ROOKIE HIGHT ON A ROLL AS SERIES MOVES TO HOUSTON Auto Club Driver a Threat to Qualify No. 1 HOUSTON, Texas -- If there is a "sleeper" in the Funny Car field assembled for this week's 18th annual O'Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston Raceway...
ROOKIE HIGHT ON A ROLL AS SERIES MOVES TO HOUSTON
Auto Club Driver a Threat to Qualify No. 1
HOUSTON, Texas -- If there is a "sleeper" in the Funny Car field assembled for this week's 18th annual O'Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston Raceway Park, it is rookie Robert Hight, new driver of the John Force-owned, Jimmy Prock-prepared Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang.
The 35-year-old Hight worked for nine years at John Force Racing, first as a crewman on Force's Castrol GTX® Ford and later as facility manager at the team's shop in Yorba Linda, Calif., before finally getting a chance to live his dream at the wheel of a 7,000 horsepower race car capable of zero-to-330 mile per hour acceleration in just 4.6 seconds.
The upshot is that while he comes into the Spring Nationals "only" ninth in POWERade points, the soft-spoken Hight already has made his presence felt.
In only his third professional appearance, the native of Alturas, Calif., put the Auto Club Ford on the "pole," qualifying No. 1 at last month's Mac Tools Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla. To put that accomplishment in perspective, Force himself, drag racing's biggest winner and reigning POWERade Champion, didn't qualify No. 1 for the first time until his 50th start.
Hight's track record setting, 4.747 second performance in Florida followed on the heels of a 4.723 second effort that earned him the No. 2 qualifying position at Phoenix, Ariz., and a 4.754 that put him in the No. 4 starting spot at the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. All three of those qualifying efforts are quicker than the current HRP track record (4.755 seconds) which, coincidentally, was set by veteran Gary Densham in essentially the same Auto Club Ford.
Nevertheless, the fact that he has qualified no worse than fourth in three pro appearances is even more impressive when one considers that, until February, he never had driven competitively in the NHRA series, not even in an entry level bracket car.
Instead, like Force and second year driver Eric Medlen before him, he began his - career in a car that may be the most difficult of all to drive, one prone to either quickly lose traction or sharply veer out of the groove toward either the guardwall or the cones delineating the centerline.
That he has enjoyed some early success, at least in qualifying, is no doubt a product of a year-long apprenticeship during which he served as the team's official test driver. In that a capacity, he was able to make almost 40 quarter mile runs last year, most of them on Mondays following NHRA national events.
"I still have a lot to learn," he acknowledged, "but I do think that (all the test runs) gave me a big head start."
Another benefit for Hight is that he inherited a proven race car.
Not only did Densham set the current track records in the Auto Club Ford, he also qualified the red-and-blue hybrid No. 1 the last two seasons and a year ago reached the semifinals before losing to Jerry Toliver.
"It's obvious that Jimmy has a good tune-up for Houston," Hight said. "My job is to just take up where Gary left off. He taught me a lot while he was here and that's another one of the reasons we've done as well as we have."
What the team lacks, thus far, is consistency. Although Hight has qualified in the Top 4 at every event, he has yet to advance beyond the second round.
"The car reacts a little differently with me than it did with Gary," Hight said, "so we're still struggling a little bit when we have to make changes to adjust for weather or track conditions."
Already the front-runner in the race for the 2005 Auto Club Road to the Future Award (which identifies the NHRA's professional Rookie of the Year), Hight's goal is to do as well as teammate Medlen did in his rookie year last season.
"The biggest deal, this year, is I hope I can qualify for every single race and, hopefully, win some races. Eric set the bar last year (in the Castrol SYNTEC® Ford) and if I can have as good a year as he did, I'd say that was a success."
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Did You Know?: Robert was the clutch technician on John Force's Castrol GTX Funny Car when it won the Spring Nationals in 1996, 1999 and 2002 and the now defunct fall race in 1999. The 2002 victory was especially meaningful because it was the 100th of Force's career...Robert is a world class marksman who in 2002 passed on an opportunity to try out for the U.S. Olympic shooting team so that he could continue to follow his drag racing dream.