HIGHT WINS WINTERNATIONALS FOR THIRD TIME
POMONA --- Robert Hight had to endure a long cold winter. Beginning with his last round win in Brainerd at the Lucas Oil Nationals in August the 41-year old former crewman’s season ground to a halt when over the next seven races Hight posted a 0-6 record with an October DNQ in Las Vegas.
Those struggles and tribulations lasted for an extra few weeks as the NHRA started its 60th anniversary season two weeks later than usual opening the season this weekend at the 51st NHRA Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals.
That is all past history as Hight drove his Auto Club Ford Mustang to the winner’s circle for the third time to open the season today. Hight defeated a “Who’s Who” of tough competitors. In the first round he dispatched fellow Ford racer Bob Tasca III and then he out-distanced boss and 15-time funny car champion John Force. In the semi-finals Hight had to outrun Don Schumacher Racing veteran Ron Capps before besting DSR’s young star Matt Hagan in the final. In the final Hight used a reaction time advantage to beat Hagan on a hole shot. The win was reminiscent of Force’s 2010 Winternationals hole shot win over Capps.
“The biggest deal for me is how long it has been since we have won even a round. It goes clear back to Brainerd last year,” said Hight, a 19-time NHRA national event winner.
“The only thing that made (last year) good was John winning everything and Ashley (Force Hood) winning the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. We stayed together as a team. What is really important to me is this is the fourth year in a row that my team has been together, 100% of them. That makes it so easy to get out here and do what you know how to do. You don’t have to train new people and everyone knows how to do their job. It makes it that much more special when you win because you pulled together and you stayed together. I was on John’s teams a lot of years and we had the same nucleus of guys. You become a family. They are like brothers to you and that is what makes these times so special. To win the Winternationals to start the year it has been a long winter. To win at Auto Club Raceway is just awesome.”
This was Hight’s third win at the Winternationals (2006 and 2008) and it was John Force Racing’s 8th win in eleven events at Auto Club Raceway. Last year John Force won both events in Pomona and Mike Neff closed out the 2009 NHRA season with a win here.
Hight will leave his home track with the points lead and for the seventh year in a row Hight has had the points lead at some point in the season. No other driver has ever led the points at least once for every year of their career. He is now tied with legendary driver Don “Snake” Prudhomme for second most career times holding the Funny Car points lead. John Force is the all-time leader with eighteen seasons as points leader.
Mike Neff shook the rust off after a one year break from racing to come within a few hundredths of a second from facing Hight in the final. In the semis Neff dropped a tight race to Hagan. Neff’s Castrol GTX Ford Mustang was actually quicker on the track but a slight starting line advantage gave Hagan the win. Neff was pleased with his team’s overall performance and tough on himself.
He battled clutch gremlins throughout the day and thought he had the problem cured before the semi-final race.
“For whatever reason when we tested in Florida everything went smooth and in qualifying here everything went well. Then the first run today it wore an excess of clutch. It put a cylinder out in the first round. I thought that was kind of a fluke deal. I didn’t do a lot about it,” said the two-time funny car champion crew chief.
“It got even worse the second round. It murdered the clutch on that run. This last run I had to make some big moves to make the clutch wear I got it a lot better. It was still not anywhere close to where I wanted. It was one of those deals that it was good for a while then things change once and a while”.
“I am just kind of disappointed in myself. For whatever reason I was just dead late right there. The bummer is all through testing and qualifying I was cutting good lights. That is the worst light I have had all year. I have been out of the car for a year. Doing it in qualifying or testing is one thing but race day is what counts. I don’t have any excuses. I was just dead late.”
Team leader John Force did not accept Neff’s tough self assessment.
“(Neff) did his job for Castrol. That is what matters to me. Everyone is watching to see if we are going to fall apart this weekend,” said Force a 132-time winner. “We all stayed in the game. That is what is most important. (Neff’s) got overload as crew chief and driver but he did both your jobs well. That is all we expect. We’ll take good and then we’ll turn that into great.”
The three John Force Racing Mustangs will head to Gainesville in first, third, and fifth place in the Full Throttle points standings.