'ON FIRE' HAS A NEW MEANING FOR TITLE CONTENDER HIGHT Auto Club Ford Driver Tries to Bounce Back from Topeka Crash JOLIET, Ill. -- "On fire" is a relative term in the NHRA POWERade drag racing series. Figuratively, it can mean one is ...
'ON FIRE' HAS A NEW MEANING
FOR TITLE CONTENDER HIGHT
Auto Club Ford Driver Tries to Bounce Back from Topeka Crash
JOLIET, Ill. -- "On fire" is a relative term in the NHRA POWERade drag racing series. Figuratively, it can mean one is enjoying exceptional success. Literally, it can mean just the opposite. Robert Hight, one of the Funny Car favorites in this week's 10th annual TORCO Racing Fuels Nationals at Route 66 Raceway knows just how indistinct the line between the two can be.
The son-in-law of drag racing icon John Force, Hight has been a championship contender since first he climbed behind the wheel of the Team Castrol/Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang three years ago.
The 2005 winner of the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award which identifies the Rookie of the Year in NHRA Pro Racing, the 37-year-old phenom led the POWERade points for five races during his debut season. Last year, he finished second behind Force and this year he was off to a sensational start, reaching the finals four times in his first six races before crossing the line, literally and figuratively, last week at Topeka, Kan.
Matched with Scott Kalitta in the second round of the O'Reilly Summer Nationals at Heartland Park-Topeka, an event in which he started from the No. 1 qualifying position for the third straight season, Hight was transformed in mere seconds from Funny Car favorite to unwitting stunt driver.
The smoke and flames from a massive engine explosion enveloped him in an inferno as he crossed the finish line, restricting his vision to the point that he lost his sense of direction and hit both guardwalls. After climbing out the roof hatch to escape the flames, Hight sat on top of the body, steering the 8,000 horsepower hybrid with one foot, pulling on the brake with the other, until he had scrubbed off enough speed to safely exit, stage right, as the Ford rolled into the sand pit at the end of the racecourse.
"It was the biggest fire I'd ever seen," Hight said, "(but) you just do the stuff that you've been trained to do. The first thing is to get the chutes out and get on the brake. I hit the fire bottles (the onboard fire-suppressant system) a couple of times and the nextthing I know, I hit the right wall. I couldn't see a thing.
"So I whipped the wheel to the left and when I felt it hit again, I thought I was in the sand. So I bailed out the roof hatch and the thing was still rolling. Well, I wasn't about to go back down (into the fire, that was swirling inside the cockpit). So I sat on the roof until it nosed over into the sand."
For most teams, that would have been the end, but not for Hight's.
With the help of crews from the other two teams in the John Force Racing stable, Hight, crew chief Jimmy Prock and the other members of the Auto Club unit stripped all the charred and melted parts and pieces off the chassis and literally built a new race car in little more than one hour.
Unfortunately, after completing the task, Prock and his fellow crew chiefs at John Force racing determined that there was a good chance the chassis has been damaged and that, without further investigation, it would be imprudent to put it back in competition. Nevertheless, they took it to the starting line and fired the engine yielding the track to semifinal opponent Jim Head.
"It is really cool to be on this team," Hight said, "because nobody every gives up, ever. They're the best."
They get a chance to prove it again this week in a race in which Hight was the runner-up a year ago. The driver expects the team to rebound, but he's not taking anything for granted.
"If you ever think, boy, this is starting to get easy,' you better get in another business," Hight said. "I've learned real quick that this sport will humble you.
"I try to take the approach that I'm still a rookie at this, I'm still new (and) I have a lot to learn. I don't ever think I've got it figured out because I know I don't. I know I'm going to continue to make mistakes, but that's how you learn. Fortunately, I'm in a real good race car and that makes a big difference."