By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Ashley Force Hood altered the NHRA Funny Car landscape last week with the revelation that impending motherhood will sideline her for at least the 2011 drag racing season.
Instead of trying to overhaul father/team-owner John Force as reigning world champion
– or battling the expanded four-car lineup at Don Schumacher Racing – Force Hood and husband Dan will be preparing for the birth of their first child.
“We felt that if God wanted it to happen, it would happen,” said Force Hood, who broke the news to the crew of her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang and the media during separate news conferences. “Dan and I know there is always a risk at the beginning of a pregnancy, so we waited as long as possible to say anything to make sure everything was all right and there were no problems.”
Force Hood, 28, finished third in the 2010 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series standings during a season dominated by her father’s run to a record-setting 15th world championship at the expense of DSR’s Matt Hagan. The two-time/reigning champion of the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Force Hood is one of NHRA’s most marketable personalities. She enters her “temporary hiatus” as a four-time national event winner and as a top-10 point finisher in each of her four seasons in Nitro Funny Car.
Force Hood became the first female driver to win an NHRA Funny Car event in 2008, when she defeated her famous father in the final round at Atlanta Dragway. During that same season, Force Hood also became the first female driver to lead the Funny Car point standings. She is the NHRA national record holder for Funny Car speed at 316.38 miles per hour.
While vacating the driver’s seat, Force Hood will remain active in drag racing as coach to youngest sister Courtney, who will be testing a Funny Car in anticipation of a pro debut later this year.
Force Hood also will continue to represent Castrol, Ford Motor Company, Auto Club, BrandSource and Mac Tools while settling into a new role as president of John Force Entertainment. The full-service subsidiary of JFR will begin developing a new reality television show, work towards completion and publication of a John Force biography and explore development of the biography into a feature-length film and documentary. Force Hood is a Radio, TV & Film graduate of Cal State-Fullerton.
Force Hood discussed a number of these topics during a telephone interview with RacinToday.com:
RacinToday: Congratulations on your impending motherhood, and for keeping the news of your pregnancy secret from even your team’s PR staff. What’s the projected delivery date?
Ashley Force Hood: “Yes, this has been done in an orderly fashion, although Elon (Werner, the
JFR public relations person) may never forgive me. They’ve given me a couple of different dates. We’re looking at mid-August, right around the Brainerd (Minn.) race.”
RT: So, what’s been the reaction to your hiatus – from team members, sponsors and the media?
AFH: “My team wasn’t that surprised, which surprised me. I told them – we did a teleconference on the morning of the news conference – and got texts from some of the guys. They were all happy. I knew they would be, but a lot of things in their lives are going to be different. ‘Are they going to be upset with me?’ No one was. They said, ‘We know you wanted to start a family…we see you with your niece and the kids that come up to the ropes (for autographs)…we’re really happy you’re doing this.’ They’ve been the same guys that I always have known and raced with for years. It took a huge weight off my shoulders.
“The media was surprised, but I think the most surprised were the racers and friends we didn’t tell. It’s been a whirlwind of a couple of days. We knew we were pregnant but the first few months…things can happen. We talked to my doctor and I told her, ‘You know, I have this strange job that this isn’t where I’m just telling my parents and sisters. There’s my team and sponsors…how should I do this?’
“She said don’t stress about it and wait as long as you can. Most women don’t say anything until after the first trimester. I’m not there yet…and we tried to wait as long as we could. I didn’t want to be a pain to my team, so we decided last week that we’d waited as long as we can. The guys have got to get ready for testing.”
RT: This has been announced as a one-year hiatus. Is there any doubt in your mind that you will want to return to racing? What if you find out you like being a mom, like staying home…don’t miss the pressures associated with professional drag racing?
AFH: “I’ve not gone that far ahead. All of this is so new me. This will be my 10th season in racing.
This time of year I’m usually getting ready to go test. This is a big change for me. I don’t know what it will be like. I love racing, love being out there and that will not change. But kids can change things. The physical side of it…having a baby later in the year…I don’t know the rules about that. Everybody I’ve talked to said, ‘You’ve got to see where you’re at. You might not be ready for a new season or it may be you’re ready in November 100 percent.’ It’s not something I have to figure out right now.”
RT: You’ve finished 6-2-3 in points the last three years, and top-10 all four years of your Funny Car career. Are you concerned that your driving skills might erode while you’re out of the cockpit?
AFH: “Even when we are away for an offseason, the first couple of runs back are nerve-wracking. You feel different than you did at the end of the year. I’m sure being off a year…and who knows what difference there will be in the cars…I don’t how long I’ll have to take to get myself re-familiarized. But I’m not too worried about it. I’m still learning how to drive these things anyway.
“Obviously, I wouldn’t want to jump right into a race. I would want a week or two of testing. I think the mental thing of becoming accustomed again to a car that can go that fast…where it’s not that crazy to you. To get back in one of those things – they’re dangerous, they’re fast, they’re powerful, got a lot of parts moving together – when you’re driving every week, you’re not thinking those thoughts.”
RT: Do you feel some sort of obligation to your father and John Force Racing to return after all that’s been invested into your career as one of the Next Generation stars of the organization?
