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The High Continues For Hight

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 12 2010
Robert Hight lights up the tires at Pomona on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Robert Hight lights up the tires at Pomona on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Now that he has the No. 1 decal slapped on his race car, Robert Hight wants to avoid being labeled a one-hit wonder.

So motivated, Hight launched defense of his NHRA Funny Car world championship by claiming the provisional pole after Round 1 of qualifications for the 50th Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. Hight covered the 1,000-foot distance at Auto Club Raceway in 4.059-seconds and 312.86 mph Thursday afternoon, barely three months after clinching his first Full Throttle Drag Racing Series title and that coveted No. 1 sticker.

“Honestly, it’s still hard to get used to seeing,” said Hight, referring to the champion’s numeral and his “Top Gun” status. “I know when I used to see the No. 1 on someone else’s car I wanted to go after that guy. It’s a little like putting a target on my Auto Club Ford Mustang. I knew how I felt when I was chasing the car with the No. 1 on the side, and now I am that car. People have said it’s tougher to stay on top or to repeat as champion. I know this season will be tough, but I’m looking forward to defending this championship and keeping this No. 1 for more than one season.”

Hight began the 2009 campaign by qualifying No. 1 at the rain-plagued Winternationals before losing in the semifinals to eventual event-winner Ron Capps. Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock struggled over the next 16 races before clinching the 10th and final Countdown to 1 playoff spot at the U.S. Nationals. Hight and Prock rallied to win three of six Countdown races to secure the championship by 66 points over John Force Racing teammate Ashley Force Hood and her Castrol GTX Mustang.

“Last year I think us just getting lost in our car performance shows how tough it is to run one of these race cars,” said Hight, Winternationals winner in 2006 and 2008. “We were trying some new things and along with the new testing rules we were just sticking with things we normally would have worked out or put aside after testing. We didn’t have that luxury so we stuck with things while we were out there trying to qualify and trying to win races. It just wasn’t going anywhere and finally we said ‘Uncle!’ at just the right time.

“We went back to basics and sometimes that’s what you have to do – you can out-trick yourself. I look back at going to Pomona last year, we had all of those new things on my car. The conditions were so good that it didn’t matter. We were No. 1 qualifier, and when the conditions are good and the track’s great, it seems like most anything will work. Then you get into the summer when it’s tougher, it’s hotter, and tracks are slippery. Then it really brings the best out in these teams and really finesses them to get these 8,000-horsepower cars down the racetrack, and we weren’t doing that.

“We didn’t change much this year, very little. We’ve got the new 2010 Mustang body, which I hope will give us a little bit of an advantage in the aerodynamic department. We’re sticking to basics and refining what we left off with last year. If we can do that, I think we’ll be a car to be reckoned with. There are still a lot of good cars out there, and it’s not going to be easy to get into the Countdown or win any races. “

Hight added that Prock also is operating at a higher level than one year ago. Prock’s attitude, Hight said, improved in conjunction with the car’s performance beginning with Labor Day Weekend.

“Since Indy last year Jimmy has been totally different,” Hight said. “He has a confidence and you can just see it. He’s not second-guessing himself and he’s not going back-and- forth to the box making changes. He leaves the pit with a good tuneup and he sticks with it. He has a lot of confidence now. As the driver that gives me confidence. It’s a lot of fun.”

Hight’s championship was the 16th for JFR, including 14 by boss Brut Force and Tony Pedregon’s in 2003. Still, it has been seven seasons since the reigning National Hot Rod Association Funny Car champion has successfully defended his title. Force was the last to do so in 2002, when he bagged his NHRA record 10th consecutive championship. Force added titles in 2004 and 2006, while Tony Pedregon ruled in ‘03 and 2007. The remaining three championships were won by Gary Scelzi in 2005, Cruz Pedregon in 2008 and Hight.

“Well it’s still kind of surreal,” said Hight, a 14-time national event winner. “The way we won it last year, just coming from nowhere and getting on fire, which is the way you have to win a championship these days. This is the format we race under, but in all honesty, I would like to have a lot better year this year leading up to the Countdown. We didn’t win a race, then finally got into the Countdown in Indy, but we were just horrible. That’s our goal for this year… to just have a better team, have a better race car throughout the season.

