'TOP GUN' RIDES A ROCKET INTO C.S.K. NATIONALS Rookie Tries to Replicate Shooting Success on Racetrack PHOENIX, Ariz. -- No rookie ever rolled into Firebird Raceway, site of this week's 21st annual Checker/Schuck's/Kragen Nationals, facing...
'TOP GUN' RIDES A ROCKET INTO C.S.K. NATIONALS
Rookie Tries to Replicate Shooting Success on Racetrack
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- No rookie ever rolled into Firebird Raceway, site of this week's 21st annual Checker/Schuck's/Kragen Nationals, facing more performance pressure than 35-year-old Robert "Top Gun" Hight.
Fortunately, few rookies ever have been better prepared for the challenge.
Although he hadn't driven competitively before his debut two weeks ago at Pomona, Calif., the new driver of the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang is not at all unaccustomed to pressure.
A world class marksman, Hight reluctantly gave up a chance to qualify for the U.S. Olympic shooting team three years ago just so he could follow is dream at John Force Racing, Inc.
"There's no way I could have done both," Hight said. "The Olympics would have taken a total commitment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That meant I couldn't stay in racing and that's where I want to be right now."
In fact, Hight is doing exactly what he has wanted to do ever since he first became intrigued by fast cars as a kid growing up in Alturas, Calif.
Hired in 1995 as the clutch technician on Force's Castrol GTX Funny Car, he worked in that capacity for six years, each one a championship season. He then served as manager of the JFR shop facility in Yorba Linda, Calif., for two seasons before becoming the team's official "test driver."
On most Mondays following 2004 NHRA national events, Hight could be found In the cockpit of one of the team's 7,000 horsepower Mustangs. Ultimately, he logged more than 40 runs under the watchful eye of Force and his braintrust crew chiefs Jimmy Prock, Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen.
That work, plus two pre-season tests, one of them at Firebird, readied Hight for the challenge of sustaining the performance of one of the most powerful race cars on the planet a Mustang that last year won the 50th anniversary Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ind., as well as the $100,000 Skoal Showdown.
It also is the car that, in the hands of veteran Gary Densham, set the current Firebird Raceway records for quarter mile time (4.773 seconds) and speed (325.77 miles per hour).
Because of those numbers, expectations this weekend understandably are high.
Despite a misstep in the season opener (a first round loss to journeyman Bob Gilbertson), Hight believes that his year of work as the JFR "test pilot" coupled with the concentration skills and coordination that benefitted him as a shooter, give him a better than average chance to succeed on a track on which Force has won seven times in the last 11 years.
"Basically, in drag racing, you only have do something for a total of maybe two minutes," he said. "Once you start the car until you make your run, it's about two minutes. Holding focus for two minutes should be way easier than holding focus for two hours (as you must do in target shooting).
"If you just miss one time out of 200 targets in two hours (in trapshooting), it's over. Your mind can't wander for even a second. So I think that's going to help me."
Still, nothing prepared him for the sensation of racing "against" someone else.
"When there's somebody else in the other lane, that's a whole new ball game," he said. "My main thing is to have a game plan. I'm going to go through a checklist in my mind of what I'm going to do next because it doesn't come natural to me yet. I haven't made enough runs to where I can just to do it in my sleep.
"Last year, when I got to test, we were on a known surface because we had raced there all weekend. Basically, we'd go out there and it would go right down the track. I've already found out that it's not that way anymore. Now it's serious."