HIGHT WANTS REDEMPTION IN BRAINERD
There are some tracks where drivers love to pull their race cars to the starting line because they have seen more win lights than anything else. Brainerd International Raceway is not one of those tracks for Full Throttle points leader Robert Hight and the Auto Club Ford Mustang team. This will be Hight’s eighth trip to the Brainerd, Minnesota track and his best finish has been a semi-final loss to John Force. He has four first round losses and a DNQ to go along with two second round losses.
“For whatever reason Brainerd has not been that good to me. Bristol used to be another track where we just didn’t go rounds. Last year we finally conquered Bristol and this year I want to get a win in Brainerd and hold onto the No. 1 spot in the points heading into Indy,” said Hight, a four-time winner in 2012.
Hight’s championship season of 2009 actually started turning around at Brainerd International Raceway in the most unlikeliest of ways. Hight, in dire need of round wins to get into the Countdown, shockingly did not qualify for the event and team owner John Force shook up the team moving himself to the Auto Club team for a race and Hight over to the Castrol GTX team. The move worked as Hight clinched the final spot in the Countdown that year and went on to win his first championship.
“That DNQ in 2009 hurt but even then we never got our heads down. John always has a plan and a back-up plan. We got fixed by Indy and then had a good race there losing to Ashley (Force Hood) in the final. Once we got into the Countdown (crew chief) Jimmy (Prock) had a great tune-up and the rest is history,” said Hight.
“Even though I haven’t raced well in Brainerd I love coming up here. The fans are always great. They love their drag racing and it is a unique event because you see everything from my 8000 horsepower Auto Club Ford Mustang going down the track to snowmobiles,” added Hight.
Hight has won four races this season and he has held the points lead most of the season but a late season charge by veteran Ron Capps has Hight sitting on a 31 point lead with two races to go before the Countdown begins. Hight, Capps and Jack Beckman have all clinched their Countdown berths. This weekend the trio of drivers should be joined by Hight’s teammate Mike Neff and veteran Johnny Gray. Rookie of the Year front-runner Courtney Force could clinch her first Countdown with some success on Sunday.
“The Countdown is where you win championships but it is the races leading up to the Countdown where you can get some momentum. We were really hot in the early part of the season,” said Hight. “We were going for five race wins in a row and Capps beat us in Houston. His car has come around but I know Jimmy Prock has a great tune-up for my Auto Club Mustang. I want to dominate and lead the points the whole season. I am sure Capps will be charging but so will a lot of other guys and women. Courtney has had a really good race car these past couple of races so there are no easy round wins.”
NEFF CAN LOCK UP PLAYOFF BERTH AT BRAINERD
Last year, Mike Neff inexplicably “lost the handle” on the tune-up that had carried his Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang to the regular season championship in the NHRA’s Full Throttle Series.
Unfortunately, the timing of such a stumble could not have been any worse. After piling up a 215-point lead in the first 16 races and winning five times, the 45-year-old with the quiet demeanor and the Hollywood good looks saw everything slip away in the six-race Countdown to 1 NHRA playoffs.
As a result, this year has been all about getting ready for “crunch time,” determining what works and what doesn’t, analyzing graphs and charts and stockpiling enough proven parts to get through as many as 48 rounds of playoff racing.
Drag racing is all about making adjustments,” Neff said as he prepared for this week’s 31st annual Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, the next-to-last race before the points are adjusted in a system designed to add more drama to the championship chase.
“Whether it’s Brainerd or Charlotte or Vegas, the track may be the same but the conditions that you have to deal with are never the same,” said the man who, as the driver and crew chief on the Castrol Ford, is trying this year to become the first in 37 seasons to win an NHRA Funny Car title in that dual capacity.
“We’ve had a good car all year and I feel good about our chances this week,” said the former motocross racer and off-road truck mechanic, “but I really feel a lot better about the Countdown. We learned from what happened last year (when he slipped from first to fifth in the final order) and we made a new plan.
“We’ve been kinda racing under the radar, trying different things,” he said. “Some of them have worked and some of them haven’t. Like everybody, we’ve been fighting some clutch issues but when they reshuffle the points after Indy (and the Labor Day Mac Tools U.S. Nationals), I think we’ll be ready to go.”
