If ever there was a template on how to successfully launch a Top Fuel career, Justin Ashley seemed to have done it – or at least so it seemed.
The 25-year-old star impressed in the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks, the ideal proving grounds for grooming a young driver for Top Fuel. He won races there, was named to the Drag Illustrated 30 Under 30 list and was primed for his debut in NHRA’s quickest class.
That came at the tail end of the 2019 season, with Ashley quickly proving his mettle over three late-season races. The momentum he had built was undeniable, showing poise behind the wheel, savvy behind the microphone and a keen knowledge to attract marketing partners to compete as a one-car team in the loaded Top Fuel ranks.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared as the cover story in DI #162, the 30 Under 30 Issue, in November of 2020.]
Then, as most things did in 2020, everything came to a screeching halt, right in the middle of what was unquestionably going to be a promising rookie season for Ashley.
The COVID-19 pandemic put NHRA racing on hold for five months, threatening to put a damper on a year that seemed to have so much promise.
But Ashley, wise beyond his years, didn’t waver in the down time. He saw a talented team around him, a dedicated and driven team owner in Dustin Davis and a crew chief in Aaron Brooks that was going to be ready when racing resumed.
This debut was something built as years in the making and pandemic or not, Ashley was going to keep pushing forward.
“I think that we’ve been fortunate to be able to accomplish a lot over the last few years. When you’re in the middle of it, you’re so focused on what you’re doing and you’re so focused on the task at hand that you really don’t get a chance to sit back and look at everything as a whole,” Ashley says. “The truth of the matter is I’m fortunate to be able to be in the position that I am. It’s far from an individual effort. It’s a team effort, it’s a program effort, and it takes a really large supporting cast. We’ve accomplished so much in such a short period of time. I’m proud to be a part of the journey and excited about all that we’ve accomplished.”
But that journey didn’t include shutting down for five months. Ashley, though, came back with a vengeance, putting a stamp on his rookie season – one that finished by being named NHRA’s Rookie of the Year in a no-brainer decision – with a victory at the NHRA Summernationals, which was the second race of the NHRA restart in July.
Even that victory didn’t come in normal conditions, but then again, why would it in 2020?
After advancing to his first career final round, Ashley was set to meet veteran T.J. Zizzo in a matchup that would give one racer their first NHRA Top Fuel win.
It was about to be storybook stuff for one of them when the clouds opened up because, well, 2020. Rain postponed the final round from the end of July to Labor Day weekend at the U.S. Nationals and Ashley was forced to wait. And wait. And wait.
“When that first happened, I think I spent probably the next week or two just thinking about the race. It was very difficult for me to get my mind off of it because of all the circumstances that surrounded it and what was on the line,” Ashley says. “Then I had no choice but to flip a switch. I think over the next two or three weeks after that, or however long it was, I don’t think I thought about it one bit. I just tried to focus on work and not think too much about it and just do the best I could to prepare myself physically and mentally to put ourselves in a position to win.”
It turned out to be the perfect mindset and another representation of why Ashley is already so highly-regarded by so many in the sport.
When adversity comes, he doesn’t skip a beat. When a hard question comes, he doesn’t miss a step. He’s polished, talented and willing to push himself on and off the track to become a legitimate championship title contender.
And on the Saturday of the U.S. Nationals, Ashley also became a winner in his first full Top Fuel season. Ashley and Zizzo both waited six weeks for the showdown, but Ashley, Brooks and the entire team were ready. Ashley was a sterling .036 on the starting line – no surprise there – and the team went 3.958-seconds at 267.96 to clip Zizzo and claim the victory.
His career is still in its infancy, but it’s already a goal Ashley had in his mind for as long as he could remember. What followed was a barrage of emotions, thanking his dad, famed racer Mike Ashley, his team and anyone else who came to mind in the magical moment.
“I know that we have a team that’s capable of winning, and Aaron Brooks has won a lot of races before, so I felt completely confident in the team, and I knew that we were going to give ourselves an opportunity to win [at Indy]. At that point, you just kind of let everything go and then see what happens,” Ashley says.
“I remember everything went by so quick, just thinking back and taking it all in, just being able to turn the corner and see the cameras come up,” he continues. “I think there was two feelings, one of just elation, and then maybe more so of relief, just knowing that we just did what we needed to do, we accomplished a major goal that we had set out to do when we first started this program, and to do it so quickly into our rookie season was awesome. That feeling of just elation and relief was just something that I tried to do my best to soak in and just really take in the moment because these Wallys are hard to win, and you never know when you’re going to come across your next one. I was really privileged to be a part of that whole situation.”
It’s a situation Ashley has so impressively helped create.
