Ford Racing's Robert Hight captured his first NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship last week to give car owner John Force his 16th title in the last 20 years and 10th since joining Ford. Both men stopped by the Homestead-Miami Speedway infield media center for a press conference to talk about the team's accomplishment.
IT'S BEEN A WEEK. HAS IT SUNK N YET?
ROBERT HIGHT, Auto Club Ford Mustang: "It's slowly starting to sink in. I'm doing interviews and people calling me the champ, it's hard to get used to that. And then we've had some autograph sessions and everybody wants me to write, '09 Champ' under my name, so it's a good problem to have, trust me. I owe it all to John and to Ford and to everybody that took a gamble on me. It's just so exciting. I'm honored to be down here and to be the Grand Marshal today, that's really exciting. This is my first NASCAR race, by the way, so I've got a lot to learn. I'm gonna soak it up and take it in and just see what this is all about. I'm a big fan of NASCAR. I watch it on TV all the time. We do a lot of Ford functions with the Ford NASCAR drivers and it's pretty cool because they come up and ask us questions. It's like they're watching us on TV. They're watching our races. Greg Biffle, he came and talked to Neff and I earlier this year about his Mustang that he's trying to get to run in the 8's, and he was blowing it up on nitrous, so there's a lot of drag racing fans. It's pretty cool to walk through the garage with John and everybody notices him, so it's cool when people notice our sport, and I'm excited to be down here and learn about NASCAR."
YOUR 10 TITLES WITH FORD TIES BOB GLIDDEN FOR THE MOST WITH THE MANUFACTURER. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THIS SEASON?
JOHN FORCE, Owner, John Force Racing: "I'm excited to be here. I didn't realize that Robert had not been to a NASCAR event. Last night on the plane, we took the red-eye and have only had a few hours of sleep, but I told him it was a whole different world. The media, you'll see a lot of new faces and get an opportunity to meet a lot of the racers that you see on TV. I told him, 'Don't get run over out there because they will run over you.' But it's pretty exciting. To deliver a 10th championship for Ford Motor Company, it's a tough economy right now. They pay us good. We work hard. They're building great cars and we're all just trying to do our part. Robert Hight, my son-in-law, even though he did drive around my daughter, Ashley, who fought all year. She actually had the best car most of the year, but our braintrust worked together and they took those Mustangs and gave us two good cars. At the end of the year at Vegas she stumbled real bad and Robert's car just picked up the pace. In the Countdown he won three of the races in the final six of the Full Throttle Countdown, so he did great and she finished second. At the end of the day I'm still struggling, haven't figured that out yet, but we will fix it. I was almost low e.t. and then she took that away from me. Mike Neff, driving our Ford. Drive one. won his first race at the Auto Club finals in Pomona -- the final race he finally got his big win. So for Ford Motor Company and Castrol and, naturally, Auto Club -- all the sponsors -- we're excited. Since the loss of Eric Medlen in '07 in the crash at Gainesville and then my crash in Dallas, it was great that we could bring the trophy home. And Robert, I just congratulate him for keeping his nose clean, fighting the fight, and never giving up on his guys, and he delivered to put us back on the map."
DOES WINNING EVER BECOME ROUTINE?
JOHN FORCE: "Well, it does and then you lay in a hospital bed for two months and they tell you you're not gonna walk again and, if you do, it'll be ugly. I used to joke I used to spend two hours a day in the bar, now I spend two hours a day in the gym just so I can get out of bed in the morning. I want to be with these kids. My girls are driving now. Robert is married to my oldest daughter. We have a grand baby, Autumn. She's already loving the racing and wanting junior dragsters. It's just kind of been the blood of this family, but then Ashley finishing second and beating the boys in the NHRA fight, and then my two youngest -- Brittany and Courtney in A-Fuel dragster. Courtney was in the final at Pomona and got beat, but she did win Seattle this year. It's just an opportunity for me to have more time with my family, but the realization that driving is all I've ever known and being a team owner, that was just part of something that got in the way of what I really wanted to do. I just really love being out here with them, and I built the next generation. If you saw the USA Today ad that was put together by Ford and Auto Club, it was pretty cool that I felt I did something right -- that I took a chance on a young kid and he proved me right. Maybe I can be a team owner some day. Maybe I do know what I'm doing, but I've got some young tigers and they're carrying this old man, but I'll be back in the fight."
ROBERT HIGHT: "He wouldn't know what to do if he wasn't driving."
CAN YOU TELL THE STORY ABOUT WHEN YOU FOUND OUT ROBERT WANTED TO BE A DRIVER AND NOT A CREW CHIEF?
