All Appears Right With Hight As Playoff Begins
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Robert Hight’s NHRA resume is golden. Basically, it’s a long list of victories, final-round appearances and a Funny Car championship. But two weeks ago at this time, Hight was wondering if it was also a mirage. A list perhaps built more on circumstance that driving talent.
“You do start believing, wow, have I just gotten lucky to win all these races?,” Hight said.
Long losing streaks can cultivate those kinds of crises of confidence. And Hight, the 2009 Funny Car champion, two weeks ago was slogging through a very long losing streak: Thirty-five straight races without a win at a national event.
But again, Hight’s crisis, that was two weeks ago. It was before the U.S. Nationals. It was before he inhaled a deep breath of nitro-thickened air in Indianapolis, rolled into the staging lane in his John Force Racing Mustang and not only decisively won the big daddy of NHRA events but also secured a final Countdown playoff berth by doing so.
If luck does, in fact, play a role in winning and losing in professional sports, then luck paid a return visit to Hight’s JFR team. Perhaps just in time to win this year’s Funny Car title.
“Yes,” Hight said during a phone interview with RacinToday.com late last week when asked if he feels he and his team have what it takes to make a championship-winning run through the Countdown (which begins this weekend at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C.). “It’s going to take some wins but it is going to take some wins for anybody to win.
And it’s not just his gut telling him that. It is also history.
“In 2009, I finished (the regular season) in the No. 10 spot, that’s where I went into the Countdown,” Hight said. “And after the first two races, I was in the lead. So, you can leapfrog right to the top by getting hot early. That’s what it’s going to take. Hopefully we can carry some of this momentum from Indy into Charlotte. We have four races in a row. That’s a perfect time to get hot.”
Some NHRA fans might find it incomprehensible that Hight would need luck or momentum or anything else to put himself into championship contention. Not with that wonderful resume. And not the way things were going for the native Californian up to the mid point of the 2012 season.
Hight won four early season races last year – Phoenix, Gainesville, Las Vegas 1, and Charlotte 1.
But even though he would make the six-race Countdown and continue to post fast passes on a lot of occassions, he would not win again.
The winless streak continued on into 2013. The highlight of the pre-Indy portion of the schedule was at Topeka when Hight was able to scratch his way into the finals before losing to Johnny Gray.
Asked how, after Charlotte 1 last year, he would have reacted had somebody told him he would not win again until the fall of 2013, Hight said, “I wouldn’t have believed it. Not a chance.”
But on and on the drought continued.
“Well,” Hight said, “in all those races, we qualified well everywhere. But I think the low point for me would have been Norwalk, Ohio (this year). We had a great car there. I think out of the four qualifying runs, we were the quickest in three of the four runs and we were doing well and then we smoked the tires first round versus Bob Tasca and I think that bumped me out of the top 10.
“Man, I went into race day thinking we got the car to beat and we’re on our way back.”
And the self-questioning intensified.
Hight say he wondered, “Am I ever going to get lucky again? I went into a team that was winning races and we went into a little flat spell there. It’s all mental.”
But after Norwalk, changes were made at JFR. Hight and boss/driver John Force swapped teams and crew chiefs. Long-time Hight tuner Jimmy Prock went to Force’s Castrol team and Mike Neff, Force’s crew chief and a former Funny Car champ himself, moved over to the AAA team.
Good move by Force, Hight says.
“John can see all that,” he said, “and he made some changes and he decided that AAA is the best sponsor we have right now, long term deal, and he wanted to Mike Neff and that team with AAA and shake things up a little bit. Even Jimmy Prock, they’re running well. They’ve got a good shot at winning the championship with John Force.”
It took a few weeks, but Hight and Neff started to show results.
It all culminated at Indy.
“Mike Neff, you know we switched teams three or four races earlier and Mike Neff is now my new crew chief and in ’11 and ’12 he won this race (the Nationals) as a driver slash crew chief tuning his own car so I knew he had success there, and I had won it a couple times myself as a driver,” Hight said. “But since we had not had a win yet together, all of my wins had come with my old crew chief Jimmy Prock, sometimes it takes a while for a team to gel, to just click and work together. Fortunately for us, it all worked out. We put it all together at the biggest race of the year.”
So there was Hight, big sticky can of splashing Mello Yello in his hand, standing on the podium at Lucas Oil Raceway Park.
“Considering it was a 35-race drought from the winners circle,” Hight, still on a high a couple days later, said, “to be able to pull it off and win the biggest race of the year, the U.S. Nationals, it’s probably the biggest win that I’ve had to this point.
“And we go into the U.S. Nationals and we knew the situation we were in – we were in the 10th spot, and Del Worsham was behind us and he had started to run really good, and Bob Tasca, Tim Wilkerson, all these guys, four of us, fighting it out for the last couple of spots. Obviously you go in there to win the biggest race of the year but in some ways you also there to protect and maintain and leave there with at least the 10th spot. You could, you know, get knocked out. There was a lot at stake that weekend. To top it off and win the race, that will hopefully also give us momentum going into the six-race Countdown.”
Racing begins at zMAX Dragway Friday at 5:15 p.m. for the first of four qualifying attempts. Eliminations begin Sunday at noon for all racers in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgNo Comment