From securing sponsors in a way that had him willing to step outside the proverbial drag racing box to putting the class on notice on the starting line, Ashley has stuck to and accomplished his ambitious plan.
That in itself indicates something special, and it’s already been noticed by other greats in the sport.
“The kid has done a phenomenal job,” says three-time Top Fuel world champ Antron Brown. “Justin has been very sharp. He is very poised, which I don’t think a lot of people understand. He doesn’t get too excited or too down. He is poised and he is always in that mode to attack. I saw it when he first started and drove our Top Fuel dragster and got his license. I could see that demeanor in him. His mindset and his focus with his racing, you see nothing gets to him. I expect to see him do great things and he will be a championship contender.”
If there’s a word that describes Ashley, prepared quickly comes to mind.
He wasn’t going to jump into Top Fuel without being ready from every angle possible. While just getting there is often the goal, Ashley wasn’t going to be content with just that.
That’s why he wanted to make sure everything was in place before he took a crack at the top names in the sport. It wasn’t just being happy to be there. It was making an immediate impact and ensuring every aspect was accounted for in order for that to transpire.
Ashley calls that controlling the controllables, which is his way of showing there’s no stone left unturned.
It started with a team owner in Davis and a crew chief in Brooks who have been willing to do what was necessary – financially and time-wise – to compete with the best, and that has rubbed off on everyone, including Ashley.
“Everyone from Dustin Davis, all the way down, everyone knows what our goals and objectives are,” Ashley says. “I understand that it’s a difficult thing for a rookie team to do, especially because we’re racing against the toughest competition in the world, but I think the guys really did a great job of working and knowing what kind of goals and objectives that we had and keeping that in mind and just continuing with the grind and not stopping until we were able to come out with our first win and accomplish those goals was really just a testament to the group as a whole.
“The truth of the matter is, you’re only as good as the people that you surround yourself with,” Ashley continues, “and for me, I had a team that worked diligently every day. I had a crew chief that did everything he could to give us a fast race car. I have a father that I’m constantly talking with, and he’s constantly giving me advice about ways to improve on and off the racetrack. Our supporting cast is really a team, and it’s a family. They’ve done a great job of making this transition as smooth as it can possibly be.”
Ashley clicked immediately with Brooks when he made his Top Fuel debut at Charlotte in October of 2019. Ashley advanced to the semifinals at his first race, making his presence immediately known. The young star felt confident behind the wheel, a nod to Brooks’ standout ability to coach newcomers.
Brooks has a penchant for bringing along new Top Fuel racers at a rapid rate, most recently doing it with Richie Crampton at Morgan Lucas Racing. Crampton quickly became a standout competitor early in his NHRA Top Fuel career, and he’s had that same magic touch with Ashley, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the New York native.
“I think that him and I are alike in a lot of ways in the sense that we’re both pretty non-emotional. When it comes to racing, we’re both pretty even-keeled. I think that we’re able to play off each other really well,” Ashley says. “I have a lot of respect for Aaron. Being a rookie, you’re in situations where you’ll experience things for the first time, and I think something that’s important about our relationship is open lines of communication. He’ll tell me some things that I can improve on or he’ll tell me some things that I did really well. Just over the course of the year, I experienced different things during different races because different things would happen that I never experienced before. I think that those instances help grow our relationship stronger and help make our team stronger.”
Ashley isn’t shy about how much Brooks has meant to his career, either, making a bold proclamation he hopes to speak into existence.
“The truth is, as long as I’m racing, I want to ride it out with him, I want him to be my crew chief for the rest of my racing career,” Ashley says. “He doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low, and just focuses on the task at hand, and I think I do the same thing. I think that our relationship works out really well together. We have each other’s backs, and we know what we both bring to the table. It’s been fun working with him. I’ve learned a lot from working with him over a short period of time, and I want it to continue that way for a long time.”
With a strong team intact on the track, Ashley has dazzled off the track, securing funding and sponsorship to allow a single-car team to hold its own against the multi-car giants like Torrence Racing, Don Schumacher Racing, Kalitta Motorsports, John Force Racing and others.
His sponsorship with Strutmasters is already renewed for 2021, as is his partnership with Auto Shocker. But Ashley has also been adept at stepping outside of the motorsports world, adding sponsors like Manscaped – which has enjoyed massive growth, particularly by sponsoring a number of popular podcasts – and GuardLab.
Both were noteworthy in the fact they strayed from the norm when it comes to typical drag racing sponsorship and it happened during an unprecedented 2020 season. The public health crisis made things exponentially more difficult, but finding partners in spite of that is one of the traits that has made Ashley special.
He’s recognized the importance of that side of the business and has immediately carved out a unique path in procuring partners to race at a high level.
