By Thomas Pope
Those who believe there’s no place like home have never driven a Top Fuel dragster.
And that’s why Justin Ashley was more than a little bit amped to board a jet Thursday morning, fly to Indianapolis and get back in the driver’s seat.
The 24-year-old native of Plainview, N.Y., is sixth in the standings after the only two events that were run prior to a shutdown of action in mid-March due to Covid-19. Ashley was to test his car Thursday and Friday at Lucas Oil Raceway in preparation for the Saturday-Sunday E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals.
“I’ve missed it so much,” the 24-year-old Ashley said. “Not being able to race really puts things in perspective. When you’re racing and things are going well, you’re appreciative of it. But all of a sudden, when it stops, you realize how much you do love it and grateful you are for it. To have the opportunity to race is a blessing.
“To say I’ve missed it a lot is probably an understatement. It’s what I love to do. It’s my outlet and the thing that probably puts the biggest smile on my face.”
Ashley, a winner of two NHRA national events in the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks, made his Top Fuel debut last fall at Charlotte. He downed Mike Salinas and Austin Prock to reach the semifinals, where he lost to eventual series champion Steve Torrence.
He also qualified for the final two races of 2018. He lost in the opening round at Las Vegas to Torrence’s father, Billy. At the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., Ashley sidelined Clay Millican in the opening round, then was knocked out in Round 2 by eventual event winner Doug Kalitta.
He returned to Pomona in February, when he ran a career-best 3.72 in a first-round victory over Shawn Langdon, then was KO’d by Kalitta in the ensuing frame. Two weeks later, at Phoenix, he bettered his career best with a 3.70-second blast in qualifying, knocked off Scott Palmer in the opening round of eliminations, then went up in smoke on the launch in the quarterfinals against Antron Brown.
He was set to race in Gainesville, Fla., at the Gatornationals in mid-March when the pandemic got in the way. He’s spent the past four months awaiting the chance to get back in the cockpit.
That layoff included a stretch when he couldn’t run his business, Ashley Developers, which “flips” properties that need serious makeovers before they can be sold.
“Basically, I buy anything that’s foreclosed or any kind of short sale,” he said. “I’m going to these houses, and they are brutal, dude. Anything that you could possibly imagine, we see or smell in there, and we gut-renovate them and start from scratch, flip them and sell them.”
Ashley entered the field without any prior experience. He attended Ithaca College in the Finger Lakes region of New York — some 250 miles from his home on Long Island — and he graduated in 2016 with a degree in Business Administration and a concentration in Marketing.
After graduation, he and his father, Mike, came up with a plan for Justin to flip properties. Mike Ashley was the 2004 – 2005 NHRA Pro Modified champion and ’07 Funny Car winner of the NHRA U.S. Nationals.
“I like the business side of it rather than the construction of it,” Justin said. “I have a lot of great people who handle the construction while I focus on the real estate, which makes it easier. I sub everything out, but I try to use the same people on every house with some different people mixed in.”
He learned the business quickly, but not without some early, hard lessons. His first flip demanded a major renovation that forced him to go “well over double” the original budget.
That transaction stung, obviously, but he said the lessons learned have come in handy countless times since. Ashley said his company flips “around 10” houses per year.
But there wasn’t any business to be done during the height of the pandemic, especially not in the vicinity around New York City and the adjacent Long Island.
“Lots of people were catching the virus, and we were on complete quarantine and lockdown. Everything was shut down except for the essential businesses,” Ashley said. “Fortunately for us, we stayed safe and healthy, thank God. I know friends who were affected and had to be hospitalized because of it.
“People are still concerned and taking the precautions, including myself, but things are starting to open up in phases. Restaurants have outdoor seating open and certain capacities allowed to sit indoors,” he said. “More and more businesses are opening and starting to kind of function with the ‘new normal,’ just following all the necessary protocols.
“We’ve come a long way. It’s far from perfect, but we’ve come a long way from where we were in this whole deal. … I used to work out of an office and I switched to working from home, and I don’t think I’m ever going to go back to the office. I don’t even think (an office is) necessary, but that’s just an example of what has become the ‘new normal’ now. I assume it’s going to stay like this until there’s some kind of vaccine.”
Ashley was eager to get back to business, and said that his company currently has three projects in various stages of renovation.
“I’m the type of person who needs to be busy 24/7,” he said. “When there’s nothing to do, I’m pretty much going stir-crazy.”
The pandemic certainly caught sports in the United States to a screeching halt. It forced Ashley to study how the team could move forward once action resumed. The team, led by crew chief Aaron Brooks, is based in Indianapolis, and to keep some of the crew on a payroll, team co-owner Dustin Davis “took a lot of our crew guys that work on the car full-time” to Santa Rosa, Calif., to work for his demolition company.
The team’s original goal was to run 12 NHRA national events this year. With two of those already in the books and the revised schedule still somewhat tenuous, Ashley’s hoping to now compete eight more times. He said that had the pandemic not interrupted racing, he’d “probably” have competed in five events rather than two.
“The car was all set and ready to go when Gainesville was called off, so there’s not much specifically that we’ve done to it since then,” Ashley said. “We’ve focused more on the program as a whole. We got a lot of new parts and pieces in so that, when it was time to go back, our program was in a better position than it was at the time things shut down. I feel like we definitely improved our program.
“Other than looking at data and making small, little changes, everything else is pretty much the same.”
It certainly won’t take him long to feel right back at home in the driver’s seat of his dragster, and he’s especially excited that competition will resume at Lucas Oil Raceway. That’s a track he’s raced on thrice in Top Alcohol Dragster, and this weekend’s event will mark his Top Fuel debut at Indy.
“It might be a little different this time because of the limited crowd,” he said. “Whenever you’re at Indy, at least for the U.S. Nationals, it has a different feel for it. You feel the history that’s there. You know that aside from winning the championship it’s the biggest deal you can win. There’s a certain weight and gravity you feel just by being there.
“It’s always had a magic place in my heart because my dad won Funny Car at the U.S. Nationals. That’s always stuck with me,” he said. “So I’m pumped about it, especially now since I haven’t been in the car for so long.
“And I haven’t seen the team in so long. As much as I love driving the car, I love being around the guys and hanging around with them. We’ll follow all the protocols and social distance to the best of our ability. I’m excited to be around the guys and get that camaraderie again.”