This Week in Ford Racing: October 28, 2009 Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car, currently leads the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series point standings with only two races - including this weekend at Las Vegas - ...
This Week in Ford Racing:
October 28, 2009
Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car, currently leads the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series point standings with only two races - including this weekend at Las Vegas - remaining in the Countdown to 1. Hight and team owner John Force met with the media yesterday in a Ford Racing teleconference to discuss the race season and the possibility of ending 2009 with a championship.
CONGRATULATIONS ON WHAT HAS BEEN AN AMAZING SEASON TO DATE.
JOHN FORCE - driver of the Castrol High Mileage Ford Mustang Funny Car: "Robert and I are excited to go out there to Vegas and see what we can do about this championship. We've got two cars, Ashley and Robert for Auto Club and Castrol, and naturally Ford and those Mustangs, they've got a real good shot at this and I'm hoping I can do some damage out there, too."
WITH THE WAY THIS SEASON HAS BEEN FOR YOU, YOU MUST THINK THE COUNTDOWN TO ONE IS THE GREATEST INVENTION EVER.
ROBERT HIGHT - driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car: "Yeah, that's for sure, I'm hoping. The first year of it in '07 when we had all the tragedy here with Eric and John's crash, that was the first year of the Countdown and it bit me. I was number one in the points that year and would have ended up the champ. This year, with the way we were so bad all year and then we finally got our act together at the right time, it may just save us."
THE NHRA IS INTRODUCING AN EJECT HELMET SYSTEM NEXT YEAR. ARE YOU GUYS INVOLVED WITH THAT, AND IF SO, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF IT?
ROBERT HIGHT: "We machine our own helmets to form fit each driver's head. We scan them and then we go to our CNC shop back at the Eric Medlen Project in Indy. We machine all the foam that goes into the helmet to fit each individual driver. This new ejection deal, I know they use it in a lot of other forms of motorsports and it seems like a very good deal. That's definitely a fragile thing to come out of an accident and have to remove the helmet. This deal here does it without any injury to the driver and we're definitely happy that NHRA is implementing this next year."
HAVE YOU TRIED THESE HELMETS AT ALL?
ROBERT HIGHT: "Yes, I have one and it actually doesn't change the helmet at all. It's just a little bit of plumbing and everything for it. I have one and we have tested it out. It will be in all of our stuff next year and it's a good deal."
YOU ARE A NATURAL SHOWMAN. WHAT DO YOU THINK IT TAKES TO DO THAT, AND WHY ARE YOU SUCH A NATURAL AT IT?
JOHN FORCE: "I've been telling stories from when I was a kid to get a free sandwich, and then when I drove a truck in the early days I was in the truck stop pitching the deal to get a free cup of coffee. It's just my deal. I noticed in the early days racing against Prudhomme and the other big hitters, that I couldn't beat the guys, but if I was on fire, or I was telling a story because I crashed, or I got lucky enough to beat somebody, that if I had a good story the TV was all over it. It just kind of evolved that way, and I truly enjoy it. Every time I try to get in the booth and really try to do something on track and professionally, I'm not really good at that, I'm kind of off the wall with what I do. I've been offered jobs, but no, I'm staying in the seat of this Mustang for as long as I can, if I continue to do what I do, and I love what I do. I think it's where I belong and I can make it work, put me somewhere else and I fail."
WHAT DO YOU PULL FROM THE GREAT PEOPLE THAT YOU WORK WITH TO HELP YOU DO WHAT YOU DO NOW?
ROBERT HIGHT: "I've been fortunate to be here with John Force for a lot of his championships, and a lot of those was working on his car, working with his crew chiefs and John, and kind of within the midst of all the pressure when John was winning all of those championships. I tried to really pay attention and learn. Austin Coil never goes out there and races the other car in the other lane, he just races the conditions and the lane that he's in and that's the kind of attitude that you have to have in order to win this thing. You can't let all of these exterior things hold you up, you have to stay focused and just one run at a time and just keep at it. There's a lot to learn here, trust me I don't think I've learned everything, and I don't think John has taught me all of his tricks. Ashley's learning, she's done a great job all year and it's far from over. There's still a lot of good cars and two races left, so we definitely have to perform well at the last two races and Vegas is going to be a big weekend. We really need to do some damage. We don't need to have all that extra pressure and have it come down to the last race where we have to win. It's definitely going to be a benefit for me because all of these other guys out there in contention haven't won a championship besides Tony Pedregon, and he learned all of that over here from John. Ashley and I are going to take what we've learned from this whole team and do our best and hopefully these hot rods will be running this weekend."