AFH: “No, my dad and the people I work with, they’ve never been ones to put the pressure on anybody. Not just me, but my sisters. The perfect example was when Eric Medlen was killed (testing at
Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway in March 2007). I was just starting my career, we had put all this money into my team and had all the sponsors and the guys working for us and this tragedy happened.
“It was shocking and emotional. My dad said, ‘If you don’t want to race anymore, you don’t have to.’ That was a huge relief. Dad’s always been that if we want to drive these cars, it has to be 100 percent to do this and not be terrified to climb into the car and run it. I still wanted to continue racing; the biggest challenge was not the fear of the car but going back to the racetrack without Eric. That’s what I was more scared of…’Am I going to be crying every day? Can I do interviews?’ But I knew the team was doing everything they could to make the car safer. This should be something you don’t do for a job…you’ve got to want to do it or you won’t do any good or be any good to the sponsor. So it’s nice to race in an environment like that.
“I know there are people who get their butt chewed out if they have a bad light. I‘ve never had anybody from my team say anything rude to me. I’ve only had support from my dad and crew, and that’s made me a better driver. When your team has your back you relax and perform better.”
RT: You’ve said in prior interviews that all your friends are involved in drag racing, and that you’re
comfortable at the races. Is that where your new position as president of JFR Entertainment will fill a void? I mean, you’ve rarely spoken about your college degree in Radio, TV and Film, right?
AFH: “I’m excited. We’ve got a lot of projects we’re working on…a children’s book and a novel…”Destination Force”… based on the stories my dad’s told us over the years. And who knows how many of them are true? So we’re going to take those and tell them in our (illustrated) novel.”
RT: John Force Entertainment has hired television producer Brent Travers to work with you on development of a new reality television show. Travers was involved in production of “Driving Force,” the A&E series centered on your father and his three racing daughters. First, why did “Driving Force” go off the air? Did it just run its course, or what?
AFH: “They (A&E) were filming in Gainesville with us when Eric had his accident. They spent the
week with us in Florida in the hospital…but they were not filming anything. They had just gotten to know Eric. We stopped then and never filmed after that. We tried one time after that in Vegas, had rented out a room and started talking about Eric…we were crying, they were crying and it was pointless to continue. It just abruptly ended and where could we go from there? We didn’t want to continue the show, like we were trying to make a show off him. But we couldn’t go and do a show without him either.
“So the show we’re looking to do is going to be separate from that. This will be about Courtney and her progress in Funny Car. For example, a lot of people are always asking, ‘How did you get to that point in racing?’ That’s the angle we’re looking at. We’ll begin filming in Florida in a few weeks. This is the very beginning of this idea. We need some footage first to show any (network) people.”
RT: Again, what if you find you like this side of the sport – film and media projects – better than driving?
AFH: “It’s a totally different world, but it’s all connected. All these projects are tied into racing. That’s the fun part of it. I’m excited. I haven’t worked in an office in a decade, and I’ll also be on the road when they’re racing at times. I won’t go to every race, but try to keep some sort of routine.”
RT: NHRA has released a list of “60 Greatest Moments” that fans will vote on this year to determine the No. 1 moment in the series’ 60-year history. Your first Funny Car win at Atlanta in 2008 is No. 56
on a list arranged in chronological order. You’re right up there with Shirley Muldowney as a drag racing groundbreaker. That said, can you “retire” from the cockpit having not won a championship? Would you be OK with that?
AFH: “I think as long as we gave it our best shot…knowing you’re never guaranteed a championship. There’s a lot of great drivers who haven’t won a championship. Sometimes it’s destiny or luck. There’s so many variables that it’s not just depending on your driving. Sometimes you need a little luck. If you get caught up doing this job just to win a championship, you’re messing yourself up. You’ve got to start the season trying to do the best you can every time you run.
“So I’ve never been too caught up in that (title talk). Haven’t won one yet and when I placed second in points (in 2009), people thought I was down after I placed third last year. I wasn’t at all. I’m not that egotistical to think I deserve to win one of these. You can get caught up in that when you have a great season, but there’s too many great drivers out there to think that way.”
RT: Have your parents told you how old you were when they took you to your first drag race?
AFH: “There’s a picture of mom pregnant with me…and I know there’s a picture of me when I’m pretty
young at the pits, like 6 months. I look really tiny. I was in this little car seat thing. Yeah, I’m reading a lot of books and maybe I’m getting too much information. I don’t know if there’s a lot of things they did back then that are now not considered too good. My child will not be out there lying next to the headers…but I don’t see why not inside the trailer. My niece (Autumn) loves to be at the races and she’s 6. It’s better than Disneyland for her.”
RT: Do you want a boy or girl? Do you know yet?
AFH: “I don’t care. I know how to take care of girls better than boys because all my cousins are little girls. But my best friend has a little boy and he’s adorable. For most people, your first doesn’t matter.”
RT: Is it safe to assume your father, Brut Force, is rooting for a boy?
AFH: “He’s told everyone it’s going to be a girl because that’s all we’ve ever produced in this family. My mom says it’s going to be a boy. It’s just the opposite of what I thought. But I think they’re using, what do they call it? – reverse psychology – for what they really want.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org