JOHN FORCE: "We were with Auto Club yesterday and I stood in front of 4,000 of their people and I said, 'I'm really full of it. I'm full of bull, but Robert is the real deal.' And he really is because when he came in he was just a personality. He came to work for me over 15 years ago. I was sitting in a movie theater one day and I looked up and I saw him sitting with my daughter holding hands. I was like, 'Didn't he read the manual? You can't date the kids.' But he actually asked me if he could take her out. He always loved the Dodgers. He always loved baseball. He came from the little town of Alturas, but everything that came out of his mouth was just totally the truth. That's kind of odd for me. I'm used to the smoke and mirrors, but everything was just gospel. I always thought he wanted to be a crew chief and Austin Coyle was taking him down that road. When we needed a driver change it was amazing that he never asked for the job, and my daughter came up and said, 'Why wouldn't you pick Robert?' And I said, 'Well, because all Robert ever wanted to do was be a crew chief.' She said, 'No, he would just never ask you knowing that somebody's got to go in that Ford Mustang, but he would never ask you.' What really amazed me is out of the box he was so good on the Christmas tree, and then later I found out that he had a shot to go to the Olympics because he shoots skeet and trap, so he's really got to focus on the deal. So he came out. It was a great call for Ford Motor Company to get them a winner. Robert Hight, like I said, he's the real deal. He'll tell you the story of how it is and won't sugar-coat it like I do. He's excellent at what he does, even when the boys want to beat him up -- or even the girls -- he walks that line and keeps his nose clean. At the end of the day he delivered for Ford Motor Company and we needed a win. With all the technology with the Ford engineers to build us race cars -- everybody said the cars that we had wouldn't perform, but Robert Hight proved them wrong."
WHAT'S THIS ABOUT YOU NOT DRINKING BEER ANYMORE?
JOHN FORCE: "I just changed my ways, I don't know. I won championships and I hammered them down, but you wake up one morning and you look at your wife who has never liked you for the last 20 years -- she loved me, she didn't like me -- and you look at your kids out there and safety became a priority. A lot of people think that I've forgotten how to win or that I focused on Robert and Ashley and Mike Neff, but at the end of the day there was so much to do, so much that I didn't know anything about, but I really thank God for the Ford people coming in because we wouldn't have done it. They spent millions and we've got race cars that people said would be too heavy, they wouldn't work and we outran them right out of the box. When Wilkerson's son crashed at Memphis -- a hard sideways crash -- the kid got out and didn't even think, so right there we knew that what we created at Ford with the Eric Medlen project was the right thing. What did you ask?"
I JUST HEARD YOU GAVE UP BEER.
JOHN FORCE: "I just gave it up. I drank enough for a lifetime. I've just got a lot on my plate right now. There ain't nothing wrong with a good beer and having a good time to celebrate, but we've already gone into mode for next year. If you haven't noticed, I've been in a little bit of a slump and Ford Motor Company doesn't pay me to just be there. Right now, Mike Neff bounced out with the Ford. Drive one. car and he was able to win Pomona. It was a great final against Ashley, tires smoking, the girl hit the wall. She was like, 'Dad, I don't know what happened.' And I said, 'Well, it's called you'll learn, baby. That's what you do.' But she's been great for the sport as a female driver in this sport, but Mike Neff got his first win for Ford and that was very important to us to get that out of the way so we can move on."
CAN YOU SPEAK TO WHAT MARK MARTIN IS DOING IN THIS SPORT?
JOHN FORCE: "He's on the same drugs that I'm on. He has to be (laughing). He's quite an amazing individual. I've watched him. Physically, you can tell he's in shape. I'm 10 years older than him, but I always said if I was in NASCAR they'd have to have rest stops for me. I couldn't drive around for three hours. He's just focused. He does what he does and he's good. You look at the young tigers like Edwards, you know, I didn't realize how much Robert knew about the NASCAR drivers and not just the Ford guys, but Robert has another life outside of drag racing. He was so tickled. We were supposed to be on vacation, but when Ford asked us to come down here and bring Robert to celebrate and be a grand marshal and be part of the show today, he was all excited because he had never been to a NASCAR race. It just tripped me out. I remember my first one was at Talladega."
JIMMIE JOHNSON IS GOING FOR HIS FOURTH TITLE, BUT YOU HAVE 16. ARE YOU THINKING I WON FOUR BEFORE I KNEW WHAT I WAS DOING?
JOHN FORCE: "I still don't know what I'm doing."
ARE YOU IMPRESSED WITH WHAT HE'S BEEN ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH?
