Hight Reappears As A Champion

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 28 2009
John Force and Robert Hight turned disaster into a championship in 2009. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

John Force and Robert Hight turned disaster into a championship in 2009. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

People suddenly and unexplainably disappear in sports all the time. Not back-of-milk-carton disappear, but they fade from sight and disappear. Sometimes, forever. It’s a great fear among athletes and in late summer of the 2009 NHRA drag racing season, Robert Hight was terrified.

Winning Funny Car events? Hight was having trouble qualifying for them during the first seven months of the season. Winning the Full Throttle championship? In late August, Hight had to be thinking more about keeping his job at John Force Racing.

But people also suddenly reappear in sports. It’s a great rush when it does happen and Hight was rushing like crazy after putting together an autumn comeback for the ages in the NHRA and winning the 2009 Funny Car Wally.

After getting the championship, his first, somebody addressed 40-year-old as champ. What a rush.

“Hearing you say my name and 2009 Funny Car champ, I’m still getting used to hearing that, but I definitely like how it sounds,” he said.

He was being called other things during the first half of the season. Things he did not like the sound of quite as much.

But that happens to people who rise to the top of their profession and then find themselves and their careers in a nose dive.

Hight’s rise was fairly sudden. He started driving for Force in 2005 and was named rookie of the year after finishing fifth in points. He was runner-up in points in 2006 and ’07 and though he slid back to fourth in ’08, he still won three events and had a career-best 36 round-wins.

In fact, Hight was in contention for the Funny Car championship when the season-ending Winternationals began last November.

It was supposed by many that 2009 would be more of the same.

Instead, the season became a confusing puzzle and in August, the puzzle crashed to the floor. At mid-month, Hight failed to qualify for the race in Brainerd, Minn. It was his second DNQ of the season as he had suffered the same indignity at Bristol.

The week after Brainerd, team-owner John Force shuffled his team. Force got in Hight’s car and Hight got in in Force’s. Force drove the Auto Club of Southern California car to the semis.

Apparently, it was not the car causing the problems. Or so Hight thought.

“You start thinking about things,” Hight said last week. “When John and I switched cars in Reading, Pennsylvania – Maple Grove – and he went out and went to the semi’s and they could have won that race, they were doing well.  And I got over to (crew chief) Austin) Coil’s car and it smoked the tires, kind of like what mine had been doing.  That’s when you start thinking, ‘Wow, maybe it is me.’ “

Not good thoughts in a results-predicated career like auto racing.

But one person was sure it wasn’t Hight’s fault and that was the person in whose hands Hight’s career rested.

“I never thought it was Robert and I told him that,” Force said. “The reason I went over there was to evaluate the people.  You read the books on big companies, but when a company is failing you look around and you say, ‘Is anybody sick?  Is anybody going through a divorce?  Does somebody’s kid have a problem?’  You look for reason. You got there and all of a sudden something changed – something caused it. Is anybody on medication?
“I asked a lot of questions that needed to be asked and we found some things, but it was never Robert Hight.  If I ever had a guy dead-on, it’s Robert Hight from the day he walked in this camp over 15 years ago.  I’m proud of him and I’m proud because he got my race cars back where they belong – in championship form.”

The week after Reading was drag racing’s biggie – the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. It was there that Force’s faith in Hight was justified. Hight, who started the weekend in Indianapolis outside the Countdown to 1, went all the way to the finals and secured the final playoff berth.

Happiness, he said, pushed relief to the side.

“If you’re not in that Countdown, then Ford and Auto Club, they’re not getting the media coverage and the press they deserve and they pay for, so it was definitely exciting and made me happy to get in there,” Hight said. “Did I think we were gonna go on and win half the races in the Countdown?  No, I didn’t think we’d get it turned around like that.”

Hight went crazy on the competition in the Countdown and got his first Wally Parks trophy.

In the process, Hight learned plenty and in addition to his Wally, he got stomach problems. The good kind, according to his boss.

“You’ve got to have that gut ache,” Force said. “When Robert locked up the championship he was very emotional.  I never saw that side of Robert.  I don’t want to embarrass Robert, but I never saw him cry.  I thought, ‘What the hell is wrong with him?’  I thought somebody said something.  I was ready to fight, but it was just the emotion.  Then he told me an hour later, he said, ‘I’ve got a gut ache, John.  I don’t understand it.  I should be all happy.’  And I said, ‘Well, why?  What are you thinking about?’  He said, ‘I just won and I’m already thinking about next year.’

“I said, ‘Well, Robert, you’ve got it right because if you want to think about now and what you’ve accomplished, do that. The shark always has to swim, and that ain’t something you can teach somebody. They either got that gut ache and it’s where they came from.

“They don’t want to go back. Robert doesn’t want to go back to that little town of Alturas (Calif.), I don’t want to go back to that trailer house in Bell Gardens (Calif.).  We want to go on and keep winning because that’s what makes us tick, and he’s got that built in him, and you can’t give that to a driver.  That’s what I’m so excited about.  This company will go on when my days are done.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 28 2009
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