DESPITE FIRST ROUND SETBACK, NO ON IS COUNTING HIGHT OUT OF TITLE RACE ENNIS, Texas -- Robert Hight's first round loss last week at Joliet, Ill., a setback that sent him tumbling from second to fourth place in the POWERade point standings, may...
DESPITE FIRST ROUND SETBACK, NO ON IS COUNTING HIGHT OUT OF TITLE RACE
ENNIS, Texas -- Robert Hight's first round loss last week at Joliet, Ill., a setback that sent him tumbling from second to fourth place in the POWERade point standings, may have done irreparable harm to his bid to become the first rookie to win an NHRA championship in eight years.
However, it did nothing to damage his reputation as one of the sports brightest new stars. In fact, the one-time crewman on John Force's Castrol GTX Funny Cars may have earned more respect in defeat at Joliet than he did in victory earlier this year at Houston.
The upshot is that he rolls into the Texas Motorplex for this week's 20th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Fall Nationals still unwilling to concede anything to the three more experienced drivers ahead of him.
"He hasn't blinked," marveled points leader Gary Scelzi, one of the first to identify Hight as a budding talent. "I don't think he's going to go away."
At Joliet, after struggling in qualifying, failing to get down the racetrack under power on three of four attempts, Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock found themselves in a quandary.
As the No. 9 qualifier, Hight was paired with veteran Ron Capps, the eventual race winner, in a key first round match-up.
Knowing they had no chance with the setup they had been running, one that caused the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford to shake violently no matter what adjustments they made, Prock and Hight decided to change certain clutch components on Saturday night, before Sunday eliminations, replacing existing levers with new ones not yet tested in competition.
After making such a drastic change, Hight didn't act at all like a driver who, until this season, never before had driven competitively in car of any kind.
In fact, he grabbed a .022 of a second advantage over his more experienced rival at the start and drove the blue-and-white Ford to a time of 4.778 seconds at 327.27 miles per hour. That combination (a .052 of a second reaction time and sub-4.80 elapsed time) would have won any other pairing in the first round.
Unfortunately, Capps posted the quickest time of the day (4.751 seconds) to get the victory and pull himself back into contention.
Hight hopes to do the same thing this week. After leading the points for five weeks, the former trapshooting champion comes into this week's race in fourth place, 70 points behind Scelzi and 25 behind Capps, who moved up to third place.
"Qualifying is critical," Hight said. "We can't afford to do what we did last week. We got behind in qualifying and lost lane choice."
Hight's un-rookie-like performance this season has its roots in the five championship seasons he spent as Force's clutch specialist (1995-1999) and in his off-track success as a marksman.
His trapshooting experience has helped him retain his focus although he admits he wasn't prepared for the level of pressure he has faced.
"I've made mistakes," he said. "I still have an awful lot to learn. Scelzi and John and the rest of these guys have been down the racetrack thousands of times. They have a feel for the car that you only get through experience.
"Jimmy Prock is the reason we're still in the championship chase. This is a veteran team and for the last 12 months this car has been the best car out here. All I'm trying to do is not mess it up."
Statistically, though, Hight has been awesome. The No. 1 qualifier six times, more than Force and Scelzi combined, he has posted the quickest time in the opening round in half of this year's events. The upshot is that he's down, but he's still far from out.