Points leader Hight leads John Force Racing to Norwalk

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Hight focused on success, Neff has a new stratgey, C. Force moves up rookie ladder and J. Force on edge of resurgence.

Robert Hight
Robert Hight

Photo by: NHRA

HIGHT FOCUSED ON NORWALK SUCCESS

NORWALK, OH (July 3, 2012) --- Heading into the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio this weekend Funny Car points leader Robert Hight is keeping his focus on maintaining his Full Throttle points lead. Hight assumed the points lead in Las Vegas in the midst of a four race winning streak but since that streak concluded he has only returned to one final (Atlanta) along with three additional semi-final finishes. With six races left before the all-important Countdown Hight wants to keep the pressure on his fellow competitors.

“I have two goals right now. I want to go into the Countdown as the points leader and I would like to win the inaugural Traxxas Shootout. I think we are in good position to achieve both of those goals. Once we leave Indy my number one focus is to win another Full Throttle Funny Car championship,” said Hight.

With four wins, five final round appearances to go along with four No. 1 qualifiers Hight and his Auto Club Ford Mustang team have been having a dominant season. Led by crew chief Jimmy Prock and consulting tips from crew chief legend Dale Armstrong and racing expert Ron Armstrong Hight feels that the Auto Club team is poised to get on another streak.

“We have a lot of experience at Norwalk. John (Force) and I have match raced here a number of times in addition to the NHRA national event. You will not find a better run facility. Last year Neff became the first JFR driver to win at Summit Raceway Park and I want to add my name to that list. The Baders are great people and I know they have all sorts of great activities planned for this weekend,” added Hight.

According to a recent press announcement in addition to some of the best racing action in the country spectators will be immersed in a Fourth of July celebration as they drive into the historic raceway, as American flags will adorn routes 18 and 601. There will also reportedly be groups of roving entertainers, balloon clowns and magicians plus fife and drum performers. Fans will also be encouraged to enjoy one of the best concession treats on the NHRA tour, the famed Norwalk ice cream.

“The fans at Norwalk are so great. They really make you feel special and we want to put on a great show for them,” said Hight. “We have been testing a few things but I think we have a pretty good handle on this Auto Club Ford Mustang and we want to do some more damage before the Countdown starts. We want to get back to dominating for a whole weekend. That means getting qualifying bonus points and then going rounds on Sunday.”

High picked up his 249th career round win in Chicago when he defeated two-time Full Throttle Funny Car world champion Cruz Pedregon in the first round. He dropped a close race to his teammate and sister-in-law Courtney Force in the second round. Hight has been impressed with the youngest Force’s progress.

“Courtney has been doing a great job and she gets a lot of attention. Seeing her go to the final was great for her and our JFR team. She moved up in the points and all four of our Ford Mustangs are in the Top Ten. In the next five weeks we’ll have four races so we will all have to focus, get rest whenever we can and bring our ‘A’ Game to the starting line every time we pull up there.”

NEW STRATEGY FOR DEFENDING CHAMPION NEFF

NORWALK, Ohio – Although he still is no fan of a Countdown to 1 playoff format that, in essence, penalizes the teams that are most successful in the first 17 races in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, Mike Neff concedes that “it is what it is.”

The truth is that after being burned by the system a year ago when he faded to fifth in the final standings, the driver and crew chief on the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang opted to change his strategy this season.

Whereas last year he focused primarily on collecting points, Neff this year has been collecting data that is likely to be beneficial in the six fall races that constitute the Countdown.

“My attitude changed some after how we finished last year,” admitted the former off-road truck mechanic who this week defends his Funny Car championship in the sixth running of the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park. ”The thing about racing is sometimes it just doesn’t work the way you want it to.

“Looking back on it, I saw some things I would have done differently if I had to do it again,” he said. “You have to work on your weaknesses and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

Last year, when he went to the final round nine times in the first 16 races and won the regular season championship, Neff probably made himself an easy target for rivals who identified him as the man to beat for the $500,000 Full Throttle bonus.

