Already in the Big Show,' Auto Club Driver in Test Mode

BRAINERD, Minn. -- His position in the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship secure, Robert Hight finds himself in an unusual position this week as the POWERade tour moves to Brainerd International Raceway for the 22nd annual Lucas Oil Nationals.

"Before (the creation of the Countdown), we wouldn't have thought about testing our Ford Mustang during an actual race," said the 2005 winner of the Automobile Club of Southern California's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA's Rookie of the Year.

"But right now, knowing that we're already in (one of only two to have secured a starting spot), we're just trying to fine tune everything so that we'll have the best race car possible when we get to Indy (where the six-race Countdown begins with the 53rd annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals)."

That Hight's Jimmy Prock-tuned hybrid could get even better must be somewhat disconcerting, especially for those who must line up against the Auto Club Ford in the race for the $500,000 champion's bonus.

After all, the blue-and-white Mustang already owns the two quickest quarter mile times in Funny Car history (4.644 seconds earlier this year at Pomona, Calif., and 4.634 seconds two weeks later at Phoenix, Ariz.). Furthermore, it has carried Hight to the No. 1 qualifying position in more than one third of all the races he's run as a pro (21 of 60).

If the formidable Ford has an Achilles' heel, it is its consistency, a shortcoming underscored by the fact that only three of Hight's seven career wins have come from the No. 1 position. The fact is after qualifying No. 1, the 37-year-old former crewman has lost in the first round as often as he has won the race.

That's the issue Prock and Hight will try to address this week and again next week at Reading, Pa. in the final two races before the points are re-adjusted for the Countdown, which will determine the winner of a record $500,000 Funny Car bonus.

"When they adjust the points for the top eight, it's just like starting over," Hight said. "What happened before means nothing. There's only going to be 10 points between each position to start with and you can make that up with a couple of good qualifying runs."

Hight is hoping to end his campaign the way he began it, forgetting altogether about a troublesome mid-season slump attributed, at least in part, to a chassis change that followed a spectacular crash at Topeka, Kan.

At the very next event (at Joliet, Ill.), Hight failed to make the 16-car starting lineup for the first time in his pro career. Things were only marginally better in the next four events in which Hight never advanced beyond the second round even though he twice started from the drag racing equivalent of the "pole."

That created an atmosphere of frustration that only began to subside with the delivery of new pipe from the McKinney Corporation chassis works.

     "It wasn't very driver-friendly," Hight said of the chassis that was retired for good two
races ago.  "It had been repaired from being twisted.  It never hit anything, it just twisted
after a few runs and, really, it was a mess.  It never was right.

"The new car drives like the one we crashed in Topeka," Hight said. "I've really been pleased with how it steers. As a driver, you have to have a certain level of comfort in the car and it wasn't there with the other car. It's like night-and-day with this one."

The upshot is that the driver who went to the finals in four of his first five starts this year believes he has a car capable of duplicating that performance down the stretch and, if he's right, it could be a long Countdown for his rivals.

-credit: jfr