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Hight Wins Funny Car Title In A Stalled Car

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 20 2019
Robert Hight earned his third Funny Car championship on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Robert Hight joined the ranks of NHRA royalty Sunday when he clinched his third Funny Car world championship…ironically enough, stranded in the left lane at Auto Club Raceway.

Hight’s championship-winning scenario capped a bizarre day at the 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., sixth and final event of the 2019 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Hight and his John Force Racing crew are only the fifth Funny Car team to earn more than two world titles. They joined the ranks of NHRA legends Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Raymond Beadle, “King of Speed” Kenny Bernstein and John “Brute” Force, Hight’s team-owner and a 16-time world champion.

“It’s unbelievable. You add my name to that list, it’s almost like it doesn’t belong,” said Hight, a 50-year-old resident of Yorba Linda, Calif., and president of John Force Racing, Inc. “To win six races from start-to-finish, lead the points from start-to-finish, which has been a dream of mine since the Countdown Era. With the competition level in Funny Car, this is by far the championship I’m going to cherish the most because we earned it. We did our job.

“This has been the steadiest year I’ve ever had and that’s a real tribute to the Auto Club team and (crew chiefs) Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham. It’s amazing. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to drive this Funny Car.”

By time Hight entered the final vs. “Fast” Jack Beckman of Don Schumacher Racing, he only needed to avoid incurring a penalty to clinch the title. After an epic long burnout in the track’s left lane, Hight suddenly popped the door atop his car and bounded out. He clearly was upset after the car failed to go into reverse and shut off. That gave Beckman a solo run and the event title.

Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also claimed world championships in their respective categories at the final race of the Countdown. Joining Beckman as race-winners of the 24th and final event of the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season were Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Jianna Salinas (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Hight knocked off two-time world champion and No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan of DSR with a 1,000-foot run of 3.977-seconds at 324.59 mph in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS to reach the final. “The most important run of my life was in the semifinals against Matt Hagan,” Hight said. “When it comes down to one run to win a championship, how will you perform? My heart was beating out of my chest, but we got it done.”

Hight beat teammate John Force and then Shawn Langdon to set up the showdown with Hagan, advancing to his ninth final round in 2019. Hight’s season included a career-best six victories, giving him 51 overall. Hight was consistently impressive all year, leading in points at 23 of 24 natonal events.

Beckman celebrated his solo run in style, running 3.920 at 323.27 in his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge SRT Hellcat. Beckman finished second in points with the win, eight behind Hight, claiming his second victory in 2019 and 30th of his career. Beckman reached a final for the 63rd time after round-wins against John Hale, J.R. Todd and Blake Alexander.

“I’ve never won Funny Car at Pomona, so that was awesome,” said Beckman, the 2012 world champ at DSR. “If you win at (the World Finals), the offseason is going to be fantastic. They’ve given me such a great racecar lately and finished a solid second, ended the year with a win and we’ve got a phenomenal car. Things are awesome right now. I’m feeling on top of the world, to be honest with you.”

Hight _ who won his previous championships in 2009 and 2017 _ now has finished inside the top three in points for three consecutive seasons.

In Pro Stock, Enders added a third title to her back-to-back championships in 2014-15. It did not happen without drama, as Enders faced four-time world champ Greg Anderson in the opening round of eliminations. Enders slipped past her nemesis with a quarter-mile pass in 6.570-seconds at 210.41 mph in the Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro SS. She clinched the championship one round later on a hole shot, knocking off Chris McGaha with a 6.597-second pass at 209.69 mph.

“This one means a lot because of the valleys we’ve been through,” said Enders, a 36-year-old resident of New Orleans. “It was a challenge for us and I’m thrilled. It’s just an awesome feeling to be back on top, and it’s the reason why you never give up. Today ended up being a great day with us locking up our third championship and my teammate, Jeg Coughlin, winning the race and solidifying the second position. For everyone at Elite Motorsports to take home the top two positions in NHRA Pro Stock, it’s a huge thrill for us. We take a lot of pride in what we do and it paid off this year. I’m just really proud.”

Wiith her third “Factory Hot Rod” championship, Enders tied Shirley Muldowney (Top Fuel) and Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle) for the most titles in NHRA history by a woman competitor. On the strength of two wins and three No. 1 qualifiers in the Countdown, Enders also became the lowest seed to win a title in Pro Stock history after starting from fifth. She heads into 2020 with 25 career wins.

Coughlin’s year ended with the Pro Stock win over Fernando Cuadra via a 6.558-second run at 210.54 mph in his JEGS.com Camaro. It was Coughlin’s second win in 2019 and 63rd in a career featuring five championships. Coughlin, the No. 1 qualifier, beat Joey Grose, Aaron Stanfield and 2017 world champ Bo Butner to reach his 111th final round.

“It was a tough race day and there was a lot of emotions going on, but it was a great weekend,” said  Jeggie, a 48-year-old resident of Delaware, Ohio. “It felt really good to bring home the win, and a double win with Erica bringing home the championship and with us securing the No. 2 position. To have 2020 be the 50th year for Pro Stock, it’s going to be exciting. I think the class right now is looking extremely good.”