Instead of pushing himself and his resources to the absolute limit every week, Neff has opted this year for a more measured approach to winning his first driving championship and John Force Racing’s 18th in the last 23 years.
“We’re just trying to improve in areas where we might have been a little weaker last year,” said the two-time championship-winning Funny Car crew chief (2005 with Gary Scelzi and 2010 with John Force). “Nobody accumulated more points than we did last year but, like it or not, (the championship is) just based off six races and you have to try and plan so your program is strongest in those last six races.”
Although he hasn’t been as dominant as he was a year ago when he went to nine final rounds, Neff has kept himself very much in the middle of the championship conversation with wins at Houston, Texas, and Norwalk, Ohio.
As a result, even though he suffered a rare qualifying failure at Atlanta, he will clinch a playoff spot simply by making a qualifying attempt this weekend. His goal was to finish the regular season somewhere among the Top 5, which now is virtually certain.
That means that he would start the playoffs no more than three rounds (60 points) behind teammate Robert “Top Gun” Hight or whomever winds up No. 1. Regardless, he will be far better prepared for the blitz that is the playoffs than he was a year ago.
“The tricky thing about racing is sometimes it just doesn’t work the way you want it to,” Neff observed. “The thing is, if it was easy, everybody’d be winning.”
FORCE ON TRACK TO CLINCH COUNTDOWN SPOT IN BRAINERD
One event on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing series tour stands between Rookie Funny Car driver Courtney Force and her first ever Funny Car attempt at “The Big Go” that is the Mac Tools US Nationals in Indianapolis Labor Day weekend. Before Force can look ahead to such an event, she is faced with the pressure of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd and all the pressure surrounding it.
“I’m so excited going into the Brainerd race, especially coming in fresh off a win in Seattle. I’m looking forward to hopefully doing well enough at the race to get my Traxxas Ford Mustang locked into the Countdown to the Championship, going into The Big Go,” said Force.
This weekend in Brainerd, several drivers have the opportunity to clinch spots in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing series Countdown to the Championship. The 24-year-old out of Yorba Linda, Calif., can clinch by winning the first round of eliminations depending on qualifying position and qualifying bonus points, or will clinch by making it through the second round of eliminations.
“We’ve got a great race car and a pretty consistent one at that. As a driver I just want to do my job right by keeping this Mustang straight in the groove, leaving good, get it in the show and go rounds on Sunday,” said Force.
This past week Force launched her campaign for the 8th and final spot into the “Traxxas Nitro Shootout,” the race within a race that will be held during the Mac Tools US Nationals in Indianapolis.
“I had so much fun filming the campaign video for the Traxxas Nitro Shootout and hope that fans can see another side of me. I really wanted to show how much I want to be competing in that Traxxas Nitro Shootout against my teammates. I need the fans’ support and their votes on NHRA’s Facebook page following this weekend’s race in Brainerd. My Traxxas team has put together a great race car for me all season long, so I really want to get into that Traxxas Shootout and show everyone what we’ve got,” said Force.
With the fan vote/lottery style drawing, Force has a chance to join her fellow John Force Racing teammates in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout. You can view Force’s comical campaign video http://youtu.be/YLvT9FL6qbw.
Two weeks ago at the NHRA Northwest Nationals in Seattle, Force wrapped up the Western Swing by taking home her very first Funny Car Wally. There was a little bit of struggle during qualifying on the Traxxas team’s end, but the youngest Force daughter swept past previous World Funny Car Champions Cruz Pedregon, John Force and Matt Hagan as well as Bob Tasca III in eliminations on her way to victory, and did it all the way from the no. 14 qualifying spot.
Force’s win put her back into the No. 6 spot in the points standings and placed her about two and a half rounds in front of Cruz Pedregon in the No. 7 spot.
“Getting my first win in Funny Car was such a huge accomplishment for our Traxxas team, but I really owe all the credit to the guys working on my car, as well as everyone at John Force Racing. This was a dream come true; seeing that win light in the final round against defending champ Matt Hagan, and getting to hold that Wally in the Winner’s Circle was so surreal.