“We were fortunate enough to bring on marketing partners who supported our program, continued to support our program through this whole pandemic, which was one of the most unpredictable times in American history, and same with our program. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to be on the track doing what we’re doing at a high level,” Ashley asserts.
“It all starts with the funding that you can bring to the table because at the end of the day, this car costs money, and you need to bring on partners that are a good fit for your program, and you need to create situations that allow for return on investment for the company and allow for return on investment for your team,” he adds. “We don’t want to limit ourselves to any particular industry or any particular category because I do believe that we offer – NHRA as a whole and our program – a very unique platform that can provide a lot of value to everybody, and it’s just about communicating that value.
“I don’t think there’s a reason to limit yourself to the kind of companies that you bring in because I think that in a lot of ways we can create good situations for a bunch of different companies, a bunch of different industries out there.”
The FOX television deal had a significant impact on bringing in those sponsors and Ashley wants to maintain that momentum. The 2021 season doesn’t begin until mid-March in Gainesville, which Ashley takes as a challenge to find more promising deals.
“We were fortunate enough to be on FOX’s national broadcast a few times, which had very good reach,” Ashley points out. “I think the next thing, which is always important and I think is the most important thing, is focusing on doing everything you can to put relationships together. If you’re able to take one of your partners and create a B2B deal with another partner or an outside company and everybody can do well and make money, I think that you’re putting yourself in a really good position.”
It’s difficult enough for a rookie in any sport to be a viable competitor and drag racing is no different. But to set a new standard right off the bat, it definitely takes a special quality. That’s Ashley on the starting line, where he almost immediately has become the torchbearer in the class. When you consider the standout leavers in the class – a group that includes Brown, Shawn Langdon, Steve Torrence, Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta and others – to have Ashley at the top of at that mix is almost other-worldly.
“The rare thing that you see is a rookie come in and raise a bar on any level,” Langdon says. “Typically rookies come in and they just try to find their own and try to blend in. It is really hard to be a rookie and stand out at anything. He has come in and excelled in a couple areas. He has done a fantastic job on the starting line. He came in and raised the bar on reaction times. That is really rare to see. For someone to do that first you have to tip your cap to them and second you have to get back in and do your homework to better yourself to raise your bar to that level. That is what he has done to us and what we have been trying to do and catch up to him.”
Torrence remarked that Ashley has been exceptional on the tree, while Kalitta added to the praise, noting he’s had to become better in the process as well. “He is hammering the tree most of the time,” Kalitta says. “You have to be on your ‘A’ game when he rolls up next to you, for sure.”
It’s almost folklore in just 14 races, but Ashley doesn’t take the praise lightly. If anything, it only causes him to try and be even better in the areas he can control.
“I feel like that’s where I can give my team an opportunity to win. I am extraordinarily hard on myself almost to a fault. I take it very personally,” Ashley shares. “It’s something that I can always continue to improve on, and it’s something that I plan to continue to improve on moving forward. They give me a race car, and that’s one of my jobs is to drive the car straight, but to also leave the starting line as quick as I can. It’s something that I take pride in and it was definitely my goal to lead the class in reaction times. Easier said than done, obviously, especially with guys like Antron, with guys like Steve and Shawn, they do such a great job. Those guys are the best in sport, so to be up there with them is really awesome. It’s a privilege, and it’s something that I take real, real pride in.”
It’s all part of Ashley’s magnificent learning process. He’s determined not to skip steps, build on areas where the team excelled and continue to hone in on his strengths.
Ashley finished 2020 with the memorable victory, as well as two semifinal appearances, including the finale in Las Vegas. It was the momentum he was seeking to cap off a year that, in spite of some challenging and frustrating turns, couldn’t have gone much better.
If anything, though, it’s only stoked Ashley’s fire that much more. He finished seventh in points – a splendid way to open what appears to be a promising Top Fuel career – but Ashley is far from content.
He’ll take a minute to relax, refresh and look back on a season that can be deemed nothing but a success, but Ashley is ready for it to also be the jumping off point for a long and fortuitous Top Fuel career.
“I take this very seriously,” Ashley says. “I race, and I have a good time doing it, but I take my job very seriously.
“I think there’s still a lot of untapped potential. I think we had an amazing year in a lot of ways, and we’re very appreciative for that. I think it’s really important to sit back and understand the gravity of what we did because we did a great job, and it’s important to enjoy that, but at the same time, for us, I strongly believe that this is only the beginning. Dustin Davis and I, and Aaron Brooks are the guys who want to build a program that’s dedicated to sustainable success. We want to be out there on a yearly basis, and we want to be out there having success and winning races and having a good time.”