Ashley Force learns about life through death

SEATTLE -- Ashley Force stood with boyfriend Danny Hood Thursday and looked out at the beauty of the downtown Seattle skyline from atop the Space Needle.

It was a quiet moment of contemplation, something she's done a lot over the last four months.

As a rookie driver this season in NHRA Funny Car, Force knew 2007 would be a huge learning experience. But her first season as a pro has included a much deeper maturation process.

The tragic death of Eric Medlen, her teammate and close friend, has taught her some difficult lessons about life.

"It changed everything for me," Force said. "I had never lost anyone that close to me. Eric was so much more than a teammate. He was like my brother.

"We grew up together. He had dinner with us on Thanksgiving and Christmas. So you can't prepare for something that this or how you'll get through it."

Medlen was a rising star in the NHRA before he died of massive head injuries suffered in a testing accident at Gainesville, Fla., in March.

His death was devastating for everyone at John Force Racing. John, the 14-time Funny Car champion and Ashley's father, decided the team would skip the next event in Houston. John, Ashley and Robert Hight, Ashley's brother-in-law, did not compete.

The break was more than sitting out a race for 24-year-old Ashley. She had to determine if she really wanted to continue driving a race car at 330 mph. She spent a week out of the country with her mother, Laurie Force.

"I had to decide if I loved racing enough not to be scared when I get in the car," she said when she returned. "I thought a lot about it and I realized how much I love this. If I quit, my life would mean nothing. I want to get back in that car."

But the way she approached things would change.

"It made me appreciate what's important and not take things for granted," she said. "It put things in perspective. Everything you say you should do, you actually start doing. It has made my priorities different."

It changed everything for me. I had never lost anyone that close to me. Eric was so much more than a teammate.

Ashley Force

Ashley's priority for now is to race her way into the playoff for the Funny Car championship. She's 11th in the standings entering the Shuck's Auto Supply Nationals this weekend at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash.

But Ashley is only 37 points behind Cruz Pedregon, who holds down the eighth and final qualifying spot. Four events remain to earn one of those eight spots.

"I'm still figuring out this points thing," Ashley said. "But it's almost better not to think about it. You still just have to get out there and run your car the best you can. A big part of it is not making mistakes. It puts a lot more pressure per round on all the teams."

But it isn't the be-all, end-all now for the Force family, including her legendary father. After the worst start of this career, John sits ninth in the standings, only 16 points from the final playoff spot.

For the first time in his career, winning isn't John's top priority. He has focused his efforts this season on making Funny Cars safer, helping redesign the driver's cage and the protective padding inside.

"It ain't just about winning," John said. "It's about doing your best. I remember that when I think about Eric. In the end, we may not make the [playoff], but at least we got our heart back."

Ashley feels the same way. Her personal life is good. Her boyfriend works on the hot rod of Funny Car rival Mike Ashley. It was John Force who introduced his daughter to Hood.

"I think I appreciate things more now," Ashley said. "You realize some little things just don't matter.

"Some of my girlfriends already are worrying about getting older. I don't think I'll ever worry about that again. If I get wrinkles, that's a good thing because it means you're getting to live a long life. It doesn't mean I'm not going to buy wrinkle cream, but I'm not going to get too worried about it."

Ashley's concern at the moment is a mini-slump on the track. After qualifying in each of the first 10 events, she's hasn't made the show in the last two races.

"Every run I learn at least one or two new things," she said. "It's amazing how much you learn in just a couple of races. You never stop learning in these cars. There are a million ways to lose a race and only one way to win."

She would love nothing more than to earn her first Funny Car victory at the track where Medlen won two years ago.

"I want to win more than anything, but it's different now when I lose," Ashley said. "I would be angry and moody before, but now I say, 'You know what, we'll be back out there racing next week.' ''

Ashley learned that lesson from the friend she lost.

"Eric was always like that," she said. "He was always the positive one among us. He never brought anyone around him down. He always pumped the rest of us up. So in his honor, I'm trying to be like he was. Just be better in life."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at