Drag racer Troxel makes own history

Times Staff Writer

Before Ashley Force made drag-racing history last month by becoming the first woman to win a funny car race in the NHRA's top-tier Powerade Series, Melanie Troxel was one of the sport's established female stars.

Troxel, 35, won four times driving top-fuel dragsters in 2006-07, then switched to funny cars this season -- where her husband, Tommy Johnson Jr., also competes.

Not to be outdone by Force, Troxel on Sunday won the funny car race at the O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn., becoming the first woman in NHRA history to win races in both the funny car and top-fuel classes.

And Troxel had to defeat Force, 25, in one of the elimination rounds to get her Gotham City Racing Dodge Charger to the finals, where she beat Mike Neff with a pass of 310.27 mph to win the event.

Troxel's win again underlined the driver diversity in the National Hot Rod Assn., arguably the most notable among the premier levels of professional motor sports.

Before the historic victories by Troxel and Force, Antron Brown, an African American who switched from the pro stock motorcycle class to top-fuel dragsters this season, in March won the top-fuel race at Baytown, Texas -- making him the first driver to win races in top fuel and motorcycles.

Troxel said she was concentrating too much on her elimination runs and dealing with intermittent rain at Bristol Dragway to give much thought to history.

"That's kind of like icing on the cake," she said. "I haven't given that any thought. We were so focused on going out there and getting some round wins and getting a [race] win."

Troxel, a Denver native who now lives in Indiana, grew up playing in pit areas at racetracks where her late father was a drag racer and her mother helped out as a mechanic. Troxel drove in her first race at 16 in a car with an engine she built as a high school project.

With her victory Sunday, she joined 13 other drivers who have won in both funny cars and top-fuel dragsters -- her husband among them.

Johnson said that when Troxel switched to the funny car ranks this year, he "wasn't the biggest fan of it right away" because of the "added pressure" of racing against his wife.

"But I knew there was a point in time when she wanted to run funny car," Johnson told the Associated Press in March.

The win didn't come easy Sunday for Troxel.

In her first round of eliminations against reigning funny car champion Tony Pedregon, the two drivers repeatedly came to the starting line only to have rain delay their run.

"It was crazy out there," she said. "I think I was in the car five times and did three burnouts" -- that is, spun the rear wheels before the start to gain added traction -- before she finally was able to eliminate Pedregon and keep moving toward the finals.

But Troxel said driving funny cars was "getting easier every week -- I'm feeling more comfortable in the car and I'm back having fun driving the car."



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