HOW WORRIED ARE YOU ABOUT KEEPING YOUR CURRENT WINNING STREAKS ALIVE?
JOHN FORCE: Well, naturally, records, winning championships, that's what its all about. I sat three hours this morning with Austin Coil going over the game plan for this week. We do want to win, that's why you come, without that it doesn't matter the money you make, and there's not a lot of money being made in this economy right now. If you have to have a dream, a need to win, that's what it's all about. We just got to stay focused and go out there and come out of the box. We have to qualify all four of these Fords. Mike Neff is doing a really good job. He's taking over running the number four car right now. John Medlen, who was the original brain trust with Coil and Bernie, has moved into our operation to try and get my race car back on track. and that's what we need to try to do. At the end of the day, I've got two cars running for the championship. We got to all qualify in the top so we can stay away from each other so we all get a chance to win that race."
IF YOU DON'T WIN A RACE THIS YEAR, AND ONE OF YOUR CARS WINS THE CHAMPIONSHIP, ARE YOU OKAY WITH THAT?
JOHN FORCE: "We want to win the championship, but, no, I want to win a race. At the end of the day, millions have been paid into these teams. We've got my car and we've got the Ford Drive One with Mike Neff, and we haven't really been on track. Out of nowhere with Jimmy Prock, with changes that we made switching drivers around, switching combinations around, Jimmy showed he could bounce right back and put that car in the top of the pack. There was a lot of help from Dean Antonelli, Ron Douglas and Austin Coil, but that's what the whole concept of the whole brain trust is, that we work together, and at the end of the day win the championship. That's what we're going to try to do."
YOU'RE IN A UNIQUE POSITION OF YOUR SON-IN-LAW AND YOUR DAUGHTER FACING OFF TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP. HOW DO YOU STAY NEUTRAL IN THAT?
JOHN FORCE: "It really is tough, but Robert really is my family. He's been with me for 18 years or so. He was a clutch man on my car, then he was a motor man and a car chief. He worked his way up into the driver position, and we've been through it all together. In fact, Robert gives me the credit, but the truth is that Robert has got that youth in this ball game, because he's young and he's kept me motivated, and helped me remember some of the things that I forgot, and that's being with the team, staying motivated. That's what the talks were about with Coil. Yeah we're struggling, but we can turn this thing around like Jimmy did and bounce right back into the top of the points. There is so much you can learn, but you get caught up in business, you're older, you're getting beat up seven days a week, you forget why you come sometimes and that's what a young guy like Robert, Ashley and Mike Neff bring back to me. Sometimes I forget that we really do love what we're doing. I would love to see Ashley be the first female in the history of NHRA Funny Car to win a championship.. That would be huge, and also she's my baby girl, so you know that I got a lot of preference there. Then on the other side, on the family side, I've got a granddaughter that is rooting for Ashley and she's always rooting for her dad Robert. I've got to lean toward the grandbaby too, and I've also got to lean toward Auto Club, they've been with me a lot of years and Auto Club, they've paid the money to get a car that should win a championship and we need to deliver that. My emotions are pulled in both directions, but what I'm going to do is pray that one of them win."
NEXT YEAR THEY'RE IMPLEMENTING THE ELECTRO-MOTION SAFETY SHUT OFF PROCEDURE. DID YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH THAT?
ROBERT HIGHT: "It's a good deal. We did some testing on it on my car. All we wanted to do on it was check the signal and make sure it did what it was supposed to do, but we were kind of one step ahead, and have something implemented now in our cars. We have a time shut off and what that is, is basically when the throttle goes down to whatever we set the timer at, it shuts off the ignition, shuts off the fuel, and deploys the parachutes. This new system is going to be a wall-mounted transmitter, and each race car will have a receiver, and when it goes by that it will do that. It will probably be where it's further on down the track to where on a normal run, the driver still does it all on his own, but in case the driver is unconscious it will do all that for you and slow these race cars down. It's a credit to NHRA for implementing this for next year, and we're excited about it because its definitely all what we're about, and that's safety."
