Hight tries to turn slump into streak at Reading
READING, Pa. – No one is more familiar with what is possible in the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs than Robert “Top Gun” Hight, the former world class marksman who, over the last seven seasons, has driven the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang to a category-best 22 tour victories.
In 2007, when the Countdown format first was introduced, Hight lost a Funny Car championship that, under the old rules, he would have won. Two years later, he turned the tables, winning a 2009 championship he surely would have lost, becoming the first and only pro driver to go from worst to first, No. 10 to No. 1, in just six races.
That’s why, even though he and crew chief Jimmy Prock have been struggling lately with a quick-but-erratic race car, no one is counting them out of the Countdown and no one is counting them out of this week’s 27th annual Auto-Plus Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
“It’s all about timing,” Hight admitted. “In 2009, we got hot (in the playoffs). We won three of six races and the Full Throttle championship. That was awesome. If we can get hot again, I still think we have a shot (at the 2011 title). I have a lot of faith in Jimmy and this team. We’ve been through a lot together.”
Over the course of his career, Hight has won – and lost – in streaks. Last year, he went to four straight final rounds before losing the regular season title to boss, teammate and father-in-law John Force by a single point. Once the Countdown began, however, he didn’t win a single round.
This season, he won four of the first nine races to extend to seven the number of consecutive seasons in which he has been the Funny Car points leader. That said, he hasn’t advanced out of the first round in his last four starts. It’s been an exasperating turn of events for the 42-year-old who’s never driven anything but an 8,000 horsepower Ford Funny Car.
Despite recent problems, Hight is encouraged by this week’s return to an event that two years ago was the catalyst for the most remarkable turnaround in the sport’s history. Coming off a DNQ at Brainerd, Minn., Hight rolled into Maple Grove facing the very real possibility of being excluded from the Countdown for the first time ever.
In stepped team owner Force, whose response to Hight’s woes, while unorthodox, proved to be therapeutic. Force mandated a car swap with Hight moving into the cockpit of the 15-time champion’s Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford and Force buckling the harnesses in the Auto Club Mustang.
On the surface, the Maple Grove results were anything but spectacular. Both lost to Bob Tasca III – Hight in the second round and Force in the semifinals. Nevertheless, “for some reason, that jus worked,” Hight said. “It shook things up and I guess that’s what we needed.”
Two weeks later, when the tour moved to Indianapolis for the MAC Tools U.S. Nationals, Hight’s race car had been transformed. He not only qualified No. 1, he reached the finals for the first time in 18 races before losing to teammate Ashley Force Hood. The runner-up finish earned him the final transfer position in the Countdown. The rest is straight-line history.
“That’s what we need,” Hight said. “We need to get on a roll like the one we were on in ‘09 or like the one we were on in the spring. That’s what we’re going to try to do, starting this week.”
Hight, who celebrated seven championships as the clutch specialist on Force’s all-conquering Castrol GTX hybrids of the 1990s and early 2000s, is currently sixth in points, 107 behind teammate and points leader Mike Neff.
“It’s still anybody’s championship,” Hight said, “but we really need to gain some ground this week to have a real shot.”