Gainesville: Robert Hight preview

ON-THE-JOB TRAINING CONTINUES FOR FIRST YEAR FUNNY CAR DRIVER Hight an Unknown Quantity in Auto Club Ford GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Robert "Top Gun" Hight resumes his on-the-job training this week when he sends the Automobile Club of Southern ...

Hight an Unknown Quantity in Auto Club Ford

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Robert "Top Gun" Hight resumes his on-the-job training this week when he sends the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang after the Funny Car Championship in the 36th annual Mac Tools Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

Hight, an accomplished marksman who in 2002 declined the opportunity to try out for the United States Olympic Team because the training regimen would have taken him away from racing, already is being touted for the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year.

Although he won just one round in his first two starts, the soft-spoken 35-year-old impressed his peers.

At the season-opening CARQUEST Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., for instance, he maintained his composure despite a timing malfunction that negated what, according to on-board data sensors, probably was a 4.70 second quarter mile, a run certainly good enough to qualify him among the top four or five drivers in the field. Instead, he had to wait until the final session to drive his way into the starting lineup.

Two weeks later, at Phoenix, Ariz., Hight again was victimized by a timing malfunction but came back to qualify second in the field at a career best time of 4.723 seconds at a Firebird Raceway Funny Car speed record of 329.99 mph.

In pre-season testing, in fact, he became just the fifth Funny Car driver in history to break the 330 mph barrier.

He also has demonstrated remarkably good judgement, especially for a rookie. At both Pomona and Phoenix, he found himself in trouble situations from which he was able to extricate himself without putting a single scratch on the blue-and-white paint job.

"He seems to have a natural feel for it," said his boss, teammate and father-in- law, 13-time and reigning NHRA Funny Car Champion John Force. "He got the car sideways at Pomona, so bad that you could read the triple-A logo real clear on the side, but he gathered it back up. Same thing at Phoenix. Bottom line, he stayed with it as long as he could, but he didn't go past the point of no return."

     The other thing that has impressed Force and Eric Medlen, driver of the team's
third Mustang, the Castrol SYNTEC  Ford, are Hight's concentration skills.

"Robert is extremely good (at the starting line) because of the trapshooting thing," said Medlen, who worked with Hight as a crewman on Force's cars from 1997 through 2000. "He's got some different techniques and different things he does with vision exercises that I think can help me. Sure, there's that little bit of team rivalry, but we're good friends and we've always had good communication which, I think, is what separates this team from a lot of others."

A native of Alturas, Calif., Hight played baseball in high school but always was interested in things mechanical.

After graduating college with degrees in business and accounting, he went to work as a mechanic on a team owned by Nevada businessman Roger Primm. That led to a job with Tommy Johnson Jr. and, ultimately, to John Force Racing where he became the clutch specialist on the team's No. 1 Funny Car in mid-1995.

Despite the demands of racing, Hight remains active in trapshooting, a sport in which he is one of only a handful to have earned a grand slam perfect scores in each of the three basic disciplines: 200 straight targets from 16-feet, 100 straight from 27 feet and 100 straight in doubles (two targets at a time).

This year, though, he's focused on just one target.

"I'd like to win a race," he said, "but, really, my honest goal is to qualify for every event and just continue to learn and develop."

Robert Hight at Gainesville: This will be Hight's first ever driving appearance in the Gatornationals. However, he has been down the Gainesville Raceway quarter mile several times, all as part of his education at Frank Hawley's drag racing school, which this year is celebrating its 20th year of operation. Notable: Hight was the team's official test driver last season. Before that, he was the clutch specialist on John Force's Castrol GTX® Funny Cars which won the Gatornationals in 1996 and 1999.

Television (all ESPN2): Qualifying 12:30-2:30 a.m. (ET) Sunday; Race Day 5-7 p.m. (ET). Repeats on March 21, 2:30 a.m. (ET)

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Series NHRA
Drivers John Force , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight , Frank Hawley , Tommy Johnson Jr.