Joliet II: Robert Hight preview

ROOKIE POSITIONED BETWEEN LEGENDS IN RACE FOR FUNNY CAR CHAMPIONSHIP Hight 26 Points Behind Gary Scelzi; Five Ahead of John Force JOLIET, Ill. -- He stands only 5-9, but he may be just the right Hight to win the 2005 NHRA POWERade Funny...


Hight 26 Points Behind Gary Scelzi; Five Ahead of John Force

JOLIET, Ill. -- He stands only 5-9, but he may be just the right Hight to win the 2005 NHRA POWERade Funny Car championship.

Robert "Top Gun" Hight, who nine months ago was a Monday test driver for John Force Racing, Inc., brings the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang into Route 66 Raceway for this week's fifth and final Ameriquest Nationals with a legitimate shot at becoming just the third rookie in NHRA history to win a championship in one of the sport's two featured categories.

The first to do so was Cruz Pedregon, who in 1992 claimed the Funny Car title by winning five of the last six races in the series. The other was Gary Scelzi who, as the hand-picked successor to the late Blaine Johnson, won Top Fuel in 1997.

Ironically, entering this week's race, 20th in the 2005 series, Scelzi is the only driver between Hight and history. The driver of the Oakley Dodge leads Hight by just 26 points, little more than one competitive round. Three other drivers, including Hight's Castrol teammates, are within four rounds of the lead. Force, the 13-time series champion, is just 31 points back of Scelzi.

That Scelzi and Force are in the mix is no surprise. Between them, they've won 16 championships and 150 tour events. However, they remain separated in the standings by a rookie who, until this season, never before had driven competitively in any vehicle in any motorsports discipline.

It was Scelzi, in the aftermath of pre-season testing, who first identified Hight as a "big player," predicting that he would win the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year. However, he never expected the soft-spoken Californian to still be in contention with four races remaining.

"When's this kid gonna wake up and make some of those 'rookie mistakes' people are always talking about," Scelzi akeed. "Robert has stayed focused. Me and Force are the ones who've gone brain dead a couple of times."

Hight owes that focus to his background in trapshooting, a sport in which top marksmen routinely knock down 100 and 200 targets in succession. In fact, Hight is one of a handful of shooters to have recorded the grand slam of marksmanship, hitting 400 consecutive targets 200 from the standard 16-yard distance, 100 from the maximum handicap distance of 27 yards and 100 doubles (two targets at once).

The powers of concentration he developed in shooting have been a tremendous asset, especially over the last two months during which he led the points for five races and never has been further back than second in the driver standings.

Nevertheless, Hight downplays his contribution to a veteran Auto Club team anchored by crew chief Jimmy Prock and team leader Eric Lane, a team that put Gary Densham in the winners' circle eight times in his four seasons in the cockpit.

"This car has been the best car out here since last year at Indy (and the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals)," Hight said, "and that was long before I was involved. I'm the weak link. I'm just trying to avoid the big mistake because I know that I've got a car that can win it all."

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).

A winner in just his fourth start (last April at Houston), Hight also won at Denver. Significantly, he'd be in the points lead right now had he not lost in the final round at Atlanta to Force (by .002 of a second) and in the final round at Seattle to teammate Eric Medlen (by .055 of a second).

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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....of all of Robert's rookie accomplishments, the most impressive may be his qualification for the Labor Day 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 addition to his driving duties, Robert still flies home after every race to service the team's superchargers. In the most recent event in the series, at Reading, Pa., he 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. Fortunately, Wingo's son is recovering, which means the veteran will be back in position for a possible stretch run to the championship.

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Series NHRA
Drivers John Force , Gary Scelzi , Gary Densham , Cruz Pedregon , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight