ROOKIE HIGHT MAKING WAVES AS TOUR MOVES TO 'THE STRIP' Houston Win Stamps Him as Funny Car Contender LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- He's qualified the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang No. 1 for half the races he's run (two of...
ROOKIE HIGHT MAKING WAVES AS TOUR MOVES TO 'THE STRIP'
Houston Win Stamps Him as Funny Car Contender
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- He's qualified the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang No. 1 for half the races he's run (two of four); he's coming off a breakthrough victory last week at Houston, Texas; and he's returning this week to a track on which he already has gone faster than anyone else in Funny Car drag racing history (330.55 miles per hour in a January test sesson).
Is it any wonder then that rookie Robert Hight suddenly has become more than just a mere novelty on the NHRA POWERade tour?
Hight, who, like teammate Eric Medlen, never had driven competitively before being strapped into the seat of one of John Force's Team Castrol Mustangs, will, in fact, bear watching this week when he tries to extend his No. 1 qualifying streak in the sixth annual SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A world class marksman who in 2002 turned down a chance to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, Hight credits crew chief Jimmy Prock for the eye-popping performance of the Auto Club Ford and Force and Medlen for speeding up the learning curve.
"At Houston, he was telling me about all the final rounds he was in before he ever won," Hight said of Force, who was a national event runner-up nine times before finally winning at Montreal, Canada, in 1987. "He told me about how nervous he got (and) how he was ready to throw up because he was so sick.
"And he told me, 'you know, that doesn't do any good.' He said to just go up there like it's just another qualifying run and have fun. And that's what I did. Don't get me wrong, I was nervous, but he helped calm me down a lot. He's unbelievable. He took such a chance on me."
As for Medlen, the top Funny Car rookie a year ago as driver of the Castrol SYNTEC Ford, Hight said he has been a godsend.
"(Eric) had John and Gary (Densham) to teach him," Hight said, "but it had been a long time since either one of them was a rookie. So a lot of the things, he had to learn for himself. I'm fortunate because Eric has been able to walk me through some of those things because he already lived them. I think having him to talk to is a big advantage."
Despite the early success, the soft-spoken Hight, married to Force's oldest daughter, Adria, isn't likely to lose his focus.
"I know I'm going to make a lot of mistakes," he said, "(because) it takes a lot of years to get really good. I said at the first of the year that if I could qualify for all the races and finish in the Top 10, I'd consider it a success. That's still how I feel."
One of the crew members, with Medlen, on the Force-driven Castrol GTX Funny Cars that claimed 10 consecutive series championships (1993-2002), Hight served an apprenticeship last season as the team's official "test pilot," climbing into the cockpit on Mondays following selected NHRA national events.
That helped make him one of the best-prepared rookies in history. His experience as a trap shooter also has been beneficial although he admits that he wasn't ready for the kind of pressure he has confronted.
"In shooting, there's pressure," he said, "but nothing like this. In shooting, if you failed, it was just you, you failed. In racing, you feel like you failed a whole team."
Although this will be his first competitive appearance at The Strip, Hight was clocked at the aforementioned 330.55 mph during pre-season testing at the Las Vegas track on which he performed especially well.
"It's a really smooth track," Hight said, "and Jimmy seems to have a pretty good handle on it. I can't wait to get back in the car. I'm having so much fun."
Even though there are 19 races remaining, Hight's early performance clearly has stamped him as the favorite to win the 2005 Auto Club Road to the Future Award that identifies the top professional rookie in the NHRA series.
"I'm not even thinking about that," Hight said. "I just want to continue to get better. I know I've still got a lot to learn."