SANFORD, WILLING TO GET HANDS DIRTY, READY TO LAUNCH FULLTIME TOP FUEL CAREER
Ashley Sanford sat there politely, hands folded in her lap, visiting with a Southern California reporter.
One of the three pieces of jewelry on her left hand was a tiny combination wrench twisted to form a ring. Bright blue polish adorned her fingernails.
Her demeanor was wholesome, her conversation sparkling – but her hands gave her away.
They were sooty, souvenirs of working on her Top Alcohol Dragster between elimination rounds, evidence she’s not afraid to immerse herself in work. It’s just like when she dives in at her regular job as a waitress at Tony’s Original Deli at Anaheim, Calif, working double shifts with as much gusto as she exudes at the drag races – but with spotless hands as she serves, in her words, “ginormous sandwiches.”
That’s Ashley Sanford’s life, now that she has established herself as a Top Fuel driver. She’s in demand at the dragstrip, and her pace is so swift she doesn’t have time even to wash her hands.
Sanford is making her final appearance in the Top Alcohol Dragster class at this weekend’s NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif. After that, she and her sand-drags-rooted family will sell their car and equipment and gear up for her fulltime Top Fuel career.
“This is where my heart is,” she said fondly with a nod to her sportsman dragster. But sentiment be scrapped, ever since she blasted down The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway to earn her Top Fuel license this spring, the Fullerton, Calif., native has been captivated by the 10,000-horsepower, nitomethane-gulping version. She only has eyes for a Top Fuel dragster.
She is open to offers, but prominent Top Fuel team owner Alan Johnson is looking for marketing partners with the idea of fielding a new iteration of his racing operation featuring Sanford and promising Swiss driver Noah Stutz.
Johnson has 11 Top Fuel crowns among his 15 overall NHRA championships with five different drivers (Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, Shawn Langdon). He could close this weekend with a 12th title if Brittany Force ambushes Steve Torrence.
A team showcasing these two twentysomethings – Sanford, 23, and Stutz, who turns 23 this Saturday – would be a bit of a novelty for Johnson. According to Tami Powers, director of business development for Alan Johnson Racing, the boss is intrigued by the challenge of molding these two rookie drivers into champions. For the most part, Johnson has worked with drivers who have arrived at his door with more racing experience. He hasn’t worked with a pro driver yet who, like these two, aren’t old enough to lease rental cars when they travel to races. So Sanford and Stutz represent the future of a growing NHRA that is starting to gain some traction with mainstream media through FOX TV exposure and increased audiences at the track.
“The stars are aligning right now,” Powers said.
Everything’s still in the planning stages. Alan Johnson Racing hasn’t announced any deals for 2018. But if AJR (which has worked with Winston, Don Schumacher, and an Arab sheikh) can secure the necessary funding, Sanford and Stutz would be the youngest Top Fuel drivers by about a decade.
At first Sanford and Stutz might seem like an incongruous pairing. But Stutz’s hands were dirty, too. He was summoned to that same interview from the Scott Palmer pit, where he is serving an apprenticeship, learning to pack parachutes and mix and load fuel for the Countdown driver.
Stutz has international racing experience, dating back to his first trip to the United States as a protégé of Swiss Top Fuel racer Urs Erbacher and with help from the Lagana family. He has raced at Las Vegas in Top Fuel. Now Sanford, who just returned home from a whirlwind trip to compete in Top Fuel at the Australian season opener for Rapisarda Autosport International, also knows how it feels to journey far from home to pursue a dream.
“It is absolutely surreal to say that in my third Top Fuel event, and not even six months of being a licensed Top Fuel driver, I got to expand my driving horizon literally overseas to Sydney, Australia. I am humbled, excited, grateful, honored, and I truly hope this is just the beginning of exciting/out of the blue phone calls,” Sanford said Wednesday night after an exhausting day helping set up her hospitality area at Pomona.
“My experience in Sydney, although so short, was unforgettable,” she said. “[Team owner] Santo Rapisarda, Tino and Junior [Rapisarda brothers and tuners], and the whole Rapisarda crew made me feel like I was at a home away from home. The warmth, hospitality, and overall positive/fun energy that emitted from the pits was unlike anything I've ever seen. I might have been on the other side of the world, but I felt so close to home, thanks to the Rapisarda family.”
Sanford and Stutz come from wildly different backgrounds, but they both are chasing The American Dream. Sanford was born into the bustle of the busy Los Angeles metropolis; she works near the always-congested Interstate 5, a hop across the so-called Santa Ana Freeway from entertainment mecca Disneyland. Stutz is from pastoral Hersberg, Switzerland, near Basel. His town has about 300 people, only slightly more than the crowd that gathers around John Force’s pit for autographs at any given race.
Curiously, they’re alike, though. Each has shown determination to go after an NHRA Top Fuel career. Sanford went through the desert to arrive at the dragstrip, then flew across the Pacific to squeeze a premier race at Sydney between back-to-back NHRA events. Stutz crossed international borders and the Atlantic Ocean, falling in love with drag racing at the NitrOlympix at Hockenheim, Germany. (His country had banned motorsports for about half a century.) Each comes from a racing family. Hers were “sand rats,” and she raced quads in the sand from the time she was eight until she was 18. Stutz’s father, Reto (who is here this weekend, along with wife Andrea) was a circle-track and hill-climb racer.
Like the blue-collar woman in the 1980s Donna Summer hit “She Works Hard for the Money,” Sanford socks away her earnings to fund her dream. Stutz saved his allowance and payment for odd jobs as a schoolboy to prove to his dad he was serious about racing before they built a Jr. Dragster together. Just so he could follow NHRA news, he taught himself English (his native language is a Swiss version of German). Stutz has learned sacrifice, Scott-Palmer-style, living and traveling with the lower-budgeted, overachieving underdog team this season.
Now Sanford and Stutz are poised to become teammates, if, as Powers predicted, the stars align.
But first things first. Stutz needs to help Palmer finish his own dream season strong this weekend, and Sanford has to focus in her farewell to the Top Alcohol Dragster class.
Joining Sanford this weekend will be young ladies from the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council. They explore STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics – everything from power tools, the science of ice cream, entrepreneurship, and building a working roller coaster to cybersecurity, computer coding, and space exploration. They’ll listen as Sanford tutors them about her dragster and inspires them to consider careers in the drag-racing and automotive industry.
“I am thrilled that the Girl Scouts are going to be joining us this weekend at the Auto Club Finals,” Sanford said. “I grew up as a Girl Scout. It was a huge part of my childhood. So to have the opportunity to introduce these young women to drag racing is an amazing platform I'm honored to use.
“I grew up being fearless, never afraid to get my hands dirty, and Girl Scouts shaped me to be that courageous young girl who is now competing head to head with men – unlike any motorsport in the world. They gave me the push to always believe in myself and never give up,” she said. “Without that support I wouldn't be where I am today.”
So those sooty hands simply are a post-Girl Scout badge of honor for Ashley Sanford.