To say that Justin Ashley has taken the drag racing world by storm would be an understatement. After being named the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Rookie of the Year in 2020, the Plainview, New York native’s success on drag racing’s biggest stage has only accelerated.
Before the start of the 2023 season, Ashley had already scored seven wins in the NHRA Top Fuel category. In doing so, he had beaten several NHRA legends along the way, at the age of 28. The second-generation racer then kicked off 2023 by winning two of the season’s first three races with back-to-back firsts. the spot ends in the NHRA Arizona Winternationals and Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals.
Automoblog was able to catch Ashley sitting down long enough to have a conversation about the fiery start to her career, her plans for the future, and her love of drag racing.
Can you describe the feeling of being named NHRA Rookie of the Year in 2020?
“It was an amazing feeling because for us that year, ultimately, that was our goal going into the year. It wasn’t necessarily to compete for a championship or lead the points. Our goal was to win Rookie of the Year. That looks like an individual award, but it’s a team award.
For us to be able to achieve that award in our first year with so many good rookies and the Top Fuel competition was significant. It was a significant notch in our belt for our team and for the program as a whole.”
To what do you attribute your growth and increasing success since your debut season?
“It would certainly be a disservice to give credit to one person because it really has been a complete team effort. From top to bottom you need to surround yourself with good people and then good things happen. And I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by a lot of great people.
My father, Mike Ashley, has been very significant in my life and has been very influential. Dustin Davis is a guy who has done a tremendous job running the day-to-day operations of the team, bringing in the right staff and bringing in the right people to ensure that we are successful both on and off the track.
Ultimately, we were able to take it to the next level of success when Phillips Connect joined in 2022, and they allowed us to take that strong foundation and build on it and find even more success.”
You’ve been called a “giant killer”, and as someone under 30 who wins against big names in the Top Fuel rankings, I can see where that’s coming from. What is your first reaction to hearing praise like that?
“It’s very humbling, because when I have my name included with some of the greatest racers of all time and people I grew up watching, it really is a great honor. When you get mentioned with guys like Doug Kalitta, Antron Brown, Steve Torrence, Tony Schumacher, and the list goes on and on.
Those guys who have found so much success and have won so many races. It’s an incredible feeling and certainly something that is very humbling. It’s something I don’t take lightly.”
What are your goals for the 2023 NHRA Top Fuel season?
“We take it one race at a time, no matter what. Our team goals are the same as everyone else: to win the 2023 NHRA World Championship. We know it’s a tall order, but we know the competition is tougher now than ever.
But that’s why we go to the races we hope to win. It’s going to be a long and difficult road that will likely have a lot of ups and downs, but that goal will remain the same.”
I think you debuted Top Fuel Dragster at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Does another Nationals event there mean something a little different to you?
“It certainly is a special place in my heart because I made my debut there. It’s a beautiful facility and one of the best tracks on the tour. It’s a place I always look forward to going to because we’ve had success there in the past. I really enjoy racing at Charlotte.”
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
“Winning the Winternationals in 2022, because that was our first race with Phillips Connect and our first race with Toyota. It was really a new program with new sponsors.
We were working on our foundation and being able to participate in a historic race, like the Lucas Oil Winternationals, and that win was a dream come true.”
What are some of the qualities a driver needs to be successful at this level of the sport?
“Discipline and little memory. I think discipline is important because it comes with focus. I approach every round the same way, whether it’s the first qualifying round or the last round of knockouts. I think the best drivers in the world are the ones who can do that and not focus on everything else that happens outside the car.
You have to keep everything under the visor. You must have a short memory because we all make a lot of mistakes. We have made many mistakes in the past, we are going to make mistakes in the future. You have to learn from them and then leave them behind.
What would you recommend to someone who is interested in drag racing and wants to learn more?
“The best thing is to come to the racetrack. It’s a great experience and you can really learn a lot about the sport itself, how it works and the whole landscape of the sport.
I think it would be best if there is a local event in the area where you live. I think you can learn a lot in the course of one to three days just by attending an event.”
What makes drag racing different from other popular types of racing for drivers and fans?
“Our cars go from zero to 330 miles per hour in less than four seconds. They are 11,000 horsepower cars that are the fastest accelerating vehicles on the planet that fans don’t just smell them, they feel them. That’s a big differentiator.
It’s an incredible sensory experience and then you add the access that fans have to be able to interact with the teams and drivers, it’s an experience second to none. I don’t know of any other sport that is like this, where the fans are literally out there and in personal contact with what is happening on the track. That is something that certainly sets our sport apart from any other sport out there.”
How would you describe the culture around NHRA drag racing and how is it different from other types of auto racing?
“I’m not very familiar with other racing series, but what I can say about NHRA racing is that we have a family atmosphere. We all take care of each other, and we all love each other.
We all have mutual respect because we know you know what one team is doing, what the other team is doing and we are all trying to achieve the same goal, which is not an easy thing to achieve. There is mutual respect and appreciation. There is a family atmosphere, something that is unique in our sport and stands out”.
What advice would you give someone attending their first NHRA race?
“Do everything you can to put the phone away. Just accept it all because it’s not something you just see, it’s something you smell and feel. I think it’s important, as this is a sensory experience, to do your best to take it all in and appreciate the mechanics, engineering, speed and everything that goes into making these cars work. These cars are so fast. They go to 330 mph in less than four seconds.
What you might miss is what goes on behind the scenes. I would advise people to come out to the pits and enjoy the full experience. Watch the teams, watch the drivers interact with the fans, but watch the teams take the car apart, take it apart, and put it back together in less than an hour.”
Automoblog will attend the 2023 Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals live at the zMax Dragway in Concord, North Carolina to see Ashley attempt to add another win to her total. Keep an eye on the website for more content from the NHRA and a follow-up report on the race.