Racing runs in the Ashley family. Newly crowned 2020 NHRA Rookie of the Year Justin Ashley has nitro in his blood, spawned by his father Mike’s activities in both NHRA Funny Car and Top Fuel. The younger Ashley, who turns 26 on December 12th, cut his straight-line teeth in NHRA’s Lucas Oil Sportsman Top Alcohol Dragster category, winning two races, and moved to the Camping World Drag Racing Series with an initial run at zMax Dragway in October of 2019, racing his way to the semifinals in that initial contest.
This year the Plainview, New York racer earned his first professional Top Fuel Wally trophy at the delayed Summernationals, held in conjunction with the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend, and secured seventh place in the class’ final standings after a semifinal result in the 12th and final race of the year on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was an auspicious debut for a driver who intended to contest a partial season this year.
After being named to Drag Illustrated’s “30 Under 30” list in 2017, for his exploits in Top Alcohol Dragster, the real estate developer fit in well with the professional set and is, at the present time the youngest racer competing in NHRA’s Top Fuel class. When not on the track, Ashley specializes in rehabilitating distressed properties; his father Mike has also worked in real estate investment.
So, like father like son when it comes to straight-line racing. Mike Ashley found success as both a driver and team owner in Funny Car and Top Fuel; his progeny is doing the same as driver of the Strutmasters rail. Ashley’s rookie season in Camping World competition “went according to plan,” he said. “It met and really exceeded my wildest expectations.”
Ashley intended to compete in a 12-race campaign when he started the year in Pomona, in what was intended to be a 24-race season. As it turned out, that’s exactly what he did when the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 played havoc with NHRA’s amateur and professional drag racing scheduling.
“Coming into 2021, I only had very limited seat time in a Top Fuel car; we ran just three races in 2019 and a handful of test laps at the beginning of the season.” Ashley learned what to do as he experienced pedaling the 11,000-horsepower dragster, tire shake “or other instances where I would feel something in the clutch. The more laps you make, the more you are going to experience different things, so for me it made me a better driver to get the overall experience of running races.”
Although Justin Ashley has been in racing pits for much of his life, we was exceptionally pleased by the attitudes of his competitors. “Being the new guy isn’t always the easiest thing,” he said. “They made that transition for me super easy. A lot of racers went out of their way to talk with me or offer advice.”
Ashley’s second full season doesn’t begin until March, with the 52nd Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. While he doesn’t relish time out of a race car – “The longer you are out of the car the more difficult it is” – Ashley realizes this off-time gives him the opportunity to bolster his business activities as he prepares for another year of professional competition. “It also gives me the chance to focus on the business side of racing, which is all about bringing marketing partners on that are a good fit for our program.”
Justin Ashley, always a goal-setter, has plans for his 2021 season and, like every racer in the business, his stated goal is to win every race, with crew chief Aaron Brooks turning the knobs. “We want to give ourselves the opportunity to win at every race. We also have the goal of putting ourselves in the best financial position to do that. On the track we need to be able to perform, and off the track we need to be able to give ourselves the right resources.”
It may be a long time before he gets to “decompress” in his race car again, but Justin Ashley feels fortunate to have “a team, family and sponsors that care about me and support me. The 2020 Rookie of the Year award was not for me; it was for our program as a whole. All the people that were involved all season won a piece of this award.”