HIGHT IN DRIVER'S SEAT TO NHRA CHAMPIONSHIP Auto Club Driver Leads Field into O'Reilly Mid-South Nationals MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A date change may have cooled things off for this week's 20th annual O'Reilly Mid-South Nationals at Memphis ...
HIGHT IN DRIVER'S SEAT
TO NHRA CHAMPIONSHIP
Auto Club Driver Leads Field into O'Reilly Mid-South Nationals
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A date change may have cooled things off for this week's 20th annual O'Reilly Mid-South Nationals at Memphis Motorsports Park, but as the POWERade points leader, Robert "Top Gun" Hight is feeling the heat in the NHRA's new Countdown to the Championship playoff system.
With just three races remaining before the original field of eight Funny Car contenders is pared to four, Hight has his Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang out in front of Mike Ashley's Dodge by a slim 21 points and ahead of Tony Pedregon's Chevrolet by just 42.
"It's good to have the lead," Hight said, "but it's really not that big a deal -- not until you get down to the last two races.
"The most important thing for us is not to beat ourselves. We don't want to go out there and smoke the tires. We just need to keep winning rounds. If we can make the semifinals this week, I think it'll be hard to keep us out of the final four."
If history is an indicator, Hight's chances of winning a couple of rounds this Sunday are pretty good. After all, the 38-year-old was a semifinalist in each of his first two appearances in the Mid-South Nationals, losing to teammate Eric Medlen in 2005 and to Pedregon in 2006, both times after qualifying No. 1.
Furthermore, the Castrol-backed John Force Racing team for which he drives has won the Funny Car Championship five of the last six seasons. However, that success notwithstanding, Hight is haunted by memories of what happened to him on the way to last year's championship.
"Luck plays a role whether we like it or not," Hight said. "Last year, we had a great car and momentum, but we just didn't have any racing luck. Just when it looked like we might catch John (teammate, father-in-law and eventual 2006 champion John Force), a 25 cent part failed on the burnout and took us out in the first round at Vegas."
As recently as two weeks ago, Hight lost his chance to repeat as Funny Car champion in the world's biggest drag race, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ind., when a supercharger drive shaft broke in the final round.
"There are a lot of things that have to happen right just to win one round," Hight said. "To win a race, you have to be perfect four times. There are so many ways to lose in this sport and only one way to win."
That said, Hight already has won a lot of races in a very little time.
The 2005 winner of the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year, he's the only Funny Car driver to have led the POWERade points each of the last three seasons.
"The only time (leading the points) matters is at the end of the year," Hight said, "and there's a lot of guys out there trying to do that for the first time me, Ron Capps, Mike Ashley, (Jack) Beckman.
"It's real competitive out there. I know it's a cliche, but you have to take it one race at a time. If we can be one of the last four, then we can turn Jimmy Prock loose to do what he does and once we get to that point, I really like our chances.".
A seven-time tour winner, Hight has assumed the points lead despite three chassis changes this season, none of them by choice.
The car with which he started the season, the one in which he recorded the two quickest quarter miles in Funny Car history (4.646 and 4.636 seconds), was badly damaged in a crash after carrying Hight to the final round in four of his first five starts.
The back-up chassis never delivered the expected performance and its replacement was damaged in a first round incident at Reading, Pa. However, things finally have come full circle. The car he'll drive this week is a repaired version of the one in which he started out.