This season, he has been flying a little bit under the radar and as a result, rivals don’t know exactly what to expect from the 45-year-old with the Hollywood good looks and the inquisitiveness of a medical researcher.

Neff rolls into this week’s race in fifth place in the Funny Car point standings, a far cry from last year when he came in 60 points up and left with a 124-point advantage. He willingly has yielded the front-runner position to teammate Robert Hight.

Whereas the former surfer and motocross racer was the picture of consistency a year ago, his 2012 season has had more ups and downs than the roller coaster at Cedar Point.

At times, he has been very good, as he was in earning runner-up honors at the season’s first two races (at Pomona, Calif., and Phoenix, Ariz.). At other times, he’s been very bad, as he was when he failed to qualify at Atlanta, Ga. And then there are still other times when he feels like he’s just been lucky, as he was when he won the O’Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston with times of 4.495, 4.176, 4.199 and 4.239 seconds.

“Our car runs great,” said the man who this year is trying to become the first in the last 38 seasons to win an NHRA Funny Car championship in the dual role of driver/crew chief. “We’ve just been trying some different stuff. Some of it has worked and some of it hasn’t.

“We’re just trying to improve in areas where we might have been a little weaker last year,” continued the 2008 NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year. “Nobody accumulated more points last year than we did, but (the championship) is just based off six races so you have to try and plan so your program is strongest in those last six races.

That said, Neff isn’t conceding anything this weekend.

“It’s all about timing,” he said. “You could win all the early races and it still wouldn’t matter because they’re still gonna adjust the points after Indy (and the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals). But it’s not like we’re saying we don’t care about winning those races. We want to win every race we go to. We’re just trying to race a little smarter.”

C. FORCE KEEPS CLIMBING THE ROOKIE LADDER

NORWALK, Ohio (July 3, 2012) – Rookie Courtney Force never dreamed that she would be doing so well, so soon in her professional Funny Car career. Coming down off a ‘first final round high” from this past weekend in Chicago, Ill., Force is as confident as ever in her Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car, crew chiefs and team members. The entire crew, with newfound fire in their bellies, accomplished a quick turnaround after the successful event, packed up and pointed their haulers East towards Norwalk, Ohio for the sixth annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.

“I think I’ve exceeded my expectations personally. I obviously want to get a win this season and I thought maybe down the road that would happen, but getting to a final this early on, I didn’t see that coming. I guess that’s not giving myself and my team as much credit as I should, but I’ve just been trying to take it slow and learn as I go along. It’s definitely been going better than I expected. I really couldn’t ask for a better start to the season,” said Force, who moved up from 9th to 7th in points based on her Chicago performance. “I’m excited and I’m looking forward to Norwalk this weekend,” she added.

Last weekend in Chicago, Force raced to her first career Funny Car final round, taking out fellow Ford driver and friend, Bob Tasca III, teammate and brother-in-law Robert Hight, and fellow rookie in the running for Auto Club’s Road to the Future award for “Rookie of the Year,” Alexis Dejoria before falling to veteran Jeff Arend in the final round.

“Going up there for the final I was pretty nervous, but I was more excited than anything. I have a great team with my crew chiefs Ron Douglas and Dan Hood. My Traxxas Ford Mustang is a great car; it just stumbled a little in the final round. It shook and I tried to pedal it as quick as I could, but Arend went on and he had a great run. He took home the win, but just to be in that final round was huge and it really made me open my eyes and see that this is a goal we can reach and maybe I will get that Wally soon,” said Force.

The current Funny Car track record at Summit Motorsports Park is held by none other than Force’s older sister, Ashley Force Hood. Hood set the record in June of 2010 with an elapsed time of 4.032 seconds.

Force is just two points behind Arend and the 6th place spot in the Full Throttle standings. DeJoria’s final round appearance in Bristol coupled with her semi-final finish in Chicago moved her up to 11th place. Both rookies have been competitive on the track but Force has a decided edge in round wins and has maintained her position in the Top Ten in points throughout the season.

