HIGHT'S 'SPEED HORSE' AN ENIGMA AT 52ND MAC TOOLS U.S. NATIONALS Auto Club Driver Among Favorites at O'Reilly Raceway Park INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- If it were a four-legged thoroughbred instead of a mechanical one, Robert Hight 's Team ...
HIGHT'S 'SPEED HORSE' AN ENIGMA AT 52ND MAC TOOLS U.S. NATIONALS
Auto Club Driver Among Favorites at O'Reilly Raceway Park
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- If it were a four-legged thoroughbred instead of a mechanical one, Robert Hight 's Team Castrol/Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang would be characterized as a speed horse, one that sets the early pace and then, tongue hanging out, tries to hold on at the finish.
Frankly, it's a characterization that not only galls the second year driver but also his talented crew chief Jimmy Prock.
The favorite to claim the No. 1 starting position for this week's 52nd annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at O'Reilly Raceway Park, Hight disputes the notion that his car is one-dimensional -- dominant during the pristine conditions that prevail during Friday night qualifying but vulnerable in the race-day heat.
"That's not true," Hight said. "We have a car that actually has run good in all conditions, whether it's cool or whether it's hot. And on a lot of different tracks.
"The only problem has been consistency and, to be honest, Jimmy has been experimenting with some new components that we think are going to help us in the future."
In the meantime, though, the 8,000 horsepower Funny Car has been very much a motorized version of Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde.
Seven times this year and 13 times over his first two seasons as a Funny Car driver, Hight has started from No. 1. It's a performance that earned him the No. 1 seed for Sunday's Skoal Showdown Funny Car bonus race, knocking boss, teammate and father-in-law John Force from that position for the first time in 17 years.
Nevertheless, Hight hasn't advanced beyond the semifinals this year after qualifying at the top. His only win (at the season-opener at Pomona, Calif.) came from the worst starting position of his career No. 12. His only other final round appearances (at Atlanta, Ga., and Joliet, Ill.) from No. 2 and No. 4 starts, respectively.
Despite all that, Hight believes he has a race car that not only can win drag racing's biggest event, but one that can still play a role in deciding who wins the POWERade championship.
"For us to win is a long shot now," Hight acknowledged after falling to fifth place, 219 points off the pace now set by teammate and father-in-law John Force. "We're going to try to win this week's race. That's all we can do and that's our only goal -- to win the Skoal Showdown on Sunday and the Nationals on Monday. If we can do that, it's a start and maybe we can ride that momentum for awhile."
Despite the problems encountered this season by No. 1 qualifiers, Hight still is motivated to be the first Funny Car driver in more than a year to win from the front of the pack.
"I want to do that," he said, "and I know we have a car that can. I'm not at all superstitious. Do I think there's a curse? No. I don't. I just think that we're in a very competitive class where you have to make four perfect runs on race day to win. Every week, we think we're going to do that and that's how we're approaching Indy."
Married to Force's oldest daughter, Adria, and the father of the 13-time champion's only grandchild, Autumn Danielle, Hight was hired to be the clutch specialist on Force's Castrol GTX hybrid in 1995. The car won the first time Hight was on the team (at Denver, Colo.) and it won every championship during his tenure as a crewman.
After marriage, he left the tour to serve as facility director at John Force Racing, a job that allowed him to spend more time with his family. However, in 2004, he became the team's official test driver, moving up the following year to take over the controls of the Auto Club Ford in which Gary Densham had doubled-up at Indy.
Last year, his first driving competitively in any form of racing, he won two times and earned the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year.