Exciting Times And A Rare Opportunity: THE ASHLEY SANFORD INTERVIEW

By Al Heisley

I caught up with Ashley Sanford on the phone while she was traveling to her family’s desert property for Thanksgiving east of San Diego, CA.

Ashley Sanford: It’s out in the desert and there’s not much around. It’s lots of fun in the dirt, off-roading, and then campfires at night. It’s great.

Nitro Hot Rods Magazine: Sounds like a good place to be.

AS: It is. It gets cold at night, but definitely not snowing cold, so it’s great.

NHRM: You’re a popular commodity lately, and I wanted to get with you before a lot of other people do. To kind of get the scoop, if you know what I mean?

AS: Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate that. I’m hoping next year will be a very, very exciting year, so get on it before it gets crazy.

NHRM: Yeah, that’s right. To get started let’s talk briefly about next year. What are your plans?

AS: Well, I mean, right now, unfortunately, I can’t say too much right now, because we really are just working and fine-tuning everything. But, if all goes well, which, it’s looking like it is, I will be out next year for the 2019 season competing and racing under Alan Johnson Racing! I’m so excited because until recently, it’s just been a dream to get in a top fuel car.  And to have the opportunity to work with what I think is the genius of top fuel is just beyond an incredible opportunity. So, I’m really working hard, and going full force to make sure this happens. I mean, it’s crazy, because you look out there and practically every big team that’s been out there for a long time and are well known and do great, are struggling to secure funding. We’re all struggling to get out and get these major sponsors to come out. We have some great people who are working with us right now, we just need to get it all sorted out and we’ll be out there competing with the best of them.

NHRM: It’s very exciting. Are you under contract with Alan now?

AS: No, I’m not. Not yet. How it will work, I’ll be a hired on as a private contractor, which to me has been the ultimate goal to just show up and race. Just worry about being a driver. See, I grew up with a family team where we shared all the roles it takes to make a team work. Sometimes, it could take away from focusing on just driving, so getting to just show up and drive is going to be awesome.

NHRM: Let me ask you, should I, or should I not mention the fact that you’re working with Alan?

AS: You can mention it. I have the go-ahead to talk about it, that I am working with Alan Johnson Racing, and this is our plan. We just can’t mention who we’re working with.

NHRM: Sure, not a problem.

Let’s go back to when you were first getting started in drag racing. That was a family affair and it was a long time ago, correct?

AS: Yeah, it goes way back, really from when I can first remember in my childhood. I grew up watching my dad race in the sand drags, and it was very recreational, tons of fun, but something we never thought would turn into what I’m doing today, that’s for sure. My grandpa also competed. By the time I was eight years old they (the association) had opened up a kid’s class, and I got to compete on my Honda ATV. I ended up winning my very first race. And so we say the bug started early. From there, we’d race a few times a year if we got lucky. I’d go watch my dad race, and I would get to race in the kid’s class. By the time I was 14 years old, my grandpa let me drive his super comp sand dragster. When I was 16 years old, right after I got my California driver’s license, I was able to go move up into my dad’s blown alcohol sand dragster. I was going 155 in two and a half seconds, on a 300-foot track at 16 years old. So, clearly, I had the need for speed very early on.

Yeah, the sand was great. It was, like I said, very recreational, it was tons-of-fun, but I always knew I wanted to go faster. Growing up, I’d always go to the Pomona Fairgrounds and watch the WinterNationals and the World Finals. Because I’m a southern California local, I just wanted to know what it would be like to be to race an asphalt dragster. Not just going 300 feet, but getting the full experience of the car at a quarter mile, or 1,000 foot. Because I wanted it so bad when I was 18 my family and I took the leap and sold the sand operation and moved into the top alcohol class and adopted an A-Fuel dragster. We found out real fast we were over our heads because we had been used to the blown car. But we had a really strong showing; we had a number one qualifying effort and made a few semifinal appearances. Unfortunately, we had no wins, but for a very part-time team who was just learning, I think we did pretty darn good.

NHRM: Tell me more about the alcohol car, what you were doing there. You had some success with it, but because it was a part-time ride, or because it was a part-time effort, you were kind of limited in that success. Is that what I got out of that?