A particularly weird day in Pro Stock Motorcycle saw Hines clinch his sixth world championship after 2016 world champ Jerry Savoie lost in the final round to rookie Salinas. Hines’ day started and ended in the first round when he red-lighted against Salinas, the No. 13 qualifier. At that point, Hines needed one round win for the title. However, he had a big enough point cushion over Savoie and three-time/reigning world champion Matt Smith to eventually claim the title aboard his Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson FXDR.

“I put my team in such a bad situation and I chalked it up that we’re done,” said Hines, a 36-year-old resident of Brownsburg, Ind. “It was just absolute insanity. It was a total, utter disappointment on my behalf and a bitter pill to swallow. This was one of the craziest days ever and the final round was absolutely astonishing. But the reason why we’re here right now is what my team did all season long. It wasn’t just this race, it was what my guys did all year.”

Hines was dominant throughout 2019, putting together the greatest season in his career _ setting the E.T. mark in the class and winning a career-best eight races. Hines, whose 56 career wins are the most in Pro Stock Bike history, also advanced to 10 final rounds this year.

Salinas’ day was capped by her first career Pro Stock Motorcycle victory aboard the Scrappers Racing Suzuki, covering the quarter-mile in 7.464-seconds at 180.81 mph in the final after Savoie’s Suzuki broke at the line. Salinas began her day with the win against Hines after he red-lighted. She followed with wins against Steve Johnson and Smith _ whose EBR broke after needing to win the round to clinch the title.

“On Saturday morning, I was just fighting to qualify and I never thought I would be able to pull this off,” said Salinas, a 22-year-old resident of San Jose, Calif. “To be here right now in this moment, it’s not something I would ever thought would happen this soon. On race day, anything can happen. Sometimes consistency is all you need to win and I’m just there to race my race. I felt very lucky and when it’s your day, it’s your day.”

Torrence clinched his second straight Top Fuel world title by advancing to the semifinals and making it down the track during that round on Sunday. A 36-year-old resident of Kilgore, Texas, Torrence finished the season with nine Top Fuel victories in his family-owned Capco Contractors dragster, including a dominant stretch of eight wins during a nine-race span. Torrence, who won 11 races a year ago en route to sweeping the Countdown to his first title, also advanced to 14 final rounds in 2019. He now has 36 wins and 55 finals appearances in his career.

Torrence’s day was not without controversy, however, as he initiated a physical confrontation with Cameron Ferre  after eliminating the rookie in their first-round match. Torrence, upset by Ferre’s deep-staging tactic, struck the Californian in the face with the open palm of his right hand after a discussion at the top end. NHRA officials chose not to deduct points from Torrence under its Participant Conduct rule on a day he went on to win the title by only three points over Doug Kalitta.

“It’s been really special to be part of a team that goes out and has the success we’ve had,” said Torrence, who later apologized for his tantrum on FOX Sports 1’s telecast and to Ferre off-camera. “It’s really special to win one championship, much less two and to do it back-to-back. I knew what we had to do and we were going to decide who had the best chance at it in the second round (a matchup and win vs. 2017 world champ Brittany Force). The guys prevailed and gave me the race car, and I did the job I needed to do when I needed to do it. Our group of guys has been together for years and that continuity is what has been a key recipe to our success.”

The 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season will kick off with the 60th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtecttheHarvest.com Feb. 6-9 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. 

Austin Prock checked-off nearly all his rookie goals in the NHRA’s Top Fuel ranks this season. A bonus was being voted the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner.

Prock was honored during Monday night’s NHRA Awards Cremony inside the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood, Calif. NHRA’s Rookie of the Year honor, which was established in 2002, includes a $20,000 check.

A third generation racer, Prock competed in all 24 national events and earned his first win by defeating Top Fuel star Steve Torrence. Prock claimed his first career win in Race No. 16, the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash., near Seattle, on Aug.4. He also drove his Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Chevrolet dragster to five semi-final appearances and qualified a career high third at the Heartland Nationals and Midwest Nationals in Topeka, Kan.

“We had a great season,” said Prock, a 24-year-old resident of Danville, Ind. “I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished in the short amount of time we’ve been together so, hats off to all the guys for busting their butts all year long and giving me a shot to compete for wins and turn on win lights. I’m extremely proud of these guys. We’re going to have a good, long offseason to work on our race cars and come into the Phoenix test with a fair shot.”

Team-owner John Force turned to veteran tuner Mike Green to work with Prock after seven events, and the switch resulted in consistent 1,000-foot runs through the remainder of the season.

“Bringing in Mike was huge,” said Prock, whose father, Jimmy, is crew chief on Robert Hight’s 2019 championship-winning Funny Car at JFR. “Mike told me we were going to take things slow and go step-by-step, so when it does start running good, we’re going to know exactly why it does. I’m so impressed with how good the team has come together and how well they perform.”

Prock posted a pair of semifinal appearances during the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. He placed eighth in the final standings.

