ROOKIE HIGHT MAINTAINS COMPOSURE AS POINTS RACE REACHES CRITICAL MASS Auto Club Driver Positioned Between Two Racing Legends DALLAS, Texas -- At the center of the most competitive Funny Car title chase in NHRA drag racing history, rookie...
ROOKIE HIGHT MAINTAINS COMPOSURE AS POINTS RACE REACHES CRITICAL MASS
Auto Club Driver Positioned Between Two Racing Legends
DALLAS, Texas -- At the center of the most competitive Funny Car title chase in NHRA drag racing history, rookie Robert "Top Gun" Hight continues to defy convention at the wheel of the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang.
Hight, who until this season never before had driven competitively in any form of motor racing, rolls into the Texas Motorplex for this week's 20th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Fall Nationals little more than one round behind veteran Gary Scelzi and, amazingly, five points ahead of 13-time series champion John Force, his teammate, mentor and father-in-law.
Scelzi, a three-time Top Fuel Champion who is trying to become just the second driver in history to win series titles in each of the sport's top two divisions, was one of the first to identify Hight as something special and he did so before the season even began.
Aware of Hight's background as a trapshooting champion, Scelzi watched him in pre-season testing and promptly declared that "Robert Hight will be 'Rookie of the Year. He's a marksman and the concentration he uses in that sport is really helping him. He'll be a big player."
Nevertheless, Scelzi never expected the rookie to still be in contention for the $400,000 championship at crunch time. Neither did Hight, for that matter. Nor even Force.
"I just want to know when this kid's going to start making some rookie mistakes," Scelzi mused. "Seriously, he just doesn't act like a rookie. He doesn't get distracted."
Hight, who was the clutch specialist on Force's Castrol GTX Funny Cars during six championship seasons, isn't likely to grow overconfident in the glow of such praise.
"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 (crew chief on the Auto Club Ford) is the reason we're 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 up what they already had."
Despite those protestations, no one believes that Hight has not contributed to the team's success, which includes tour victories at both Houston and Denver.
"He's been good on the lights (in starting line reaction time)," Force said, "and he's kept focus. All he lacks is seat time and there's only one way to get that."
That lack of experience may have cost the 36-year-old last week at Reading, Pa., in a heads-up race with Scelzi in the second round of the Toyo Tires Nationals.
Their cars left together and were even at half track before the Auto Club Ford drifted out of the groove, forcing Hight to make a high speed correction. Unfortunately, he overcorrected ever so slightly and Scelzi took advantage to claim a victory that enabled him to extend his lead from one point to 26.
Statistically, Hight has been awesome. The No. 1 qualifier six times, more than Force and Scelzi combined, he has the best average qualifying number (3.4) and has posted the quickest time in the opening round in more than half of this year's events (10 of 19) including last week's race in which his first round 4.779 took out Scelzi's teammate, Ron Capps, another title contender.
The upshot is that with just four races remaining, Hight not only is a shoo-in to claim the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award, which annually identifies the NHRA's Rookie-of-the-Year, but he remains well positioned to become the first rookie in eight years to win a series championship the first since Scelzi won the Top Fuel title in 1997.
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Did You Know? 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....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 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....in addition to his driving duties, Robert still flies home after every race to service the team's superchargers. Last week, he also did double duty, handling much of the clutch maintenance in the absence of Jimmy Wingo, whose three-year-old son, Zachery, was injured in a automobile accident the previous week.