“Making it to three final rounds and getting that victory in only our 15th race of my Rookie Season was huge! I’m so proud of my team, and hope to continue having a great season while hopefully clinching into the top 10 for the Countdown to the Championship,” said Force.
The rookie driver has been busy the last four weeks. She and father, 15-time Champion John Force attended Summit Motorsports Park’s annual “Night Under Fire” in Norwalk, Ohio the weekend after Seattle, where Courtney took home the trophy. Fellow Funny Car drivers including Alexis DeJoria, Jeff Arend, Jim Head and Dan Wilkerson were also in attendance along with over 850 sportsman racers.
“It’s always exciting getting to go to Night Under Fire and just race without any pressure. Racing is what I love to do and am passionate about so it was exciting for me to get out there and race against some of the best while putting on another great show for the fans! Bill Bader puts on a great show every year so it was really cool to be apart of it for the first time in a Fuel Funny Car,” said Force.
FORCE BACK IN HIS COMFORT ZONE AT BRAINERD
With his record streak of 27 consecutive Top 10 finishes in jeopardy, John Force could not find himself in a more comfortable environment this week when the NHRA Full Throttle Series moves to Brainerd International Raceway for the 31st renewal of the Lucas Oil Nationals.
After all, the 63-year-old drag racing icon, who is battling Bob Tasca III, Tim Wilkerson and reigning series champion Matt Hagan for one of the last two spots in the Countdown to 1 playoffs, has won more races at BIR (11) than the combined total of every other Funny Car driver in the field (eight).
The father of Rookie-of-the-Year contender Courtney Force has gone to the finals in every other appearance at Brainerd (13 times in 26 races) and has compiled a 66-15 individual record, a winning percentage of 81.5 percent.
That said, it’s been five years since his Castrol GTX® HIGH MILEAGE™ Ford last rolled into the winners’ circle and three years since he last won a racing round at BIR. The reality of the situation is that if he is unable to recapture his old form, he faces the prospect of watching from the sidelines when his teammates vie for the $500,000 Funny Car title he’s won 15 times in his career.
Despite his struggles since winning the season-opening Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., Force for once expects to benefit from the Countdown format that was introduced in 2007 largely to prevent the kind of runaway championships the former truck driver manufactured in the 1990s and early 2000s when he won 10 straight titles.
Currently ninth in points, the recent inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala., is focused this week on one goal and one goal only.
“Robert (teammate and son-in-law Robert Hight) won the championship in 2009 from No. 10,” Force said, “so we know you can do it. Whoever gets the hot hand can win it all. They say, ‘you gotta be in it to win it,’ so we’re just fighting to get in – me and ‘Guido’ and Danny D (crew chiefs Dean Antonelli and Danny DeGennaro).”
Coming off a solid, if not spectacular performance in the grueling Western Swing (reaching the semifinals in the first and last events in the three-races-in-three-weeks grind), the 134-time tour winner earned himself some breathing room, moving from 10th to ninth in Full Throttle points.
However, his participation in the six-race Countdown still is no sure thing especially with Hagan just 69 points behind with two races remaining before the points are re-adjusted.
“We still have to do our jobs,” said the first drag racer to earn Driver of the Year honors for all of American motor racing (1996). “We’ve been struggling but we’ve addressed the issues. We’re all working together – ‘Guido’ and Danny with Jimmy Prock and Mike Neff and Ron Douglas plus we’ve got John Medlen and Ron Armstrong on board. That’s the ‘brain trust.”
Prock, Neff and Douglas are crew chiefs on the other three John Force Racing Ford Mustangs. Medlen is a former NHRA championship-winning crew chief for JFR (2003) who now manages the team’s R&D program and Armstrong is a former NASCAR engine builder and offshore boat racer who was instrumental in developing the RacePak data collection system that today is the standard in many motor sports.
“I told my guys, ‘as long as we work as one team, we’ll win as one team,’” Force said.
It’s a formula that has delivered NHRA Funny Car championships in all but five of the last 22 years. Force sees no need to change it now.
Source: John Force Racing