First-year Top Fuel racer Justin Ashley, from Melville, New York, joined Pro Stock rookies Mason McGaha and Kyle Koretsky as the nominees for the 2020 NHRA Rookie of the Year award it was announced today on NHRA.com. Ashley, whose father Mike won three NHRA Funny Car national events including the prestigious U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in 2007, had a stand out season which included a win at the NHRA Summernationals and a Top Ten finish in the Top Fuel category. With two races left Ashley could finish as high as 5th in the Camping World Top Fuel point standings.
“I think overall this Strutmasters.com Top Fuel team powered by MANSCAPED™ had a fantastic rookie season,” said Ashley, upon hearing the news of his nomination. “Just putting things in perspective we are racing the best drivers and teams in the world. These teams and drivers are the best at what they do so to be able to come out in our rookie season and just have an opportunity to be competitive and have a chance to win at every race we went to speaks volumes of our season. I also feel really good about how we represented ourselves off the track.”
Ironically, all three NHRA Rookie of the Year nominees are second-generation racers who grew up in pit areas across the country watching their fathers compete on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. This season Kyle Koretsky scored two quarterfinal appearances in the Pro Stock division and Mason McGaha, qualified for the prestigious DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA U.S. Nationals where he went on to beat his dad in the opening round of Pro Stock.
“I think it is cool that Kyle and Mason are also following their dads into racing. I know Pro Stock is a very tough category. All three of us faced some amazing competition this year. I will look forward to seeing them at the track for many seasons to come,” added Ashley.
Ashley qualified for every NHRA national event this season. In addition to his Top Fuel win over veteran TJ Zizzo, he raced to one semifinal and four quarterfinal finishes. He also appeared in a number of sponsor marketing activations including a promotional video for Auto Shocker for their social media channels. He set his career-best elapsed time during the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in Dallas, posting a blistering 3.687-second run which also secured him his best qualifying position of 2020, the No. 2 spot.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs in our rookie season. We were at our highest point after we won the Summernationals and followed it up the next day by going to the semifinals at the U.S. Nationals,” said Ashley. “The car was running really good and everything was clicking on all cylinders and then the three races after that, two first-round losses and a quarterfinal loss. It is a test. You have to know that at some point in time if you are not going through adversity or struggling with something it probably means you are not trying hard enough.”
With two more races on the 2020 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Ashley will be heading to Houston and Las Vegas with the goal of securing top qualifying positions and more wins.
NHRA Rookie of the Year front-runner Justin Ashley took some time to look back at his first year on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour before the Springnationals at Houston Raceway Park. The 25-year old driver from Melville, New York, has two more races to complete the season but with a signature win and competitive performances at all nine races so far he is excited about wrapping up 2020 and looking ahead to 2021.
Q – How would you rate your rookie season?
Justin Ashley – “I think overall as a team and organization we had a fantastic rookie season. Just putting things in perspective we are racing the best drivers and teams in the world. These teams and drivers are the best at what they do so to be able to come out in our rookie season and just have an opportunity to be competitive and have a chance to win at every race we went to speaks volumes of our season. I also feel really good about how we represented ourselves off the track. As a program we want to be the best representatives that we can be for our sponsors and for the NHRA. 2020 had a lot of unknowns with some unpredictable situations and I think we really came through.”
Q – The Summernationals win had to be the highlight of an unusual season…
JA – “That win was absolutely the highlight of the season. For myself and a lot of guys on the Strutmasters.com team, it was the highlight of our careers so far. To be able to get that win and show that not only is our team here every race but we can do this, we can win. There is no reason we shouldn’t be a top tier team and we shouldn’t be competing. It showed the resilience of our team through all the struggles and the layoff because of COVID and that moment of winning the Summernationals made everything worth it.”
Q – You had rookie year struggles…how did you handle those?
JA – “There have been a lot of ups and downs in our rookie season. We were at our highest point after we won the Summernationals and followed it up the next day by going to the semifinals at the U.S. Nationals. The car was running really good and everything was clicking on all cylinders and then the three races after that, two first-round losses and a quarterfinal loss. It is a test. You have to know that at some point in time if you are not going through adversity or struggling with something it probably means you are not trying hard enough. I know this is all part of the deal and we are fortunate to even be out here racing. To go through some struggles is OK because in the long run, it will make our team stronger and better.”
Q – Who were some of your Top Fuel supporters throughout the season?
