HIGHT IN SCELZI'S REARVIEW MIRROR AS SERIES MOVES TO MAPLE GROVE Rookie 1-Point Behind in Race for POWERade Championship READING, Pa. -- Points leader Gary Scelzi has characterized Robert Hight, the driver immediately behind him in the NHRA...
HIGHT IN SCELZI'S REARVIEW MIRROR AS SERIES MOVES TO MAPLE GROVE
Rookie 1-Point Behind in Race for POWERade Championship
READING, Pa. -- Points leader Gary Scelzi has characterized Robert Hight, the driver immediately behind him in the NHRA POWERade point standings, as an anomaly, a rookie who doesn't act like one.
In fact, Hight, driver of the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang for Team Castrol and John Force Racing, is the first rookie since Scelzi himself with a chance to win a series championship.
Entering this week's 21st annual Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, Hight is a single point behind the leader in a championship battle in which just 55 points separate five drivers including Hight's Castrol teammates, John Force and Eric Medlen.
Already the runaway leader in the race for the Auto Club Road to the Future Award, which identifies the NHRA's Rookie-of-the-Year, Hight is in position to duplicate Scelzi's 1997 rookie run to the NHRA Top Fuel Championship
However, unlike Scelzi, who had won NHRA national events in the Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car classes before he ever climbed into the cockpit of a professional race car, Hight had not driven a vehicle of any kind in competition before the start of the current season.
In many ways, that makes his performance, even if it doesn't produce a championship, more impressive than Scelzi's.
As a crewmember, Hight celebrated six championships with Force before abandoning the road in 2000 to assume new duties as facility manager at the JFR shop facility in Yorba Linda, Calif., which allowed him to spend more time with his wife, Force's oldest daughter, Adria.
Although he now admits that he always harbored the dream of one day driving a race car, Hight never confided in anyone, believing that the opportunity never would present itself in an environment in which there were many more qualified drivers than there were available race cars.
That situation changed at the end of the 2003 season, however, when Tony Pedregon left the team after driving the Castrol SYNTEC® Ford to the championship. Instead of putting a veteran driver in the car, Force opted to promote from within and give Eric Medlen, one of Hight's former crewmates, an opportunity.
When Medlen won at Brainerd, Minn., and finished fifth in POWERade points, it opened the door for Hight, who has made the most of the opportunity. He qualified No. 1 in just his third start, won in his fourth and, by the 13th race of the season, was the points leader.
Ironically, Scelzi was one of the first to recognize the 36-year-old Hight's potential.
After watching the rookie in pre-season testing, the Dodge driver said Hight not only would be the series Rookie-of-the-Year, "he's a marksman (a trapshooting champion) and the concentration he uses in that sport is really helping him," he said. "He'll be a big player."
That proved to be prophetic, too much so for the points leader who recently has posed the question "when is this kid gonna act like a rookie and make some mistakes?"
For his part, Hight has tried to ignore the hype and remain focused on the prize, the $400,000 POWERade championship that, for the last 12 years, has remained in the possession of Force Racing.
Moreover, he has continued to recite his mantra: "I still have a lot to learn. (Crew chief) Jimmy Prock has given me a race car capable of winning the championship. John has given me the resources and the support. If there's a weak link, it's me."
With just five races remaining, it's beginning to appear that Scelzi's original evaluation may be far more accurate than Hight's. If so, it's going to give the points leader very little satisfaction.
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Did You Know? Of all of Robert's rookie accomplishments, the most impressive may be his qualification for the Skoal Showdown bonus race in which drivers earn points from one September to the next. While the other seven qualifiers earned their positions in a full 23 races, Hight earned his in only 17....Robert is a past participant in the American Trapshooting Association's Grand National in Vandalia, Ohio, the world's largest target shoot. He once achieved a shooting grand slam by hitting 400 consecutive targets 200 at the standard distance (16 yards), 100 at the maximum handicap distance (27 yards) and 100 doubles (two targets at once....Robert is married to Force's oldest daughter, Adria, the CFO of JFR, Inc., and is the father of his only grandchild, Autumn Danielle Hight, who just celebrated her first birthday.