AFTER SEASON-OPENING TRIUMPH, HIGHT TRIES TO ADD TO POINTS LEAD AT PHOENIX Second Year Pro Not a Victim of 'Sophomore Jinx' PHOENIX, Ariz. (Feb. 24-26) -- Last year Robert Hight was a rookie, albeit an exceptional one. This year, the ...
AFTER SEASON-OPENING TRIUMPH, HIGHT TRIES TO ADD TO POINTS LEAD AT PHOENIX
Second Year Pro Not a Victim of 'Sophomore Jinx'
PHOENIX, Ariz. (Feb. 24-26) -- Last year Robert Hight was a rookie, albeit an exceptional one. This year, the 36-year-old driver of the Team Castrol/Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang is one of the veterans on a team that expects to challenge for the $400,000 NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship.
Although he began the 2006 season with five new mechanics on a crew of seven, Hight rolls into Firebird International Raceway for this week's 22nd annual Checker/Schuck's/Kragen Nationals as the category's only unbeaten driver, the last man standing two weeks ago in the season-opening CARQUEST Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
That victory, his third in 24 career starts, pushed the former trapshooting champion into the POWERade points lead ahead of reigning champion Gary Scelzi and 13-time former champion John Force, Hight's teammate, mentor and father-in-law.
Nevertheless, the fact that he won the opening race wasn't as remarkable as the manner in which he did so.
Not even in the 16-car starting lineup after the first three of four qualifying sessions, the one-time crewman and clutch specialist managed to squeeze into the No. 12 position on his final try. Once in the show, he buried the competition by posting the quickest time in each round of racing.
But it wasn't a cakewalk.
At the end of a second round victory over Del Worsham, a broken intake valve led to an engine explosion and fire that destroyed the carbon fiber body along with tens of thousands of dollars worth of aluminum and titanium parts and pieces, fuel lines, wires and sensors.
Faced with a daunting repair job, Hight's new crew, assisted by more than 20 other employees of the John Force Racing, Inc., managed to complete the work in the required 75 minutes and do so competently enough to deliver a car that posted a solid 4.799 second time in a narrow victory over the Chevrolet of Phil Burkart Jr.
"We've got a great team," Hight said. "Even before we won Pomona, I thought we were better than we were a year ago. Then, to win the first race, that was awesome, but I try to remember and I try to remind the crew guys that it's just one race.
"It's great to be the points leader, but it only matters if you're the leader after the Auto Club Finals (the last race of 23). Right now, we're just one of the teams with a shot at it. There are 10 or 12 cars out there that could probably win it all and there are three or four others that could win a race."
Nevertheless, Hight's season-opening victory constituted a pre-emptive strike that silenced the skeptics before they could raise the specter of a "sophomore jinx," a not-so-subtle suggestion that his initial success, which included winning the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year, might have been a fluke.
Hight is no fluke. Even rivals like reigning champion Gary Scelzi categorize the soft-spoken former crewman as the real thing.
It was Scelzi who predicted that Hight would be Rookie of the Year (winner of the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award) even before the start of the 2005 season. He didn't disappoint, racing in four final rounds, leading the points for five races and starting from the No. 1 qualifying position a category-best six times.
Despite his success, made the more remarkable by the fact that, until last season, he never had driven competitively in any racing discipline, Hight remains wary.
"I've still got a lot to learn," he said, "and I don't plan to ever stop (learning). To be with Jimmy Prock, the Auto Club and this team. There's no place I'd rather be."