Madison: Round 12 preview

ROOKIE HIGHT MAKING NAME FOR HIMSELF IN FUNNY CAR ST. LOUIS -- He's been the No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car a category-best three times, in the first 11 races of the 2005 season. He has recorded the low elapsed time...

ROOKIE HIGHT MAKING NAME FOR HIMSELF IN FUNNY CAR

ST. LOUIS -- He's been the No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car a category-best three times, in the first 11 races of the 2005 season.

He has recorded the low elapsed time of an event twice, tying him with Tony Pedregon and Gary Scelzi for the category lead.

He has established the top speed of an event three times behind the wheel of his Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang, second only to Scelzi's four top speeds.

He has appeared two final rounds, second-most in Funny Car, two shy of the four for the man who doubles as his father-in-law and team-owner, John Force.

He earned his first career victory in his fourth career Funny Car start (Houston) and is one of six drivers to earn a victory this season and currently ranking him third in the POWERade standings, 25 points behind the second-place Scelzi.

He's just a rookie.

He is Robert Hight.

"No doubt about it, every day I think about (how I've come so far so quickly)," Hight said. "It's funny, though. You get so caught up in what's going on in the races, you just want to do better. We lost in the semifinals in Topeka and I was pretty bummed out.

"I have to take a step back. If someone would have told me that I would be No. 2 in the POWERade point standings, and in the best qualifying car, I would never have believed it. I have no doubt in the car, but I doubted myself. I wasn't sure I would catch on this quickly."

Hight will certainly be among the favorites when the 7,000-horsepower racers come together outside St. Louis for the ninth annual Sears Craftsman NHRA Nationals, June 24-26, at Gateway International Raceway. The $1.8 million race is the 12th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

It's not lost on anyone that Hight has benefited from learning under and driving for Force -- the winningest driver in NHRA history with 118 career victories (six-time Pro Stock world champion Warren Johnson is second all-time with 94 career wins).

"Most (of my success this season can be attributed) to being in a good race car," Hight said. "It goes down the track 90 percent of the time, it's not blowing up, it's not dropping cylinders. It makes it easy for a new guy to drive."

Hight's relationship with Force dates back to 1995, when he was responsible for the clutches and the short blocks in all of Force's cars. In 2000, he got off the road for a few years, although he was still part of Force Racing, and then in 2004, he was strapped into a Funny Car on the Monday after the race at Topeka, Kan., and he received his Funny Car license.

He said that Eric Medlen, the third Funny Car driver for Force Racing who was a rookie last season, has been a huge help in terms of guiding him through the road blocks of a rookie campaign.

"(Being a rookie) is still fresh to Eric," Hight explained of Medlen, who drives the Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang. "It's been a long time since (Force) has been a rookie."

With Del Worsham earning the victory at Route 66 Raceway outside of Chicago last week, the Funny Car point standings continue to tighten up. Any of the top 10 drivers have a legitimate shot at winning an event, possibly even the championship. Hight taking the series title from Force? Anything is possible.

So the rest of the year may be a bit like taking the boss out to the golf course. You want to do your best, of course, but is it in your best interest to beat him?

"No, no, I want to beat him," Hight said. "It's kind of a double-edged sword. He gave me this opportunity and so you think, 'Shoot, I don't want to beat him.' But he wants you to beat him. If I go out there and (try to let him win), if you don't get up for him, he won't be happy. He wants everyone to be aggressive no matter who they're racing."

It's hard to argue with the facts. Hight is 1-1 in head-to-head matchups with the boss, including a loss in the final round by just .002-seconds at the Summit Racing NHRA Southern Nationals outside Atlanta.

"I was trying to win," Hight said simply.

Over the past couple of races, Force has seen his lead in the standings trimmed to 62 points ahead of Scelzi and 87 in front of Hight. He and Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta have the largest advantage in the four professional categories. But as many have proven in the past, no gap is insurmountable.

The defending champion at the Sears Craftsman NHRA Nationals in Funny Car is Scelzi. Scelzi has had a steady 2005 with two No. 1 qualifiers (Las Vegas 1 and Atlanta) and two wins (Bristol and Chicago 1) and his Mopar/Oakley Dodge Stratus will certainly be a car to watch along with the Castrol GTX Start Up Ford Mustang of Force.

Other defending race winners include Kalitta in the Mac Tools dragster, two-time defending NHRA POWERade Pro Stock world champion Greg Anderson in his Summit Racing Pontiac, and Steve Johnson atop his Suzuki in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

In the Top Fuel category a year ago in St. Louis, Kalitta qualified fifth before going four-for-four on Sunday to, at the time, claim the top spot in the Top Fuel point standings. He relinquished the spot a week later to eventual world champion Tony Schumacher and remained in second place for the remainder of the season.

In all, Kalitta has a Top Fuel-leading three wins at St. Louis -- Scelzi has the most overall wins in St. Louis with three in Top Fuel (1998, 1999, and 2000) and one in his current category, Funny Car (2004) -- and Kalitta will certainly be a favorite this year in Top Fuel.

"I wish I could pin it down, just lucky I guess," Kalitta said of his success in St. Louis where the racing runs from early evening into the night. "Typically, the track's a little cooler (with the night racing in St. Louis) and we definitely prefer the cooler conditions, a little more grip on the track."

Other drivers to watch include Schumacher in his U.S. Army dragster, Brandon Bernstein in his "hometown" Budweiser dragster and Dave Grubnic, who won his first-ever NHRA event a few weeks back (Topeka) in his Zantrex-3 dragster.

In Pro Stock, Anderson, has begun to show signs of his dominant 2004 form when he was named the SPEED Channel Driver of the Year and will again be a contender, along with the resurgent Warren Johnson, and Anderson's charging teammate Jason Line, who moved ahead of Anderson into second-place in the standings with his victory at Englishtown, N.J., last weekend.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, defending champion Johnson will be a rider to watch along with Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley Davidson duo of defending series champion Andrew Hines and current points leader GT Tonglet. U.S. Army teammates Angelle Sampey and Antron Brown will look to make their move in the standings with a winning performance at Gateway.

-nhra-

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Doug Kalitta , Brandon Bernstein , Jason Line , Andrew Hines , Eric Medlen , Steve Johnson , GT Tonglet , Robert Hight , Angelle Sampey