AS: My dad was the crew chief, and shared the team owner role with my mom. My dad was, at the time, a fireman in southern California, as well as owning his own general contracting business. So, he pretty much took on a third job. Which he did an awesome job. And all the guys who came on our team, they’re all uncles, family friends, guys who just loved it, and took vacation time to go out and help out on the cars. So, all the effort that was put towards it was all out of love, and from the heart. But, these guys weren’t paid to be out at the racetrack for the last 10 years, to be going up against some other guys who were like that. And so, every time we went out there, we gave it everything we got, but obviously just didn’t have that experience, because we were only running a part-time schedule.

We didn’t get to go out as much as all these other teams, who we were competing against. Even then we were competitive, and we all gave them a run for their money when we were out there, so it was great. It really was a learning experience for me, because that being said, it was part-time. You make mistakes, and there was a lot of smoke, there was a lot of tire shake, and all kinds of crazy things that happen on runs, but helped develop me as a driver to understand those feelings, and how to react to the situations, and the car, and pedaling, and all that stuff. So, it definitely gave me a lot of good seat time.

NHRM: When did you decide to go with the top fuel car?  

AS: Like I said earlier, I always knew when I moved to the NHRA, and on the asphalt, that my goal was to be in a top fuel car. I had dreamt about it forever, I needed to figure out how to make it happen. And so, thankfully I have supportive parents. We were able to get enough funding together where I was able to go out in May of last year and complete the NHRA requirements and getting my top fuel license with the Lagana Brothers in their Nitro Ninja top fuel dragster. In September of last year, Labor Day weekend at the U.S. Nationals in Indy, I made my top fuel debut, and it was stellar. My first pass we ran a stout 3.79, I believe. Then we ran a .77 that night. We were running great numbers. And we qualified in what was the quickest field in the top fuel class. Unfortunately, however, in the first round got paired up next to Steve Torrance, who ended up dominating that weekend, winning both the Traxxas Shootout and then winning the overall event. So, having to lose to him first round, the guy who ended up dominating all weekend, we couldn’t beat ourselves up too much.

It was a great showing. Everyone was very happy. Even though at that event, on my second qualifying pass, my rear tire blew, and I was able to catch it at about half track and get it settled down. What could’ve been a catastrophic run, I was able to settle it down and show that I’m capable of handling these situations. So, overall it was an awesome weekend, and it opened all these doors, including the one with Alan Johnson.

NHRM: That’s very exciting, Ashley.

I was going to call you earlier in the season but decided to wait till the end of the season to see how you did in the big picture.  

AS: Yes. Oh, yes.

NHRM: Then what reminded me again was your recent runner-up in Australia.

AS: Yeah, that was great. And so, yeah, talking about other opportunities! I was getting to race with the Lagana Brothers here in the states, who have always had a great relationship with the Rapisarda Racing Family. They introduced me to Santo Rapisarda and his sons. And they ended up asking me to go to St Louis because their driver had to go home to Australia. They had some bugs with the car they were running in the states and they wanted to get it figured out. And so, I got to be the test dummy for the weekend, which was awesome.
We built a great relationship, which ended up with them inviting me out for the whole Australian 2017 season! I got to go to all six events and ended up third overall. And then just a couple weeks ago, I got to go there again for their season opener and ended with a runner-up. So close to beating my teammate, Wayne Newby, but still very happy to see it was a Rapisarda car in the winner’s circle. Anyway, I look at it it’s given me so much seat time and more experience. It’s also given me that much more exposure to help me get out to where I want to be, which is full-time in NHRA.

NHRM: It looks like that’s happening. I’m excited for you.

AS: Thank you. I appreciate it.

NHRM: Ashley, may I ask you how old you are?

AS: Yes, I am 24.

NHRM: Well, congratulations on what you’ve done in a short period of time.

AS: Thank you, I do appreciate it. I swear I feel like I have gray hairs, just because it’s a lot of work and a lot of stress. But, you know, I’ve been going full throttle for it, no pun intended, because I had this dream and I haven’t been able to stop. So, it’s been quite the ride.

NHRM: You’re a well-spoken young lady at the pinnacle of the sport and that goes an awful long way.

AS: Thank you.

NHRM: Leah Pritchett is an example of that.

AS: Definitely. We’re very similar.

NHRM: Do you know her and do you interact?  

