Ashley Force made history and made father proud all at once

COMMERCE, Ga. -- Many times in the sport of NHRA POWERade drag racing, statistics become the bricks and mortar with which history is created.

Drag racing historians and statisticians frequently find themselves pouring through the record books and performance spreadsheets in fervent hopes of uncovering a little-known nugget of statistical import that sheds some kind of lasting significance upon a quarter-mile achievement.

In the murky, cloud-covered twilight of Atlanta Dragway on Sunday evening, Ashley Corinne Force won her first NHRA national event in the Funny Car class at the 28th Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals, beating her father, 14-time POWERade champion John Force in the final round.

History? Statistics? Milestones? You're missing the point.

What the fans who packed the grandstands at Atlanta Dragway or tuned in to ESPN2's coverage saw was much more than those rather impersonal motorsports paper trails.

Instead, what really unfolded in the waning moments of the season's sixth series event was the culmination of a father's vision which began not too many years ago, when his second-oldest daughter of four joined the high-octane maelstrom that is professional drag racing.

"Ashley's my baby," John Force said after his 25-year-old daughter became the first woman ever to win an NHRA event title in a fuel coupe. "I've been racing for practically my whole life and raced all the greats -- [Don] Prudhomme, [Kenny] Bernstein, [Raymond] Beadle and more drivers than I can count, and racing my own daughter in a final round is something you can't put into words.

"One minute I'm changing her diapers -- although I was away so much when she was a baby I may not have done it that often -- and the next minute she's whippin' me and my ol' hot rod in the final round. We knew this moment was going to happen someday, but you never know how you're going to feel when it finally does. I get confused a lot more easily than I used to, so if you were to ask me how it feels to have Ashley beat me to win her first race, I think I'm the happiest loser you've ever seen."

For her part, Ashley Force's thoughts were more tightly focused.

"I'm just happy to win an event," she said as she accepted her first national event trophy as a pro. "That was the main thing. Being a female, that's exciting for the record books and everything, but my team, we just wanted to get our first win. To get it finally done here in Atlanta, we're just a little bit relieved, but so excited as well."

John Force has often related how his prolonged absences from home during his formative racing years prevented him from spending as much quality time with his family as typical 9-to-5 dads did in the 1970s. It was a period of time in which his wife, Laurie, had to provide the lion's share of the parenting in the Force household as Ashley, oldest daughter Adria, 29, and the two youngest, Brittany, 20, and Courtney, 19, moved through childhood.

Sometimes spending weeks on the road, barely surviving on the skimpy payouts earned on the match racing circuit, and stubbornly clinging to the belief that he would someday be a champion, John Force strained the underpinnings of his marriage and faced financial and familial quicksand as his drag racing dreams always seemed just beyond his reach.

But by 1990, the year of his first Funny Car world championship, the pendulum of good fortune had finally begun swinging his way.

When Ashley became the first of his daughters to express a desire to follow in her dad's footsteps, John soon began reconstructing a resilient relationship with not only Ashley, but with Brittany and Courtney as well, as three of the Force girls -- along with Laurie -- became enthusiastically entrenched in the sport which had made their family patriarch drag racing's most popular, successful and sought-after personality.

After progressing through the NHRA's sportsman ranks, first in Super Comp and then Top Alcohol Dragster, Ashley graduated into the fiercely powerful and thunderously treacherous Funny Car category in 2007. She was named last year's "Road to the Future" award winner, and became the first woman in NHRA history to advance to a Funny Car final round.

Coincidentally, it was in Atlanta last year where Ashley raced against her father for the first time, beating him in the first round. But that victory failed to provide the drama and anticipation that Sunday's final-round confrontation spooled up to electrifying heights.

"Last year we had to work our way through some real tough stretches," says the elder Force, who lost his friend and team driver Eric Medlen in a Gainesville, Fla., testing accident before Force himself was involved in a disastrous crash in Dallas six months later. "Eric was like a brother to Ashley and some people might have a tendency to say that it's too bad Eric wasn't here to see Ashley win her first race. But Eric was here with us today and I know right now he's wearing that big ol' smile of his."

History will always have its place, as will statistics, which often provide the raw materials for effective storytelling.

But in this case, facts and figures must take a back seat to the bigger picture of what Ashley Force accomplished on a gray afternoon in Commerce, Ga., in her 27th start as a professional drag racer. Rather than merely making history, she made her father the happiest man in the world and fulfilled his vision of reconnecting with his family by sharing with them the sport which long ago could have broken it apart.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.