In a sport where the most popular athlete is 71-year-old John Force, you might be wondering what the future of drag racing is.
Look no further than Justin Ashley, a second-generation, 26-year-old racer who drove his Strutmasters/Davis Motorsports Top Fuel dragster to an NHRA Summernationals win and 2020 Rookie of the Year honors.
With the youth and personality that many sponsors crave—and it’s a coincidence that one of his new sponsors is The Daily Crave, a line of vegetarian chips—Ashley is looking to start the year off right March 14 at one of his favorite drag strips, Gainesville Raceway, site of the season-opening NHRA Gatornationals.
He just came off a successful test weekend at Palm Beach International Raceway in Jupiter, Florida, where he and most of the Funny Car and Top Fuel teams tested. “It was great to go out and knock the rust off, especially since it gave me a chance to work with Mike Green, the new crew chief we’ve brought on. We established a baseline, and we’ll go on from there.”
One of the scary aspects of NHRA drag racing is that you have to make four winning passes in a row—unlike NASCAR, for instance, if you have a bad lap, you have hundreds of others to make it up. A bad lap in the NHRA means you’re going home.
That doesn’t bother Ashley, a veteran of the Alcohol classes with three wins. “It’s definitely high pressure, because it’s a one-and-done sport. You have to be on your ‘A’ game. But every driver is under the same sort of pressure. While there’s a lot of pressure, in a way, pressure is a privilege. If you’re not doing something right, you’re not in that pressure cooker. It’s an opportunity to take advantage of if you go about it in the right way.”
Ashley is planning a minimum of a 12-race schedule. The NHRA has a very aggressive schedule of at least 20 races, starting in Gainesville and ending at Pomona, California, on Nov. 14.
“Right now it’s kind of fluid.” he said. “We’re going to go out there and see how the season goes.”
Finding sponsorship is hardly a given. Just ask Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr., who finished in the top three in the Funny Car class last year yet have yet to find sponsorship for their Don Schumacher Racing Funny Cars. Ashley is still looking for a “co-primary sponsor” that can help fill out the season.
Gainesville is one of Ashley’s favorite places, since he often watched his father race at the NHRA-owned quarter-mile. “I was also fortunate enough to win my fist-ever Top Alcohol Dragster race in Gainesville, so I have great memories of the place.”
BY STEVEN COLE SMITH, Autoweek