JOHN FORCE: "I really do. I've done a few shows with him. I really don't know him, but, obviously, like any driver he's focused. He's got a winning team and it takes years, just like a football team, you can have a great quarterback, but if he doesn't have that guy that will catch that ball when he needs to, he's in trouble, so you've got to have the combination. I built a braintrust of people around me and I've got some of the older guys on my team that we're addressing. Right now, I'm bringing in two new young guys just to light the fire in my older generation of guys. It's not time for retirement. I'm not giving up the seat. I love it too much. My car really thundered down there at Pomona. I ran .05 and was almost low and then Ashley bumped me, but you have to stay focused and that's what Johnson does. God Bless him -- any of the drivers. They work hard. I joked with Robert. When I went down to the shop on Sunday night Robert was sitting in the car. I said, 'What are you doing? Why aren't you home barbequing?' It's because he's living it. Ashley was out buying a dress for the banquet. It's just different styles, but at the end of the day you've got to live it. Ashley lives it. Robert Hight lives it. I've always lived it. There's nothing else to any of us because that's what it takes to make a champion. Ford's got champions -- Edwards and others that they have -- but at the end of the day this kid Johnson is just on a roll."
WHAT'S IT LIKE WHEN THINGS ARE ON A ROLL LIKE THAT?
JOHN FORCE: "I said to Robert, 'Trust me, first you'll have depression.' I always call it post partum depression, like a woman when she has a baby, she doesn't know what to do because you've waited all those months and then you get it and it takes a while, but then you bounce right back because you've got to start thinking about next year. There's no time for vacation. We're working straight through the vacation. That's what you need to do if you're gonna stay on top."
ROBERT HIGHT: "I've gone down to the last day of the season with a chance to win the championship and totally positive and thinking you're gonna win it. You're thinking it's been such a battle and such a fight and you're so excited to finally get it, and then you're gonna take a little vacation with your family. That's all the things you're thinking about, and then you don't get it and you wake up on Monday morning and you've got to get back to work because you didn't win and you're not ready. Now you're just depressed because you didn't win and you don't want to take a vacation. The spouses and all that, they take it pretty hard because they're ready for a vacation, but, as a racer, and somebody that wants to win, you've got to get right back out there and do it again. When John was dominating and winning all those races, I don't think that's ever gonna happen again -- that kind of domination in our sport -- probably even in NASCAR. It's pretty tough to dominate. The races that we have are so close, there are so many good cars, that you can't let your guard down ever -- otherwise you're gonna get passed up."
JOHN FORCE: "It was amazing in the staging lanes. I had TV cameras there filming Robert. Well, they had done the points after the run before and they came into the staging lanes like, 'He's wrapped up the championship.' They're announcing it. He is just getting suited up and the guy said, 'He doesn't even want to talk about it.' We told him that he won. They came and announced it to him right as he was getting into his car and they said, 'What's wrong with him? It's like he won't acknowledge it.' I said, 'That's his focus. He doesn't want to acknowledge it. He doesn't want to get emotional. He wants to get in his race car and win the next round in case you guys got the points screwed up here.' You just don't want to know. You want to get the day over with where it's locked up and that's what it takes."
WHAT CHANGED ONCE YOU QUALIFIED FOR THE COUNTDOWN?
ROBERT HIGHT: "Two races before Indy we were just hopeless. Our car was not consistent and we had been fighting it for too long. We stuck with a lot of new parts and different things we were trying on my car for too long. I blame that on the Countdown system, which I'm a fan of, because you know you've just got to be in there and you've just got to be in it to win it. That gives you a little more time to test, and then NHRA throws in a testing restriction four days a year. It used to be that we would go and just test and test and test until we proved something or we got it out of our system and moved on, but we stuck with a lot of things too long. Ashley's Ford Mustang was definitely holding up our whole team most of the season. She was the class of the field, the best car out there, and she kept our team up. My crew chief, Jimmy Prock, adopted their engine combination and, right off the bat, it was successful. We owe it to them, and that's what made it so tough to have to race her. We had to race her three times in the Countdown. Had they not fixed us, she'd be sitting up here right now. There's no doubt about it -- with a big lead -- but they helped us and that's part of our four-car team -- all of us working together and the goal is one of us to win. Honestly, I never thought we would turn our season around like that. I was excited to get into the Countdown, but I didn't believe that we would have it fixed that well that soon. We owe it to Ford and all of our sponsors for sticking behind us and not putting a lot of pressure on us. They knew we didn't get stupid and forget how to race, and they let us do our jobs without any pressure. That makes it easier to come through when you need to."
WHAT TRAIT DOES JOHN HAVE THAT YOU ADMIRE AS A CHAMPION?
ROBERT HIGHT: "Just how hard he's worked. I look at where John started from and, I'll be honest, my road has been paved a lot easier than his. He started from absolutely nothing. He bought his mom's trailer, and it's across the street from our shop. You can see where he came from. I think he put it over there on purpose to remember where he came from and to continue to work hard. That gets him up everyday and continues to work hard, but you could definitely see when John was in the hospital, when he got out it was in December and he said that he was gonna test the next month in January. I'm thinking, 'There is not a chance. He can't even get in the car to get a seat poured,' and he worked hard, day in and day out, and just his determination to get back to doing something that he loves more than anybody else, and that's why he's a champion. He lives this and that's the reason John has won 14 world championships."
-credit: ford racing