Pas­sion fu­els her drag rac­ing dreams

Ash­ley San­ford, a ris­ing star in the sport, felt the need for speed at a young age.

Los Angeles Times - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL - By Kevin Bax­ter kevin.bax­ter@la­times.com Twit­ter: @kbax­ter11

Ash­ley San­ford grew up in a mixed house­hold.

Her younger sis­ter Syd­ney “was a girly girl” who painted her nails and played with Bar­bies. Ash­ley, on the other hand, would strap her Bar­bie dolls to re­mote-con­trolled cars and race them around the back­yard of her Fuller­ton home.

“She wanted to be a pro­fes­sional drag racer,” said her mother, Michele. “I didn’t be­lieve it could hap­pen. My daugh­ter? Never.”

Never say never. Be­cause Michele’s el­dest daugh­ter has not only be­come a drag racer, but at 23 she’s seen as a ris­ing star in a sport where gen­der is a de­scrip­tor and not a detri­ment. Women driv­ers have won 136 events in drag rac­ing’s four pro­fes­sional di­vi­sions; com­pare that with NASCAR, where a woman has never won a race in the top four di­vi­sions.

“Fe­males have had suc­cess,” said Brit­tany Force, daugh­ter of drag race leg­end John Force. “We beat up on the boys ev­ery sin­gle week­end.”

If Force can do that again this week­end at the NHRA Fi­nals at Auto Club Race­way in Pomona, she’ll win her first top fuel sea­son ti­tle. Force en­ters Fri­day’s qual­i­fy­ing sec­ond in the stand­ings, 20 points be­hind Steve Tor­rence.

San­ford, mean­while, pre­lim­i­nar­ily qual­i­fied ninth, run­ning 270.64 mph in a top al­co­hol drag­ster on the first day of what she hopes is in her last com­pe­ti­tion in what amounts to NHRA’s ap­pren­tice di­vi­sion.

San­ford, who had three rides in a top-fuel drag­ster this year, hit­ting a top speed of 323 mph in In­di­anapo­lis, will make the jump to NHRA’s top di­vi­sion full time next sea­son. And she can hardly wait.

“I had the time of my life,” she said of the In­di­anapo­lis race. “It is the best feeling in the world. You get out and you feel like you’re on top of the world.

“The amount of power these cars pro­duce in 3 sec­onds, there is truly noth­ing like it on the planet.

“We pretty much are as­tro­nauts in these cars.”

San­ford knew she wanted to be an Earth­bound as­tro­naut from a young age.

Her fa­ther and grand­fa­ther raced com­pet­i­tively, mostly in dune bug­gies, and Ash­ley fol­lowed in their tire tracks. When she was just 8 she be­gan rac­ing ATVs, win­ning her first event.

But the time she was 14, she was shar­ing a sand drag­ster with her grand­fa­ther and by the time she was old enough to get a driver’s li­cense she was cov­er­ing a 300-foot dirt drag strip at 150 mph.

“I was ad­dicted to the adren­a­line and rush of these cars at a young age,” she said. “I lit­er­ally would tell my friends, ‘Oh my gosh. When I grow up my dream is to be rac­ing top fuel in the NHRA.’

“A lot of peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand me. That’s for sure.”

When her Troy High class­mates headed off to col­lege, San­ford en­tered what she calls the school of drag rac­ing, with her fam­ily sell­ing their race cars and spend­ing $250,000 to out­fit her with a top al­co­hol drag­ster. Her dad, Shane, a re­tired fire­man and gen­eral con­trac­tor, be­came her crew chief and the five me­chan­ics who ready the car still work for free.

But even with a vol­un­teer crew, rac­ing a top-al­co­hol drag­ster can cost as much as $15,000 a week­end. Step­ping up to top fuel will cost more than 10 times as much — which is why San­ford is still mak­ing pas­trami sand­wiches at Tony’s Deli in Ana­heim.

“I still need to make money,” she said. “There’s an old say­ing in drag rac­ing. The only way to be­come mil­lion­aire in drag rac­ing is start out with $3 [mil­lion].”

Even work­ing dou­ble shifts, there’s prob­a­bly not enough pas­trami avail­able to bal­ance San­ford’s rac­ing spread­sheet. A num­ber of spon­sors have of­fered to help, and though the fam­ily said they have noth­ing firm on the table, they’re con­fi­dent they’ll be able to fund a top fuel team by the time NHRA re­turns to Pomona to start the 2018 sea­son in Fe­bru­ary.

“She’d be great for the sport,” said Brit­tany Force, whose younger sis­ter Court­ney races funny cars. “She’s young. She’s great in front of cam­eras. And she’s a great driver.”

Michele San­ford agrees, al­though she ad­mits she’s scared each time her daugh­ter straps into a 10,000horse­power rocket for a four-sec­ond run down an as­phalt strip.

“I al­ways am,” said Michele, who even­tu­ally sought ad­vice from her doc­tor.

“He said, ‘If that’s what she wants to do, you have to let her do it. You’re go­ing to hold her back from her dreams, her pas­sion? That’s what she chose to do.’ ”

Michael Al­lio As­so­ci­ated Press

ASH­LEY SAN­FORD will com­pete at the NHRA Fi­nals this week­end in Pomona.

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