JA – “As a whole the Top Fuel class has been extraordinarily welcoming. It is difficult sometimes to be the new guy, the rookie who doesn’t know his way around. Each and every person I have encountered has gone above and beyond to go out of their way to help me or offer me advice. Specifically, Antron Brown has taken me under his wing and given me a lot of guidance. He has supported me like a brother and that means the world. The other driver that stands out is Steve Torrence. I have grown to know Steve throughout the season and he has been complimentary of me and the team. During the Summernationals race we were struggling to get ready for the final and he sent some Capco boys over to help our team out. Those two guys definitely stand out.”
Q – Talk about racing with your dad in your corner…
JA – “It has been awesome to have my dad with me on this journey. He has been great on the track and away from the track. Just having his support means the world to me. In terms of driving when I am experiencing certain things in the car, he is the first person that I can talk to because he completely understands and gets where I am coming from. He helps so much off the track with suggestions on how to best represent myself and our team to our sponsors. He has helped with advice on how to bring marketing partners on board that are a good fit. All those things are a tremendous help to me in terms of launching my career which I hope is a long and fruitful NHRA career.”
Q – As the leader of a rookie team what were the biggest challenges and how excited are you for the future?
JA – “I am very excited for the future of our team. A large part of our success in the future is dependent on our marketing partners and sponsorship. Something I take pride in is working diligently on a daily basis to bring on new marketing partners who grow our program and we can help grow their brands. It is a lot of pressure and responsibility, but I also welcome it. I know the future of our team is extraordinarily bright. It was a great year, but my goal is to build a program with sustainable success. We want to be out there every year at every race being very successful on and off the track. We have the right guys in place to be able to do that for a long time.”
Q – How has your life/business away from the track made you a better racer?
JA – “In business sometimes everything looks good on paper and it appears everything is handled. In reality that might not be the case. You hit your struggles and difficulties and you have to get creative in tough times. You have to find a way to keep going and keep pushing. It is the same thing with racing. There are times when everything looks good and you go out there on the track and you smoke the tires or you have a few first rounds exits or you are not cutting the light that you want. It isn’t about that moment but how you respond to it. Business and racing are very similar in a lot of ways.”
Q – Any favorite fan interaction stories and how hard was it to race with limited fans?
JA – “One of the moments that stands out to me happened in Dallas at the Texas Motorplex. A father came up to me in the middle of race day and asked if I could take a picture with his son. His son stood in the pits by the car and we took a picture. I didn’t think anything of it and we spent a few minutes talking to him. I gave him a fist bump for good luck and later that day I am on my social media and I see a long post from the father about how much that moment meant to him and what an impact that interaction had on his son’s life. That really stands out to me because I didn’t think twice about it. I thought it was cool he wanted a picture and we got to talk but you don’t realize what an impact that short moment can have with someone.”
Q – What racers did you get fired up to race this season?
JA – “If it were up to me I would be fine not knowing who I was racing against. I really just try to focus on doing my job every time. It doesn’t matter if I am racing the No. 1 qualifier or the No. 16 qualifier I don’t get too high or low. I try to do the same thing, go through the same routine every run whether it is first round or a final round. That being said there are certain guys that you win against that are the upper echelon guys, Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta, Antron Brown or Steve Torrence when you win there is something just a little more special because these guys are world champions or have won a ton of races. Winning against those top tier guys is a little bit of a different feeling when you get out at the top end.
Q – You brought some new sponsors into the sport… talk about what that support means to you and your team and the NHRA…
JA – “Before anything else if you want to be out here for a long time you need good sponsors. For our program sponsors mean everything. We have been able to bring on a lot of really great partners. One of the people that has stuck by me from the beginning is Chip Lofton with Strutmasters. When I came over from A Fuel we hadn’t done anything yet and he took a chance on us. Ever since then he has been extraordinarily loyal and he has stood by our side during COVID, the most unpredictable time in American history. All our sponsors from Auto Shocker, KATO, Sanit, MANSCAPED to GuardLab have been amazing. I think it is important that as a program we grow together. As our team grows these sponsors and businesses grow too.”
Q -Looking at 2021 what are your goals for next season?
JA – “My goals for next year are pretty simple. I want to give us an opportunity to win every race that we attend. I don’t know how many races that will be but I would love for it to be the full year. We are confident we will do at least 12 races and those will be great opportunities. Our goal is to win every race that is the reason we are there. We want to have fun. We want to be safe and we want to win. We know we are racing the best teams in the world but I feel like with the team that I have and our leadership that we can be right up there with them.”