Two years sometimes can seem like a lifetime, and it does for third year Top Alcohol Dragster standout Justin Ashley.
Friday will mark three years since the second-generation drag racer made his A/Fuel Dragster debut behind the wheel of an injected-nitro burning dragster.
“That first time I was very nervous,” Ashley admitted. “The whole experience was relatively new. I’d only made a few passes down the quarter mile at that point in time. Just like anything else, I knew that the more seat time I had, the better I would feel. So just that in and of itself made me feel comfortable. I had a great team around me. But definitely then compared to now is a significant difference.”
Ashley had just graduated from the Top Dragster ranks and settled behind the wheel of Randy Meyer’s racecar. He might have been a rookie but didn’t look like it as he drove his way to the No. 1 qualifier position at the “Baby Gators” event, the traditional NHRA Regional event the week before the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.
A week later Ashley sealed the deal, winning his first race in his national event debut. No one could have predicted such an early run of success, especially not him.
“If you would have told me that, I would have said in all honesty that’s my goal, but I would have been surprised,” Ashley said. “What a tremendous blessing to be able to win that quickly. The first national event, to be able to qualify number one at the first regional event. More important than anything else, it gave me really a good opportunity to continue to race and continue to go rounds which helped me become a better driver. You know, it was something that quite frankly I’ll never forget.
“Being able to race your first national event and come back with a win is special. It’s hard to win in this sport, and you never want to take it for granted, so winning the first one out there was really, really special.”
This weekend, Ashley will be looking for more of his first-year success but from the role of a seasoned driver. He’s no longer a rookie, nor is he a fly-in driver for someone else. Ashley is also a team owner, having embarked on his own team last August.
“My roles and responsibilities have changed significantly between this year and 2017 and 2018,” Ashley explained. “I used to be pretty much just fly in and drive. My main responsibility is to try and keep the car as straight as possible and go down the track as quick as possible, but now my roles and responsibilities have significantly increased. In addition to driving, obviously being a team owner you become more of a decision maker and kind of getting things set up and organized, putting a team together, working with the people on the team, having more significant input.
“When you look at it from the outside, you think, ‘Oh, you know, okay, maybe it’s really not that much. It’s something that obviously I can handle.”
“It is something that I can handle, it’s something that I really enjoy doing a lot. I’m enjoying this whole process, but it’s a significant amount of responsibility to own a team. You can certainly feel and see the difference in being a team owner and being just somebody who just drives.”
Tony Samsel will serve as Ashley’s crew chief while Anthony DiCero oversees the team in a car chief role.
Ashley has been a quick study in climbing the ladder of experience but says he’s still approaching the game with the same intensity and wide-eyed nature which made him a rookie sensation.
“I’d say between now and then my mindset is relatively similar,” Ashley admitted. “It’s still the same approach, concentrating on what I have to do and being the best driver that I can be and giving my team the best opportunity to win. Trying not to focus on all the stuff that goes on outside the car, trying to do my best to compartmentalize and really just enjoy myself and have fun. You know, that’s really why we do this at the end of the day is to have fun.
“That’s what my mindset’s been from the beginning. But I am certainly more comfortable now than I’ve ever been before. There’s definitely more of a relaxed comfort level than I’ve ever had.”
Moving forward with an eye on the present as well as an eye on the future drives Ashley, who is also a licensed Top Fuel driver.
“I do still have eyes and visions on racing Top Fuel,” Ashley said. “My main priority for 2019 is all about racing Top Alcohol Dragster. I love the team that I have, and I want to help us, help this team win as much as we can win. I happen to really like this class a lot and I like the people in this class, but with that being said, I do have goals and aspirations of racing Top Fuel in the future.”
The immediate future for Ashley is to win at this weekend’s NHRA Eastern Regional event in Gainesville, Fla.
“To win this race would be huge for our team,” Ashley said. “It’s the first race of our season and it’s really all about starting the season off on the right foot. To be able to kind of carry that momentum forward and start it from here at this regional event and carry if forward to the national and the rest of the year would be huge. It would give us an opportunity to make more laps down the race track which in and of itself is significant.
“Any event you win, regional, national, any event you’re just able to compete in is a blessing. So to be able to win one, they don’t come around too often so it would definitely be special.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019