AS: I do. Yeah, she’s reached out on multiple occasions and wants to help me out in any way she can. She mentioned before that she wants to race me in the finals, and it’s definitely a cool thing to hear. I would love to make that happen because I agree. We both have come a long way, and we love the sport, and we want to do our best, and show the world what we’re capable of.

NHRM: When you’re at the track are you intense? Are you an intense individual?  

AS: That’s funny you say that because I really am too different people. Most people meet me and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. You have so much energy, you’re so bubbly. How do you get in and drive these cars?” It’s funny, because yeah, that’s my personality. I can be a bit of a girly girl, you know? But at the same time, the second I put on my helmet, and the visor goes down, I am just as intense as they come. I’m two different people, absolutely.

NHRM: Now for the 3,000-pound elephant in the room! Exactly how did the connection you have with Alan Johnson materialize?

AS: So, it’s actually pretty funny. At the time when I was looking to get my license, and trying to figure out, “How do I go about this? Which teams do I talk to? Who do I talk to?” I ended up going on social media, and leaving a direct message for Alan Johnson Racing, pretty much selling my case to whoever read his account. Whether it was Alan Johnson, himself, or someone running his account saying, “This is who I am, this is what I want to do, and I would love for you to keep an eye on me.” Surprisingly, I ended up getting feedback immediately saying, “Okay, we hear this all the time, but thank you very much,” kind of thing. It’s funny because now I realize that it was I had contacted Tami Powers, AJ’s right-hand man. I’m sure you know her. She does it all, except tune the car. She’s awesome. I took my time reaching out and stayed persistent. And she ended up keeping an eye out for me at the races.

She watched how I was interacting with people in the alcohol pits and my fans and was intrigued. Then I got my license. After I made my Indy debut that’s when things got serious, and I was able to capture AJ’s attention, and we really started this relationship. Alan’s been wanting to get a team out there since he lost the Al-Anabi deal, and we want to do so much more than just getting back out on the track. We’re actually working on creating an educational program to get kids out there, bringing the youth out to the races. And you know, make it more about just drag racing, make it about giving back and teaching the next generation about STEM,(Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) which to me is even more exciting than just getting in a race car, because I’m doing so much more than that with them now. So, we have this big vision we’ve been collaborating on together, and it’s been so exciting. If it all works out we’re definitely going to be shaking things up.

NHRM: I can tell that you’re really sound pumped over it.

AS: Oh, yeah.

NHRM: And what about your parents … they must be on top of the world?

AS: Oh, yeah. They’re absolutely proud, and excited. I mean, we’re all just kind of waiting on the edge of our seats for, you know, getting to be able to go out and make an announcement, and really make this all come to life. Once that happens, in Pomona, where it’s the hometown for me and a lot of my family and friends, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a good chunk of them cheering me on.

NHRM: I’m positive they will be there for you.

AS: Yeah.

NHRM: What was your first driver on the street?

AS: I still have it. When I was 15 and a half, the day I got my permit, I always wanted a truck. My dad got me a black 2008 Ford F150, four-door. It’s gotten me to the desert to go off-roading, to the mountains to go snowboarding and the races in between. She’s still running with a lot of miles on her.

NHRM: You’re also an avid snowboarder?

AS: Not so much since I’ve been racing. It’s funny because my parents were like, “You can get hurt.” I would go, “I’ll wear a helmet.” But snowboarding could get a little dangerous. Just one wrong turn. You can hit the snow pretty hard, so I don’t go out as much as I used to, but I still enjoy it.

NHRM: That is funny.

AS: Yep.

NHRM: What else do you do? What are your other hobbies?

AS: One of the other big places I love to go to, is where I’m heading right now. We have 60 acres of property out here, and we just off-road on our Polaris RZR, which is a blast to drive. Other than that, I am a big animal lover, I have four dogs at home who I can pretty much just sit and stare at for like two hours straight, because they’re entertaining enough.

NHRM: What kind of dogs are they?

The one I have, who I rescued, she’s a mutt named Sophie. She’s a boxer, German Shepherd, Pitbull mix. And the other three are Labs.

NHRM: Oh, boy.

AS: Yeah, so they’re all big dogs.

NHRM: Anything else, Ashley?

AS: Yeah. There is. During the summertime, if I’m home I love to go out to Lake Havasu in Arizona and go boating, wakeboarding, tubing, or just hanging out on the beach with a cold drink in hand. And I’m a happy girl.