Phoenix: Hight, Neff preview

HIGHT LOOKING FOR BACK-TO-BACK WINS, NEFF CONTINUES TO IMPROVE Three weeks ago Robert Hight and Mike Neff wrapped up a week long testing session and left Firebird Raceway having never made full passes in their 8,000 hp hybrid Ford...

HIGHT LOOKING FOR BACK-TO-BACK WINS, NEFF CONTINUES TO IMPROVE

Three weeks ago Robert Hight and Mike Neff wrapped up a week long testing session and left Firebird Raceway having never made full passes in their 8,000 hp hybrid Ford Mustang Funny Cars.

This week they return with Hight holding down the points lead in Funny Car after a season opening win in Pomona, Calif., and a new found confidence in his Auto Club sponsored Mustang. Hight defeated Ron Capps, Gary Densham, John Force and Cruz Pedregon to capture to his first win of 2008.

Neff continued to show marked improvement in the first race of the 2008 season making solid qualifying passes with the new BOSS 500 Ford engine and gathering valuable information for the entire John Force Racing operation as well as Ford Racing. He dropped his first round match-up to Cruz Pedregon but he knows that with every round he is getting closer to his first trip to the winner's circle

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ROBERT HIGHT

HIGHT HOPING MOMENTUM KEEPS BUILDING

Two time NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship runner-up Robert Hight and the Auto Club Ford Mustang team proved that one day really can make a huge difference in your perspective.

Just twenty four hours before Hight's dramatic win at the 48th annual CARQUEST Auto Parts Nationals in Pomona the level of confidence Hight felt was somewhere between low and lower.

Now the 38 year-old Yorba Linda, Calif., resident is excited to be heading back to Firebird Raceway with the No. 1 points position, a consistent race car, and momentum on his side.

"I am definitely looking forward to getting back to Firebird. Last year we were in the final with Tony Pedregon and we lost the race at the top end when we had a malfunction in our Auto Club Ford Mustang," Hight said. "We were going for a national record to beat or back-up our 4.636 second run from earlier in the race (last year). If we get good conditions there again I think we can put up some more big numbers."

In 2007 Hight started the season with two final round appearances but also two runner-up checks. This season with one win under his belt already he is hoping to continue his winning streak in Phoenix. Had the outcome been reversed Hight would have captured his first POWERade Championship at the end of last season.

After a hectic off-season that saw the Funny Car chassis redesigned for the first time in twenty- five years, coupled with figuring out a new tune-up to power the 2,500 pound beast down a quarter mile track at speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour, Hight and his team were less than productive at the season opening test session, never powering their Ford Mustang hybrid past half-track.

"We are still adapting to our new set-up and a lot of the changes to the chassis but the good news is I am heading into Phoenix with a lot more confidence than I had going into Pomona for the season opener," said the 2005 Rookie of the Year.

One of the hottest stars in drag racing and the pre-season pick by major media outlets including the Indianapolis Star, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and a wide variety of national media outlets for the Funny Car championship, Hight was feeling anything but championship worthy at the start of the season. He does know that just being considered the favorite does not guarantee you anything. The competition level in Funny Car has never been higher in his opinion.

"I think anyone can win any NHRA POWERade event this season. Look at the competition in Funny Car this year. Any one of my teammates, John (Force), Ashley (Force) or Mike Neff could win plus you have drivers like Tim Wilkerson, Jim Head, Ron Capps, or the Pedregons (Cruz and Tony) out there," Hight said.

After four round wins on Sunday at the season opener including a pedal win over fellow championship contender Ron Capps, Gary Densham, 14-time Funny Car Champion and father-in-law John Force and finally former Funny Car World Champion Cruz Pedregon, Hight was feeling better about his chances for the 2008 season.

Better, but not over-confident.

"I used to feel safe knowing that I'd get qualified. I wouldn't get nervous until race day. Now I have two hurdles every race. The first hurdle is just getting qualified and then you have to go four tough rounds on Sunday. The great thing about Firebird is if you get good conditions you know the track will be good and that sets up for exciting racing for the fans and sponsors. I am fired-up about the possibilities. We figured some things out in Pomona and we will be ready."

The four round wins at the Winternationals moved Hight's win-loss record to 101-58, making him the fastest Nitro driver (Top Fuel or Funny Car) to reach 100 round wins in NHRA history.