Other award candidates were Cristian Cuadra (Pro Stock), Fernando Cuadra Jr. (Pro Stock), Cameron Ferre (Top Fuel), Lex Joon (Top Fuel), Jianna Salinas (Pro Stock Motorcycle) and Jordan Vandergriff (Top Fuel).

Prock joined a list of 10 previous rookies to win in their first season, and he is the 13th rookie to qualify for the Countdown. Prock also is the sixth John Force Racing driver to earn the award. The previous JFR rookies include Tony Pedregon (1996), Hight (2005), Ashley Force-Hood (2007), Mike Neff (2008), Courtney Force (2012) and Brittany Force (2013). 

Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were crowned NHRA Mello Yello world champions in their respective classes during the event. All four were awarded checks and trophies to celebrate their titles.

In addition, legendary crew chief Austin Coil was presented the NHRA Lifetime Achievement Award. Coil served as crew chief to Funny Car icon John Force for 24 years, helping “Brute” bring home 15 of his record 16 world championships and 132 of his 151 event wins _ numbers that make the duo the winningest driver/crew chief combination in NHRA history.

Drivers from 10 categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series were recognized as 2019 world champions: Megan Meyer (Top Alcohol Dragster), Sean Bellemeur (Top Alcohol Funny Car), Frank Aragona Jr. (Competition Eliminator), Vic Penrod (Super Stock), Allison Doll (Stock), Ray Miller lll (Super Comp), Jeremy Mason (Super Gas), Danny Nelson (Top Dragster), Sandy Wilkins (Top Sportsman) and Drew Skillman (SAM Factory Stock).

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Chevy Racing was awarded the NHRA Manufacturers Cup during Monday night’s Awards Ceremony. It marked the third consecutive year and fourth time in the past five seasons that Chevrolet has outscored three other manufacturers. Chevrolet first earned the award in 1966; no other manufacturer has won it more times. GM brands Oldsmobile and Pontiac previously combined to win 24 titles.

The Manufacturers Cup is awarded to the car-maker whose current-year models earn the most points for qualifying and category victories at NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series races and Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series national and divisional events. Points are awarded to entries in Funny Car, Pro Stock, Super Stock and Stock Eliminator classes, plus the School of Automotive Machinists and Technology (SAM Tech.edu) NHRA Factory Stock Showdown series.

Points accumulated by Chevrolet Camaro SS and Chevrolet COPO Camaro drivers in the professional and Sportsman classes were more than double the closest manufacturer.

Pro Stock competitors driving the Camaro SS won all 18 national events this season. Since the integration of electronic fuel injection in the 2016 season, drivers of the Camaro SS have won 78 of 80 races. Chevrolet also has scored 141 Funny Car wins since 1967, including 61 with the Camaro nameplate.

“It’s an honor for Chevrolet to win the NHRA Manufacturers Cup for a record 24thtime,” said Mark Kent, Chevrolet Director Motorsports Competition. “This championship is a result of an incredible effort by the Chevrolet Camaro drivers, crew chiefs and teams which earn valuable points throughout the season.” 

Overall, 21 different Chevy drivers amassed 39 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series national and divisional victories during the season.

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Final 2019 point standings (top-10) following the 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif. The race was the last of 24 on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule and sixth/final event of the Countdown to the Championship playoff:

Top Fuel _1. Steve Torrence, 2,607; 2. Doug Kalitta, 2,604; 3. Brittany Force, 2,555; 4. Leah Pritchett, 2,474; 5. Billy Torrence, 2,458; 6. Richie Crampton, 2,399; 7. Mike Salinas, 2,381; 8. Austin Prock, 2,379; 9. Antron Brown, 2,329; 10. Clay Millican, 2,300.

Funny Car _1. Robert Hight, 2,637; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,629; 3. Matt Hagan, 2,563; 4. John Force, 2,471; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,446; 6. Ron Capps, 2,414; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,391; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,360; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,358; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,283.

Pro Stock _1. Erica Enders, 2,635; 2. Jeg Coughlin Jr., 2,614; 3. Bo Butner, 2,524; 4. Jason Line, 2,495; 5. Matt Hartford, 2,448; 6. Deric Kramer, 2,409; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,408; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,345; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,329; 10. Val Smeland, 2,203.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1. Andrew Hines, 2,599; 2. Jerry Savoie, 2,573; 3. Matt Smith, 2,553; 4. Karen Stoffer, 2,534; 5. Eddie Krawiec, 2,474; 6. Hector Arana Jr., 2,389; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,381; 8. Angie Smith, 2,281; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,271; 10. Hector Arana, 2,209.

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2019 NHRA Countdown to the Championship Playoffs Results

Sept. 12-15 _ Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, Maple Grove Raceway, Reading, Pa. Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock), Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Sept. 27-29 _ AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, World Wide Technology Raceway, Madison, Ill. Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Shawn Langdon (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), Karen Stoffer (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 11-14 _NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals, zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C. Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 17-20 _ AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Texas Motorplex, Ennis, Texas. Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 31-Nov. 3 _ Dodge NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Nov. 14-17 _ Auto Club NHRA Finals, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif. Doug Kalita (Top Fueil), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock), Jianna Salinas (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 20 2019
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