IS HIGHT'S AUTO CLUB MUSTANG BACK ON CHAMPIONSHIP PATH? 2005 Rookie-of-the-Year Tries to Regain Early-Season Form NORWALK, Ohio -- Robert "Top Gun" Hight's dream season ended last month when his Automobile Club of Southern California Ford...
IS HIGHT'S AUTO CLUB MUSTANG
BACK ON CHAMPIONSHIP PATH?
2005 Rookie-of-the-Year Tries to Regain Early-Season Form
NORWALK, Ohio -- Robert "Top Gun" Hight's dream season ended last month when his Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang blew an engine, erupted in flames and slammed heavily into both guardwalls at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan.
Before that incident, his was the dominant Funny Car in the NHRA POWERade Series, one that had qualified either first or second in 10 consecutive races dating back to 2006, one that reached the finals in four of this season's first five races, one that was equally dominant in the best conditions and the worst.
In the two races since, Hight has been anything but dominant, his super powers suddenly compromised. First, he saw his category-best streak of 53 consecutive starts ended with a DNQ at Joliet, Ill. Then, last week at Englishtown, N.J., he qualified No. 14 and was out in the second round.
In the post-mortem, however, crew chief Jimmy Prock may have identified the gremlin that so quickly emasculated one of the most powerful race cars on the planet: a glitch in the ignition system.
"We'll know pretty quick if we've solved our problem," Hight said as he and his team prepared for this week's inaugural Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park.
"It's been very frustrating. This team takes a lot of pride in what it does and the things that have happened to us since Topeka aren't representative of what we can do," said the seven-time tour winner. "We're excited about this race and we're excited about getting back in the hunt for the POWERade championship.
"(Points leader) Ron Capps has put some distance between us, but with seven races left and with what's been happening (five of the current Top 8 in points, including Capps, Hight and Mike Ashley, have endured at least one qualifying failure this year) anything's possible."
Hight believes that "anything" includes a late rush by his boss, teammate and father-in-law, John Force, who has struggled this season after winning his 14th championship just a year ago.
"He can still get in," Hight said. "I was on that team and I know what (crew chiefs) Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly and especially John can do, but they need to start moving this week. As competitive as it is in Funny Car, the next five races (in as many weeks) are going to be the key."
The 2005 winner of the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the tour's top rookie, Hight was a Top 5 finisher in each of his first two seasons and gave Force a run for the 2006 championship before a supercharger drive belt, the team's Achilles heel, failed on the burnout preceding first round eliminations last October at Las Vegas, Nev.
Despite the team's problems at the last two races, Hight wouldn't trade his seat for any other in the sport.
"It is really cool to be on this team," Hight said, "because nobody ever gives up, ever. They're the best."
When Hight's hot rod has been right, it has been awesome. At the season- opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., the one-time world class marksman recorded the quickest quarter mile in Funny Car history at 4.644 seconds. Two weeks later, he duplicated the feat when he was clocked in 4.634 seconds at Phoenix, Ariz.
Nevertheless, despite those numbers, Hight has remained humble.
"I still think of myself as a rookie," he said, "because I know I'm going to continue to make mistakes. I just try to remind myself that that's how you learn. I just try every day to get better. "