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Hight Faces Heightening Pressure This Weekend In Reading

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, August 21 2009
The crew of Robert Hight's Top Fuel car had their heads in the game as they prepared for this weekend's race at Maple Grove Raceway.

The crew of Robert Hight's Top Fuel car had their heads in the game as they prepared for this weekend's race at Maple Grove Raceway.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

The testing ban implemented by the NHRA this season has affected different drivers and teams in different ways. It has helped some, hurt some and had little effect at all on others. Put the Funny Car team of Robert Hight down in the “hurt some” category.

It has adversely affected Hight and his John Force Racing bunch to the point that if they do not pull things together this weekend in Reading, Pa., the team and driver that came within one race of winning the NHRA championship a year ago, will likely miss this year’s Countdown to 1.

The pressure, Hight said, is on.

On Hight, and on his team owner, who announced a major change in his operation this week.

“I look at it like this, you know,” Hight said during a telephone conversation this week. “If I ever want to win a championship, you’re going to have to perform under pressure and that’s the way the next two races are going to be.”

It’s odd to hear Hight having to say that. Out of character. He has been one of the best, most consistent Funny Car drivers in the NHRA the last several years.

He is the only Funny Car driver to have led the points each of the last four seasons – his first four seasons in the sport.

The 2005 winner of the Auto Club’s Road to the Future award that identifies the Rookie of the Year, Hight owns the two quickest 1,000-foot times in Funny Car history (4.056 and 4.005 seconds) as well as the quickest quarter-mile times (4.646 and 4.636 seconds).

But 2009 has been one big mucky frustrating slog for the 39-year-old driver of the Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang.

He has yet to win a national event. He has yet to earn a slot in a nationals final. He has just one No. 1 qualifying spot.

As a result, he will head to Reading for the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Racway 12th in points. He is 60 points behind Cruz Pedregon for the 10th and final berth in the Countdown and there are just two races to go to make up those points.

“We have got to be on our game this weekend,” Hight said. “No room for errors.”

How did a team which has been a commercial advertisement for consistency the previous four years find itself in such a spot.

Hight says the search for an answer might begin in that dang test ban.

“I honestly believe that testing has been a big reason for John Force Racing’s success over the years,” Hight said. “Whether it be testing on Mondays after national events or running match races giving seat time and giving crew chiefs time tuning the car and getting the car down the track, it all helped.

“We changed a lot of things on my car over the winter and then the NHRA comes out with a testing ban and that hurt us because if you are going to try new things, the only way to work them out is with testing. It’s hard to go out and qualify and try to win races when you’re trying new things.

“What we should have done, looking back on it, was when this rule came out, went back to what we had done and not gotten too far off the path of what we normally do.”

The weather has not helped Hight and his crew this year, either.

He said that a good way to cope with the testing ban would have been to set a nice, solid time during the first day of qualifying at events and then use the second day to work on race-day setup.

But, rains at several of the events killed all opportunity to do that.

In an effort to get Hight into the Countdown, team-owner John Force is doing something this weekend he has never done before.

Force and Hight will be trading teams this weekend and at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals next weekend in Indianapolis as well.

“I said I wouldn’t shuffle my crew chiefs for three races,” Force said, “but I am moving a driver. I earned enough (points) to get my Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang into the Countdown. It’s not secure, but it’s close enough. To be safe, I should have gone one more round. I have about a 100 point lead with two races to go. Somebody is going to really have to do some damage to catch me, but we’ve got to get Robert back in the hunt, so I’m going to move Robert over to my car and I’m gonna drive the (Jimmy Prock tuned) Mustang.”

Hight stopped short of calling Reading go or go home, but he did say it is one of the most important weekends he has had as a driver.

“In all honesty, if we held our own (at Maple Grove) and went to Indy 60 points back, it’s still doable to make the Countdown,” Hight said. “But it puts a lot more pressure on you, makes it a lot tougher. It would honestly be nice to make up some ground this weekend.”

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, August 21 2009
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