“Last year, I didn’t even pull the chutes in testing and we went to Pomona and I ended up qualifying No. 1. But that was kind of a highlight in the beginning, having that No. 1 qualifier. After that, it turned really bad. This year, testing went fairly well. We were on a tricky track (Firebird International Raceway in Arizona), but when it went, it was good.  We’re going to have a real decent shot at it this year with our new 2010 Mustang body that we’re debuting with [Bob] Tasca, [Tim] Wilkerson and all of John Force’s team. Everyone says that defending it is always harder than getting the first one, but we’re just going to have to wait and see how that plays out.”

JFR’s four-car juggernaut saw Hight (first), Force Hood (second), John Force (ninth) and Mike Neff (10th) produce top-10 points finishes and six combined victories in 2009. Despite John Force’s proven ability to attract corporate sponsorship, that car-count was reduced to three during the offseason when Neff’s Ford Drive One Mustang was parked due to a lack of financial backing.

Neff, who won the season-ender at Pomona, Calif., in November, spent the latter part of the Countdown driving and tuning JFR’s in-house, three-rail chassis. Neff, who tuned Scelzi to the 2005 Funny Car title, has joined veteran Austin Coil as co-crew chief on Force’s Castrol GTX High-Mileage Mustang. Force, who is celebrating his 25th season with primary sponsor Castrol, went winless last season for the first time since 1986.

Hight, who has qualified No. 1 at 32 events over the past five seasons, admitted he was unsure how the downsizing and equipment changes would affect overall performance at JFR.

“It wasn’t like we were spread thin,” said Hight, 40, who picked up three points for his provisional pole run. “John had plenty of people in place to run four cars successfully and I think we did do that. In all honesty, I think it’s going to be like I said earlier. John Medlen is going to be helping out Jimmy Prock a little bit, and that’s only going to make us stronger. John’s car has struggled the last few years, and having Neff over there is going to help him. Maybe this is just what we need. Maybe we’ll have three better teams, but it’s hard for John. He really likes having his teams and having four Ford Mustangs out there. I guess it’s going to be kind of a learning thing as we go from race-to-race.”

Force, a four-time Winternationals champion, failed to crack the top 12 during qualifying on Thursday under unusual circumstances. Force’s time of 3.800-seconds was disallowed by NHRA officials due to a rare, rear-wheel start. NHRA released a statement after Force’s pass which stated in part, “In review of the data, it was determined by Compulink Timing System representatives that Force’s Castrol GTX Ford Mustang left the starting line prior to the timing system activating. Once the timing system started, Force’s car had advanced forward and the rear wheel on his car was recognized by the beams at the starting line and initiated the elapsed time clock in his lane, thus resulting in the 3.800-second elapsed time.”

Second-round qualifying is scheduled for Friday afternoon, with two more sessions of time trials on Saturday leading to Sunday’s final rounds.

John Force is running Ford’s BOSS 500 engine and in-house chassis. Hight and Force Hood, meanwhile, have begun 2010 with their same equipment from last year, albeit with the new Mustang bodywork. Both anticipate switching over to the BOSS 500 powerplant and the in-house chassis as inventory becomes available.

“Our machine shop has done a good job, and we’ve done a lot of them,” said Hight, referring to the engines. “We’re going to be switching back and forth with my car and Ashley’s, but for the most part John is 100 percent on the Ford BOSS 500. Ashley and I on most of the runs will have the 500 in. We’re looking forward to that. I don’t know if there is a performance advantage, but I do believe it’s a lot stronger piece. It should be more consistent. John Medlen did a great job in designing this thing, along with Ford’s help. It should be a more durable piece.”

Personally, Hight said he has not altered any of the routines that led to his 2009 title. “These race cars require a lot of work, so basically, no, I haven’t done anything extra, just a lot of days at the shop,” said Hight, who is adjusting to the organization’s offseason relocation from Yorba Linda, Calif., to Brownsburg, Ind. “There seems like there’s always something that can be done to these race cars.

“I’ve spent a little time back in Indy. Having won the championship, I’ve had to do a lot more media things, which is exciting, and I’m still learning it. Just kind of normal things for us, getting ready for the season, and I’m glad it’s finally here. It’s only been two-and-a-half months, but it seems like a lot longer than that when you’re really anxious to get back at it and love racing.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 12 2010
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