JOHN FORCE: "There's a lot controversy with these, because right now our cars leave the starting line, and what a lot of drivers don't like that if you smoke the tires and it becomes a pedal fast than your parachutes come out after so many seconds. It shuts your motor off, and it can cause you to lose the race. NHRA tried to implement that when you pass through the beams through the other side of the race track, that it shuts your car off automatically. Robert and Jimmy Prock have tested it and it appears to work. What Austin Coil worries about is that the car can shut off, but because of the heat in the motor it can reignite itself and there's a problem again. A lot of the stuff is new and being tested, but so many things in this sport went untested and then Eric Medlen was killed in '07 in March in Gainesville and it opened up the door. If credit was given to anybody, you thank NHRA, you thank our brain trust at John Force Racing for the Eric Medlen Project in Indy. When Wilkerson's kid crashed and he thanked John Medlen for the safety initiatives that protected his kid in a sideways crash, maybe even saving his life. At the end of the day it was Ford Motor Company, working with NHRA and all of us, because they have the technicians. I have money to invest in equipment. I have money to invest in shops in Indy, and the manpower, but it was their genius that came out of Detroit, their technicians that worked on these cars. We have a car up there right now in Detroit that's getting ready to be sent down a rail to be completely crushed, to fake impact with the dummy driver inside, the same stuff that they do with the cars on the streets. Ford really needs to get that credit because we couldn't have done it without them. It has changed the future of the technology from not just beams to shut cars off, but to so many safety things that I couldn't get into them all. Back in Indy we gave a one hour show on all this safety, but it continues to grow through Ford, through JF Racing and the NHRA."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT FACING OFF AGAINST A TEAMMATE FOR THIS CHAMPIONSHIP. RIGHT NOW, YOU AND ASHLEY FORCE HOOD ARE 1- 2 IN POINTS WITH TWO RACES TO GO.
ROBERT HIGHT: "I'm very excited about it. We've kind of gotten spoiled over here over the years. This team won 12 straight championships, with Tony and John. Then, there was a year that we lost, and now the last two, so we definitely want to get John Force Racing and these Ford Mustangs back in the top where we belong. We feel that we work harder than the rest of the teams out there, and we need to win. This championship needs to go back to where it belongs, and that's kind of where we're at, you know? Not trying to be greedy or anything else, but we work hard here, Ford works hard, all of our sponsors, and as long as it's one of the two of us, I'm excited. It's probably less pressure when you're racing one of your own teammates than having to go out there and race another one of those cars."
JOHN FORCE: "It's exciting for me as a father and an owner to come down here at the shop. When you look at the personalities, Ashley and Robert are different personalities, totally. It's funny to watch Robert. You come down here on Sunday. 'What are you doing here, Robert?' And he's down here with his race car or he's in Indy or he's sitting in one of the chassis here. He's continually seven days a week thinking race cars. And Ashley called me, she was doing a photo shoot in Indy, and she said, 'Dad, I'm going out tonight to pick a dress for the banquet.' Robert and I talk every day about racing and how to win a championship, and Ashley, has another style. Robert is radical, but focused, but yet Ashley is almost as calm and cool, almost like, 'It'll be what it'll be, Dad. I've watched you worry yourself sick for 30 years,' and it just isn't her style. But it sure is fun to watch 'em on that starting line get hungry And bear down and pound on those lights and do what they do to win. It's really the most exciting to me right now than anything that I've ever faced in my whole career - watching two young people, a male and a female, fight this thing out. And Ashley said, 'Dad, I'm not going to even think about Robert, because if he wins, well, then our team won and that was the plan.' She's focused on all of the other drivers: 'If I can do my job and beat the other ones in that Countdown, or anybody else I come up against, and Robert can do the same, JFR Racing will get the win.'"
WHAT DOES MENTAL TOUGHNESS MEAN TO YOU? IT MAY BE HARD TO MEASURE, BUT HOW MUCH OF THAT DO YOU THINK ONE NEEDS TO HAVE TO WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP?
