At almost five feet tall and weighing well under 100 pounds, it’s hard to picture Ashley Ross as a junior drag car racer.
But at 17 years old, this Herndon High School senior has proven — not only to family and friends — but also to her competitors, that looks can be deceiving.
“At six years old she told us she’d be in racing someday,” said Becky Field-Ross, Ross’ mother. “She’s always said ‘some how, some way, I’m going to be doing something in racing, or cars.’”
Although Ross has loved the racetrack and all that comes with it since she was little, it wasn’t until she was 13 years old that she was able to actually compete as a junior dragster.
“Growing up I always watched NASCAR, but my dad always thought it was just a phase,” said Ross. “We finally got it into my dad’s head that I really did want to race.”
Ross explained she repeatedly searched the Internet to find ways she could become a part of the racetrack
atmosphere, and the more she learned about the junior dragsters, the more she knew she wanted to drag race
“I knew it would evolve into something, after one-and-a-half years of researching, I knew,” said Field-Ross. “She races very competitively and this is just the beginning for her — I am excited to see where she goes.”
Field-Ross said that although she was eager for her daughter to pursue her passion, her husband had a harder time accepting it, wishing his “little girl” would do the typical little girl things like ballet.
“I tried dancing, but I didn’t like it!” interjected Ross at her mother’s statement.
Field-Ross joked that although her husband wanted the stereotypical little girls, he instead has two — Ross and her younger sister Brooke, 13 — who are racing competitively as junior dragsters.
"It’s very hard for girls to find something to do with dad,” said Field-Ross about her husband’s advantage of having two car-loving girls. “We’re fortunate they found something to do with dad.”
“I think it’s just the thrill of the cars and the speed,” said Ross about why she chose racing instead of “typical” girl activities.
Ross said once she convinced her family she was serious about racing, she went on-line to show them there were safe ways for young children to drag race.
“We always said if she had to race, she has to do it legally,” said Field-Ross, about allowing their daughter to follow her dream.
FIRST INTRODUCED to the public in 1992 by Vince Napp, a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) member-track owner who had a passion for drag racing and who decided to build a half-scale dragster for his children, the junior dragster program was an instant hit.
Because the NHRA had already been thinking about ways to incorporate young children into the drag racing community, it jumped at Napp’s new vehicle, spotlighting it across the country at various events and generating the creation of the Jr. Drag Racing League (JDRL), which is now at approximately 130 tracks nationwide.
Ross said that although her track, the Summerduck Dragway in Summerduck, Va., does not have as many members as some of the tracks in Maryland, she has seen an increase in participants since she started.
“It’s a sanctioned league by the Hot Rod professionals,” she said. “It’s great because it shows kids an alternate way to street racing.”
Ross explained that through the league, racers have to be licensed by the International Hot Rod Association (IRHA) in order to participate.
“It was cool to say ‘yeah I drag race,’ and have people ask me ‘do you even have your license?’” said Ross about when she started racing at 13 years old.
Through the JDRL, racers can be eight- to 17-years old, and race half-scale dragsters which are powered by five horsepower engines that can get up to 85 mph.
But for each age grouping, there is a maximum speed each class is allowed to run on the eighth of a mile track.
For Ross' group, 13- to 17-year olds, they are allowed to complete the eighth of a mile drag race as quickly as 7.90 seconds, although Ross said she completes it in 8.90 seconds.
“Reaction time is basically where the race is won,” said Ross explaining that the drivers wait on a series of three yellow lights, with a half of second delay between each light. “To get a perfect reaction time, you should go on
the third yellow light.”
Although when she began, Ross said she knew nothing about what it took to win a race — that she learned through trial and error. She competed last weekend against approximately 80 other junior dragsters in the Bracket Finals in Petersburg where her track finished fourth out of the 16 tracks represented.
"I only made it to the second round, because of car trouble," said Ross a little disappointed. "The weekend went really well though, and I know as a track we did really well."
Ross said that with her passion does come some safety concerns, which is why they “wear everything the professionals wear.”
Although Ross said she's not worried about crashing, she added she recently saw an accident that took 45 minutes to extract the driver from the car.
“It’s scary to see, but you can’t let something like that get to you,” she said, adding she feels safe in her car with the roll bar, the fireproof clothing and helmet.
ROSS SAID A DRIVING factor for her — other than her love for speed — is the fact that she is one of few young women competing in the male-dominated sport.
“I realized that I am just as good as anybody out there,” said Ross, adding she’s had comments from fathers at the tracks telling her not to look at their sons because it might distract them when they race. “It just makes you more determined to want to beat them — just to get a reaction from them.”
Since she started racing, Ross and her mother said their family has become very involved, as well as close family friends, adding that Ross’ two female cousins also took up racing.
“We were fortunate that we could teach our children to race responsibly,” said Field-Ross. “I’m lucky she’s driven, I’m just glad to see her focused and doing something she enjoys.”
As a part of her passion for drag racing, Ross said once her final season ends in November she hopes to form Racers Against Street Racing, a nationally established group, at Herndon High school.
Ross said she has heard a lot about friends and peers racing on isolated streets, and wants to educate them about the safe ways to race.
“A lot of people don’t know you can go to tracks and race your street car,” said Ross, adding it’s cheaper to race legally on a track than risk losing a drivers license. “This is something you can do for $10 to $15 on a racetrack and all you have to do is make sure your car is tested and tuned before you start.”
Until then, Ross said she is going to enjoy her final season as a junior dragster, since she’ll be 18 in May, and hopes that if she’s accepted into the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, she’ll be able to pursue a career in the racing industry.
“Racing to me is just racing — I love what it is,” she said about a future in the industry. “I would love to professionally race … but if that opportunity doesn’t come around, I would love to just be a part of the race team.”