Describing the current state of Ashley Stanford’s racing career can be summed up in two words: In limbo.
Stuck in neutral is where the Fullerton, Calif., driver finds herself, her dreams of wheeling a 300-plus-mph dragster sidelined for the time being by COVID-19. The coronavirus has kept her from traveling to Australia to drive for Rapisarda Autosport International since January. It also stalled the sport in the United States for months, and the economic impact of the pandemic has tightened the fiscal reins of potential sponsors being sought by Sanford and others.
So, without racing, Sanford forges ahead with her job at Tony’s Deli and Bottle Shop in Anaheim, Calif., where she is “serving big sandwiches, big beers” to customers. In her off time, she continues to pursue sponsorship that would help her find a seat in a Top Fueler.
“I’m almost looking at it as a reset and rolling with the punches,” Sanford, 25, said. “It’s been hard not being able to be around it. I feel like I need to just go get my fix somewhere. I need to go smell some nitro. It’s been weird.
“But then I have to take a step back and realize so many other people are going through it and on much more difficult levels. If I have to take a year off of racing, then I’ll be taking a year off of racing. Drag racing has always been a passion and dream of mine, and that’s still out there.”
That’s understandable. Her grandfather and father were sand-drag racers, and when a class was added for kids, she won the first race she entered, driving an ATV. From there she moved to Super Comp, Top Eliminator and Blown Alcohol Dragster, also on the sand.
In 2013, at age 19, she moved to asphalt in an A/Fuel Dragster. That family-run effort lasted through much of 2017, primarily at the divisional and regional level.
“We weren’t looking to do national events and our sponsors weren’t looking for national coverage,” she said. “When we had some of our bigger sponsors — Gelish, America’s Best Value Inn — we tried going to more national events and giving them that coverage they were looking for.
“It was really awesome. We had a great family team, but unfortunately sponsorship at the end fell through.”
In May 2017, Sanford earned her Top Fuel license at zMAX Dragway in the ‘Nitro Ninja’ dragster co-owned by brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana. Three months later, she made her Top Fuel debut at the U.S. Nationals driving their entry.
She did far more than just show up. In her fifth-ever run in a Top Fuel dragster, she covered the Indianapolis strip in 3.796 seconds, 322.04 mph.
“It’s pretty wild thinking back on that day. A long day, first-day qualifying. It was 6 or 7 o’clock when we went out for the first pass,” she said. “The anticipation was building like I’ve never felt before, but the second I got into the car I got into my Zen zone. I had an incredible team behind me in the Laganas, and I had faith it was going to work out. We just laid down a killer number. It was a great pass and a great way to set the pace, really, for my Top Fuel career. Pretty much a perfect day.”
That trip down the strip held up to earn her the 14th spot in the field for eliminations, where she faced Steve Torrence, a man whose dragsters are tuned by the Laganas.
Sanford gave the eventual event winner a major challenge, losing to his 3.73, 329 run with her own blast of 3.785, 323. It was the second-closest duel Torrence had that day en route to his first Indy victory in Top Fuel.
“My No. 1 goal going in was to qualify. No one’s expecting me to win the thing, but if I can qualify and show up on race day, that would be amazing,” he said. “And then we got paired up against Steve Torrence, who had won the Shootout and then the race. It’s a little easier when you lose to the guy that won.
“It was a good showing. I had all the faith in the team and the car, it just wasn’t our day. But I think it set a standard for me going forward and my capabilities and getting to learn from the best of them.”
Later that same month, Sanford was back in action, this time at St. Louis for Australia’s Rapisarda team, whose American driver roster has featured Larry Dixon, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Dom Lagana. Sanford qualified 15th, then lost to Leah Pritchett in opening-round action.
That was her last U.S. start in Top Fuel, but she’s been traveling Down Under to campaign one of the multiple dragsters in the Rapisardas’ fleet.
She was last in Australia in January — and that’s when her racing ground to a halt.
“I was there about an hour and a half and they called the race because of weather issues,” she said. “The last time I was in a car was November at Sydney Dragway, and after the January race, I was expecting to go back in April for an Easter race at Sydney — then a race in May and in June, so I was expecting to do three more races there. Unfortunately, COVID had other plans.
“It’s been a sad year. Australia has their states that people are not even allowed to travel out of, so it’s a lot stricter there. I’d have to do a two-week quarantine. There were all kinds of variables, and then they had to call the season — or it’s looking like they will.”
Sadly, Sanford had a potential sponsor in the wings for her Australia appearances that she could “hopefully implement here in the States.” That, too, fell through with the hold placed on racing Down Under.
“The last few years have been an uphill battle. It’s been a rough year, but this year especially, it put a big brick halt to everything we had going on. As of now, I don’t have anything planned,” she said.
“God’s been teaching me a lot of patience. I definitely project optimism, but I’m also human. I have my days where I’m like, ‘I wanna give up, what am I doing?’ But I have been taught by my mom and family that the best way to make things happen is to put it out to the world and work for it. The second you start crying in the corner, nothing’s coming to you. That’s how I’ve gotten this far, so I definitely owe a lot to that.”
Sanford said she “pretty much runs the day-to-day operations” at Tony’s Deli. When Gov. Gavin Newsom allowed California’s restaurants to reopen after COVID’s onset, one stipulation was that only food outlets with outdoor seating could offer dine-in service.
“So we had to build that,” she said. “I’ve been able to help out a lot since I’ve been home. It’s a great family-owned spot. I‘m serving big sandwiches, big beers, and whenever races are on TV I make sure they’re on the screen.
“I’ve been there about as long as I’ve been racing. They’re extremely supportive of my racing operations. Even when there are things that come up last minute, they’re like ‘Go. We’ll figure it out.’ It’s nice to work at a place like that.”