JOHN FORCE: "You've got to dig down. You've got to control it. And I've had talks with Ashley and Robert, and everyone has their own style, but you've got to control it, you've got to dig deep, you've got to live it, you've got to eat it, you've got to sweat it, you've got to sit on the toilet and be thinking winning that championship. That's what you've got to do. But, yet, you cannot go over center, where it takes control of you, and you lose what it takes, because you've got to gather everything up on that starting line. And every driver has to have his own style. Robert has been there. You've seen other drivers have a shot at the title, they fail. It just happens, okay? And you've got to go through that process to learn how to control when your body loses it and your feet get the shakes, you've got to learn how to control it. Robert has learned that from the process of winning and losing. Robert is ready. Ashley doesn't have the years that Robert has, but, as a rookie, and only in a few years, but Ashley had a lot of experience way back, from Super Comp to A/Fuel, being put under the pressure. I think she's going to do well. But, you've got to dig down. Last night, I was in the gym and I was pumping iron and this guy came over to me and I joked, 'I'm never going to look like you. I've been in here two solid years, and it just looks like at my age I can't get better.' And the guy said, 'No, but I guarantee you that if you're not here, you won't have any chance at all of getting back in that driver's seat.' And this is a guy that trains with the Olympics. Just keep doing what you do. But every curl, every press, every leg press, everything I do is about how to get back to feel what that feeling is to win. Because when you had it you get guilty of taking it for granted. And when they put me in that hospital and I lost it all, it's all I focus, it's all that Robert and Ashley and Mike Neff focus on, and I have to do it because I have to get back, at my age, especially, I have to live in the gym to be able to be even to stand next to Robert and believe that I can compete with him on the starting line."
YOU'VE HAD A DOWN-AND-UP SEASON. WAS THERE EVER A TIME WHEN YOU FELT THAT THIS JUST WASN'T GOING TO BE YOUR YEAR, OR WAS THERE ALWAYS A FLICKER OF HOPE?
ROBERT HIGHT: "I never gave up, that's for sure. The whole team never gave up. It probably made it easier having Ashley doing so well. She was kind of carrying the load for the whole team. But the way this whole team works is we help each other, we work together, and we knew that if we got too lost and what we were doing wasn't working that we could go over with Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas' help, and probably get our car to run similar to theirs - and that's actually what happened. John kind of put that all together. But, I also still blame it on the limited testing that NHRA had for us all year. In the past, when you get lost, you test and test and test, and you work it out and you figure it out. This year, we're trying to learn new things and race and qualify, and it just wasn't working. So, luckily, our teammates definitely pulled us out and salvaged this year. I also think John changing drivers clear back in Reading, Pennsylvania, had something to do with that. You know, I'm a big baseball fan, and I follow the Dodgers, and I used to watch Tommy Lasorda, and he would go out there and he would coach third base. You know, the manager never does that. But I asked him about it last year when he was the Grand Marshal at Pomona, and he said, 'You've just got to shake things up. When that batter looks down there at third base and sees a regular batting coach, he's not thinking. But, if he looks down there and sees the manager, his boss, he's probably going to perform a little better, and it just shakes things up. Jimmy looking in there at John, and John looking out at Jimmy, I think for whatever reason it worked, and my car turned around that weekend."
JOHN FORCE: "One of the things in a tough economy we have where everyone is struggling to pay their bills, the sponsor is struggling to keep these race teams going, the president of Auto Club of Southern California, Tom McKernan, a friend of ours, I went to him and said, 'Tom, you pay a lot of money and the race car that you pay me for, all of these cars, your lead car with Robert Hight is failing, and I'm doing everything I can to fix it. I want you to believe, but I would understand that our job is to deliver and that I feel that I owe.' And he said to me, and it really made me feel good to go back to the team, 'John, when you win, we appreciate that. And, it is about winning. But some years you don't win. And Robert Hight's been right there and he's due for a championship, and he'll get there someday. But you can believe that Auto Club is there for you, and that we don't have a problem. You don't tell us how to run Auto Club, we don't tell you how to run race cars. At the end of the day, your drivers keep pitching us, they do the appearances and they're driving their race cars the best they can, and we will stick behind Jimmy Prock on these decisions,' and I told him what I was going to do, but it was the confidence that I had that when I go to the start line, it's not like you're under the microscope that somebody's just going to throw you off the table. And, right now, let me tell you, don't think Castrol ain't looking at me. I've got to get my race car back on track, and we made changes. But I've got good partners with Ford, Auto Club and Castrol. And, we're just going to keep doing this and get one of these cars to the top, and get all of 'em back in the running."
-credit: ford racing