“It’s very surreal almost. That was only my 11th professional race and being a rookie I have high goals for myself, but I’ve just been focused on learning this season and getting qualified for all of the events and just doing the best I can to take it slow and learn with every run, but when you get up there and make it to the final round things change. I’ve always had that drive to win but it just ignites even more when you see yourself and your team making it to the final. My sister has won it before and I definitely want to be up there with a trophy myself. Hopefully it will be soon, but it really does make me feel good. I think our Traxxas Ford Mustang definitely has potential to achieve that goal this season,” said Force.

Arend’s win put him in the 7th spot for the Traxxas Nitro Shootout. One more spot remains in the bonus race that will be held in Indianapolis prior to the NHRA Mac Tools U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend, and will be determined by a fan vote/lottery style drawing out of those who have not won an event so far this season.

FORCE ON THE CUSP OF FUNNY CAR RESURGENCE

NORWALK, Ohio – At Summit Motorsports Park, site of this week’s sixth annual Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, John Force has demonstrated that fame does not necessarily follow familiarity.

It’s unlikely that any professional drag racer is better known at SMP than the 15-time NHRA Funny Car Champion whose popularity is reflected in the spectator grandstand that bears his name. Conversely, there may be no Funny Car racer who knows the racetrack better than the 63-year-old driver of the Castrol GTX® HIGH MILEAGE™ Ford Mustang.

Nevertheless, such familiarity thus far has earned the 2012 inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame nothing. That’s nada, zilch, zero.

Don’t misunderstand Force has won plenty of times at the iconic Bader Family track at which he has been a fixture during the annual Night Under Fire summer spectacular for more than 12 years.

It has been a different story, however, in the NHRA national event that was contested at SMP for the first time in 2007. In five starts in the Summit Nationals, Force has qualified no better than third (and as poorly as 16th) and has yet to reach the winners’ circle.

How significant is that streak? Well, of the 25 tracks that have hosted five or more NHRA tour events, SMP is the only one on which the 134-time tour winner has been shut out. All he has to show for the effort is runner-up finish in 2010.

The loquacious one tries to rectify that situation again this week in a hot rod Ford that suddenly has shown itself capable of running at the front of the pack, as it did in winning the season-opening Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

At last week’s O’Reilly Route 66 Nationals at Chicago, in fact, Force started from the No. 1 qualifying position for the first time in 11 months after qualifying fifth at the previous race in Bristol, Tenn. Prior to that, he had qualified 14th, 13th, 12th and 11th.

“We’ve been struggling; everybody knows it,” Force said. “This (engine/clutch) combination is new to my crew chiefs (Dean Antonelli and Danny DeGennaro), but they’re getting it.”

Ironically, while Force’s performance numbers steadily have improved, his position in the driver standings has deteriorated in inverse proportion.

After grabbing the No. 1 position to start the season (the 19th year he has led the Funny Car points after at least one race), he slipped to fifth, a position he still occupied as recently as April 15. Last week, though, he tumbled from eighth to 10th in the order, placing his record streak of consecutive Top 10 finishes in real jeopardy for one of the first times since the 1990s.

The first drag racer ever recognized as Driver of the Year (1996), Force has finished in the Top 10 for 28 straight seasons. The last time he wasn’t among the elite, in fact, was 1984 when he finished 12th.

“You gotta be in the Top 10 (to make the playoffs),” Force said, “but if you do that, anything can happen. Robert (teammate, son-in-law and current points leader Robert Hight) was No. 10 when he won (in 2009) and I feel good about the direction we’re going with my hot rod.

“I’m not done racing,” he said, “and I promise you, I ain’t dead. I still love what I’m doing and I’m going to keep on racing until someone tells me I can’t do it anymore.

“At the end of the day, though, anybody can beat you,” conceded the 15-time Auto Racing All-America selection. “There are no freebies anymore and even though we’re gettin’ better, we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

Source: John Force Racing

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Tags force, ford, funny car, hight, neff, summit