HIGHT TRIES TO FOLLOW SCELZI'S LEAD WHILE CONTINUING TO LEAD SCELZI Rookie's Title Bid Moves to Brainerd International Raceway BRAINERD, Minn. -- Although he is leading Gary Scelzi in the race for the 2005 NHRA POWERade Funny Car ...
HIGHT TRIES TO FOLLOW SCELZI'S LEAD WHILE CONTINUING TO LEAD SCELZI
Rookie's Title Bid Moves to Brainerd International Raceway
BRAINERD, Minn. -- Although he is leading Gary Scelzi in the race for the 2005 NHRA POWERade Funny Car championship, rookie Robert "Top Gun" Hight also is chasing the talented veteran.
That apparent paradox continues this week when the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series moves to Brainerd International Raceway for the 24th renewal of the Lucas Oil Nationals.
Hight, driver of the Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang, leads Scelzi by 16 points in a bid to extend to 13 the number of consecutive years the championship has been won by a John Force Racing driver.
However, he also is trying to follow the Dodge driver into the NHRA record books.
In 1997, driving the Team Winston dragster as the hand-picked successor to the late Blaine Johnson, Scelzi won both the NHRA Top Fuel championship and the association's Rookie of the Year award .
Hight, a two-time winner this year for the Auto Club, Team Castrol and crew chief Jimmy Prock, is on pace to duplicate that feat.
Nevertheless, that's were the similarity ends.
Although he had not driven a Top Fuel dragster prior to the '97 season, Scelzi already had won multiple NHRA national events in both the Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car categories when he first climbed into the cockpit.
By contrast, Hight never had driven competitively in any type of vehicle before the start of the current campaign.
Despite his relative lack of seat time, it was Scelzi who identified Hight as a title contender long before he lined up beside an opponent for the first time.
"Robert Hight will be 'Rookie of the Year,'" Scelzi told nhra.com in a pre-season interview. "He's a marksman (a trapshooting champion) and the concentration he uses in that sport is really helping him in the car. I've seen him test and he'll be a big player."
Ironically, with the mid-season collapse of Force, a 13-time series champion and Hight's father-in-law, Scelzi looks like a prophet.
Hight indeed has become a "big player" and, on the strength of five No. 1 qualifying efforts, victories at Houston and Denver and runner-up finishes at Atlanta and Seattle, the soft-spoken 35-year-old has no real competition for the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award, which identifies the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year.
A former Force crewman married to the oldest daughter of the 118-time tour winner, Hight was in the spotlight from the moment he climbed into the cockpit.
Despite the distractions, which have multiplied with his title bid, Hight has remained focused thanks, in some part, to the skills he developed in trap shooting, a sport in which he still participates.
A California state champion at 15, Hight is one of only a handful of marksmen to have achieved a trapshooting "grand slam:" a perfect 200 of 200 targets at the standard 16-yard distance, 100 of 100 at the maximum 27-yard handicap distance and 100 for 100 in doubles (two targets at once).
Nevertheless, while he acknowledges that those powers of concentration have helped shorten his learning curve, he also admits that he wasn't ready for the kind of pressure he has faced this year.
"I thought there was pressure in shooting," Hight said, "but it was a different kind of pressure. In shooting, if you mess up, the only one you hurt is yourself. But here, you not only have seven or eight crew members depending on you, you have all the people on this team. I wasn't ready for that."
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Did You Know? Robert was the clutch specialist on John Force's Castrol GTX® Funny Car during five championship seasons (1995-1999) before becoming the manager of the JFR shop facility in Yorba Linda, Calif....Robert is married to Force's oldest daughter, Adria, the CFO of JFR, Inc., and he is the father of the drag racing icon's only grandchild, nine month-old Autumn Danielle Hight... Robert prepared for his rookie season by making more than 40 quarter mile runs last year as the team's official test driver....although his job description now is "professional driver," Robert continues to oversee the John Force Racing shop facility in Yorba Linda, Calif., where he also handles supercharger maintenance duty.