HIGHT BATTLING MEMORIES AS TOUR MOVES TO SEATTLE Auto Club Driver Lost to Friend and Teammate in 2005 Final SEATTLE, Wash. -- For Robert "Top Gun" Hight, a world class marksman whose ability to block out distractions has made him one of the...
HIGHT BATTLING MEMORIES
AS TOUR MOVES TO SEATTLE
Auto Club Driver Lost to Friend and Teammate in 2005 Final
SEATTLE, Wash. -- For Robert "Top Gun" Hight, a world class marksman whose ability to block out distractions has made him one of the dominant drivers in the NHRA POWERade drag racing series, this week's 20th annual Schuck's Auto Parts Nationals will provide a major challenge even of his remarkable powers of concentration.
"It'll be emotional," the 37-year-old driver of the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang said of the team's return this week to Pacific Raceways, "because this is the first event we've been to (this year) where Eric won before."
"Eric" is Eric Medlen, Hight's former crewmate, teammate and friend, who just four months ago succumbed to injuries suffered in a testing accident at Gainesville, Fla., thereby dealing a devastating loss, not just to John Force Racing, Inc., but to the sport itself.
One of the tour's most popular young stars, Medlen had worked alongside Hight for five championship seasons as a crewman on John Force's Castrol GTX® Ford Mustangs before getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive one of the most powerful Funny Cars on the planet as the successor to departing champion Tony Pedregon.
Thrown into the mix as a rookie with no previous competitive experience, Medlen won a race at Brainerd, Minn., in his first season (2004) while finishing fifth in points. His performance amid rampant skepticism paved the way not only for Hight, but also for 24-year-old Ashley Force, who is in her rookie season in a 330 mile-an-hour Mustang.
All the memories will come rushing back this week at Pacific Raceways, the Northwest track on which Medlen won the Schuck's Nationals in 2005 and set the existing track record (4.735 seconds). For Hight, though, those memories will be even more vivid insomuch as he was in the other lane for the 2005 final.
"I remember we had lane choice," said the 2005 NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year. "The right lane has always been the best lane, but the problem is, it can suck you to the inside and that's what happened. I got just a little too far inside and Eric made it down the bad lane and beat us by a couple feet (.055 of a second)."
Married to Force's oldest daughter Adria and the father of the 14-time champion's only grandchild, 3-year-old Autumn Danielle, Hight has emerged as the most likely heir to the last great sports dynasty.
The only Funny Car driver to have led the POWERade point standings each of the last three seasons, he came within a broken supercharger drive belt or two of beating his father-in-law to the 2006 championship (he finished second) and this year has been the only driver consistently able to handle points leader Ron Capps.
In fact, the former California trapshooting champion has beaten Capps and the Brut Dodge in all three meetings this year and in five straight matches dating back to last season.
If there is a chink in Hight's armor, it is his recent lack of consistency, the result of a chassis change that followed an engine explosion, fire and crash last May at Topeka, Kan. Since moving to a back-up car, the seven-time tour winner hasn't advanced beyond the second round.
"We just haven't been able to get back in a rhythm (since the crash)," Hight said. "When we didn't qualify (at Joliet, Ill., the only such misstep of his career), we missed our best chance because we forgot to take the throttle stop off after the burnout. Then, last week at Denver, I thought we had a car that could win but a line came loose in round two and put oil under the tires. It seems like we're just a little out of sync.
"It's been really frustrating for Jimmy (crew chief Jimmy Prock), but I know he'll figure it out and when he does, we're gonna go out and win this championship."