking about 2,400 pounds, short wheelbase, full body with all the aerodynamics. And the motor's out front. When she straps in that seat she's a tiger. She's like her old man and looks a whole lot cuter. She gets that from her momma."

Ashley, second-oldest of Force's four daughters, spent childhood weekends hanging out at the track. Something about the noise and 300-mph excitement grabbed her. A high school cheerleader, she took elective courses in auto shop and welding.

For her 16th birthday, her father gave her a course at Frank Hawley's NHRA Drag Racing School, and she was hooked. Her mother, Laurie, insisted she go to college first, so Ashley graduated from Cal State-Fullerton with a degree in communications.

She also spent five seasons in drag racing's "minor leagues" - two in Super Comp and three in Top Alcohol Dragster - learning the business. John wanted her to know how it felt to come off the line in a burst of speed, to spin the tires, to blow an engine, to drift toward the center line.

Along the way, father and daughter spent an awful lot of time together, something that rarely happened when Ashley and her sisters were growing up in California.

"When I was little, dad was always a fun dad," Ashley said. "He'd come home and let us stay up late and skip school. Mom worked hard to get us all on a routine, and dad would come home like a tornado. Now that I'm racing it's different. But it's good."

Ashley's younger sisters, Brittany and Courtney, also race. Laurie Force got her NHRA license not to compete but to better understand what her daughters do. The oldest daughter, Adria, has managed the finances for John Force Racing since she was 20.

The whole family is featured in the A&E reality series Driving Force, which returns March 29 for its second season. The show provides insight into what it must have been like having high-energy, mile-a-minute John Force as a husband and father.

"It's strange, because working with dad is like working with a Funny Car," Ashley said. "He goes 300 miles an hour in his normal life - how he talks, how he acts, how he runs around and makes decisions - and it's up to the rest of us to calm down all that power so we can all do our jobs."

So far, Ashley is different. In fact, John sees in his daughter a trait he wishes he possessed: control. Recently, John and Laurie went for a boat ride on Lake Tahoe, but in his rush to beat gathering storm clouds John hit the throttle before raising the anchor and ripped open the front half of the boat.

"It was sinking and my wife very calmly said to me, 'Do we bail water or do we swim?' And I was running from one end of the boat to the other like I was going to cure it from sure, pure panic," John said. "I have always fought the fight on adrenaline. What Ashley has that I don't have is her mother's composure. She doesn't panic.

"Ashley has the ability to be better than me, because if you can be cool, that's better."

There likely will come a time when father and daughter go head to head on the Funny Car circuit.

There, too, Ashley likely will be the one at ease while her father worries about everything from his baby girl in the next lane to how displeased his wife will be if he crosses the finish line ahead of Ashley.

Many a young racer has cowed to John Force, his success and his personality.

Not Ashley.

"Other guys are intimidated by him: 'You were my idol,' '' Ashley said. "I don't see him that way. We put curlers in his hair when we were little. He's just dad."

Joanne Korth can be reached at korth@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.

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