CONCORD, N.C. – Justin Ashley is a new face in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ Top Fuel division, but he is no stranger to drag racing.
Ashley, the son of 2007 U.S. Nationals Funny Car champion Mike Ashley, has been around drag racing most of his life. He’s making his NHRA Top Fuel debut this weekend during the NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway and is already turning heads as a rookie.
“This weekend really means everything to me,” Ashley said. “It’s been a dream come true to be able to race Top Fuel. It’s been quite a journey from Jr. Dragsters to work my way up to this level. I feel fortunate to be able to be in this position.”
In his first competitive Top Fuel pass on Friday afternoon, the 24-year-old Ashley was able to turn in a 3.831-second pass at 319.67 mph. That’s faster than his father ever ran during his entire NHRA career.
“That was actually an interesting fact, something I never even thought about and something I never even realized until (NHRA announcer) Alan Reinhart brought it up,” Ashley said. “I think it’s a pretty cool fact, other than that it really doesn’t mean too much.”
A graduate of the NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, the younger Ashley has worked his way up the ranks of the NHRA. He competed in Top Dragster and Top Alcohol Dragster before shifting his attention to the Top Fuel division this season thanks to some help from team owner Dustin Davis.
“Obviously my father raced for many years, so growing up I spent a lot of time at the race track,” Ashley said. “I met Dustin Davis at PRI and we spoke and we kind of hit it off. We decided that we wanted to move in the direction of Top Fuel and go backwards from there.
“We’ve had people like Strutmasters and Chip Lofton help us get there. We put a really great group of people together.”
One of those great people that Ashley and company have as a part of the team is crew chief Aaron Brooks, who has worked with a number of NHRA stars through the years, including Cruz Pedregon, Richie Crampton and Gary Scelzi, among others.
“It’s absolutely awesome to have Aaron on our team. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Aaron as a person and as a crew chief. I know he is a championship caliber crew chief and he is an even better person. To have him in our corner really means a lot and I have the utmost confidence in him to prepare our car properly. I know we’ll be able to go out and run fast.”
Away from the race track Ashley is no slouch. He spends most of his time flipping and selling houses in New York. He estimates he repairs and sells roughly 25 houses a year while also working towards a career in drag racing.
“When I’m not racing I’m in the fix and flip real estate business. I go into all kinds of crazy houses,” Ashley said. “Dead animals, all kinds of black mold as you can imagine. We gut the entire place and re-renovate it to make it look nice.
“It’s an interesting difference, it’s kind of like living in two worlds,” Ashley noted. “When I come to the race track I pretty much try and forget everything that’s going on at home and work. Then when I’m at work I try and focus solely on work and kind of forget everything racing wise.”
His father, who was on hand to watch him make his first competitive Top Fuel pass on Friday at zMAX Dragway, hasn’t been able to wipe an ear-to-ear grin off his face since watching his son make his first professional pass.
“For me, it’s incredible,” the elder Ashley said. “So many people ask me, ‘How do you feel?’ For me, I’m all emotional. It’s a combination of all this anxiety and excitement because on one hand I worry about my son. I want him to be safe and I know this is an extremely safe sport. But still, let’s face it, it’s fast.
“It’s just a combination of anxiety and excitement. On the other hand, I want to see him do well. He’s calm and cool and collected. I’m like a total wreck out here on the outside of the car. I go over to him and say, ‘Justin, you’ve got to remain like a robot in there. You’ve got to leave your emotions behind.’ He said Dad, I’m fine, it’s you that’s a wreck.”
The younger Ashley, who ended the weekend qualified 12th overall in the Top Fuel class, will face Mike Salinas in round one of eliminations on Sunday. He said the plan is to compete in two more races this year as they look forward to 2020, where they hope to compete in at least a dozen races.
“Our plans for next year are to run 12 races. With that being said we’re definitely open to running the full schedule,” Ashley said. “We’d like to run the full schedule if funding becomes available. No matter what we’re going to make sure we’re out here for 12 races. We have a team that we believe can do it and do it successfully.
“The truth of the matter is we expect to go out and be successful and we expect to go out and win, but at the same time we’re realistic about our goals,” Ashley added. “We know the competition is great out here and we know everybody from top to bottom can win this race. I have the utmost respect for everybody out here, but we want to come out here and be successful.”