In addition to the round win record Hight is the only driver in the Funny Car class to hold the No. 1 position in the POWERade point standings at least once for the last four seasons.

Hight is returning to one of ten tracks on the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series where he is either an elapsed time or mile per hour record holder. Last season he powered his Auto Club Ford Mustang down Firebird Raceway in 4.636 seconds, the quickest elapsed time in the history of the class.

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MIKE NEFF

OLD SPICE ROOKIE STOKES CONFIDENCE FOR RETURN TRIP TO FIREBIRD

Rookie driver Mike Neff is entering the 24th annual Checker, Schuck's, Kragen NHRA Nationals, his second race of the 2008 POWERade season, with more of the most valuable element any driver needs.

Confidence.

"I think we will be better. I know I'll personally feel a little bit better since we were able to make some full runs. We have more runs with the Old Spice Mustang now after (Pomona). I feel good about it," Neff said. "I think we had a pretty good weekend despite the fact that we went out first round. For everything that we have changed and the minimal amount of test runs that we made to go to Pomona and qualify not too far off the pace is impressive."

Pressed into service at the end of the 2007 season for the final two events, busy during the off-season working with Crew Chief John Medlen and the rest of the John Force Racing brain trust to make all four John Force Racing Ford Mustangs safer and stronger, and finally thrown into the mix of a hectic weeklong testing session in Phoenix with brand new chassis just three weeks ago, the leading contender for the Auto Club Road to the Future Award, presented annually to the professional Rookie of the Year, took on the chaos of the season opening race in Pomona with the same level of intensity and focus he has used to become more comfortable behind the wheel of his Old Spice Ford Mustang.

"It will be nice to develop a routine. Even last year we hurried up and threw everything together. It just seems like we have been behind and we have been working late even up until now. We just haven't been able to get caught up," Neff said. "It will be nice to be able to get the team together and develop a routine. I am looking forward to that and it will just get better."

During the season opening event in Pomona, Neff was subjected to an ESPN HD video shoot, a fire suit fitting session, multiple media interviews, sponsor meet and greets, and most importantly gathering information on the new BOSS 500 engine that is powering his 2008 Ford Mustang.

It was a lot for the former motocross and off-road truck racer from Hemet, Calif., to take in but he continued to prove to be the right driver for the job as constant improvements are being recorded following every run down the track.

"We haven't been running the BOSS engine that long and it appears to make really good power. It looks like it is different power so, so far so good. We are having to make adjustments to try and get used to it. So far we are really excited about it making really good power. We are just trying to get the clutch matched up."

Neff was denied his first round win for the third race in a row but he continues to moves closer to winning and he is confident that major progress is right around the corner. The good news for Neff and his Old Spice Ford Mustang team is they are heading back this week to a track, Firebird Raceway, that they have a recent history with and one that has yielded record times for John Force Racing.

Neff is working with a strong partner this season as he and Crew Chief John Medlen have already developed a close professional and personal relationship on and off the track. Crew Chief John Medlen has started a JFR Ford No. 1 on two different occasions at Firebird International Raceway, once with Tony Pedregon at the controls (2003) and two years ago (2006) with the late Eric Medlen in the harnesses.

"Having the chance to work with John Medlen was one of the biggest plusses about moving over to John Force Racing. He is such a great man both professionally and as a person. You will not find a finer man anywhere," Neff said.

Getting to the winners circle is not a new experience for Neff who as a crew chief guided Gary Scelzi to the 2005 NHRA POWERade championship. Neff is trying to become just the second racer to win pro championships as both crew chief and driver. The only person to have accomplished that feat is Dick LaHaie, who won a Top Fuel title as a driver in 1987 and as crew chief to Scott Kalitta in 1994 and 1995.

When Neff does capture his first win for John Force Racing he will become the sixth different drivers to have won Funny Car races on the NHRA tour -- John Force, Tony Pedregon, Gary Densham, Robert Hight and Eric Medlen.

A strong season for Neff would also continue another John Force Racing tradition as he is trying to become the third John Force Racing, Inc., driver in four years to win the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie of the Year following Robert Hight (2005) and Ashley Force (2007).

-credit: jfr

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Tony Pedregon , Ron Capps , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Gary Densham , Cruz Pedregon , Scott Kalitta , Dick LaHaie , Tim Wilkerson , Ashley Force , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight , John Medlen , Mike Neff