ROBERT HIGHT 'Top Gun' Poised to Clear Last Hurdle Officially, Robert "Top Gun" Hight lost the NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship last year by 19 points, roughly the equivalent of one racing round. Unofficially, he lost it by .001...
'Top Gun' Poised to Clear Last Hurdle
Officially, Robert "Top Gun" Hight lost the NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship last year by 19 points, roughly the equivalent of one racing round. Unofficially, he lost it by .001 of a second, the margin by which he fell short of the one per cent backup run that would have certified a season-opening 4.646 second quarter mile as the official NHRA national record and earned him a 20-point bonus.
Instead, Hight had to settle for posting the two quickest runs in Funny Car history (4.646 at Pomona, Calif., and 4.636 at Phoenix, Ariz.), winning more racing rounds than anyone else (34 rounds to 30 for champion Tony Pedregon) and qualifying No. 1 a category-best eight times at the wheel of the Jimmy Prock-prepared Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang.
In any other year, such a performance would have earned the 38-year-old a championship and the accompanying $500,000 bonus. In 2007, the first year of NHRA's controversial Countdown to the Championship playoff system, all it got him was a second consecutive runner-up finish, the admiration of a growing number of racers and fans and memories of what might have been.
With those memories still fresh in his mind, the former word class marksman this year again is poised to become the third different John Force Racing driver to win the sport's premier championship.
"What we learned last year was that every point is important," Hight said. "We had our chances but we didn't do what we needed to do (to win the championship) and that's the thing that has given us motivation for the new season."
Few would bet against the former Force crew member whose success in his first three pro seasons belies a lack of previous driving experience. Hight hadn't previously driven a car in any racing discipline when he was named the team's official "test driver" in 2004.
He proved to be a natural.
When he finally got his chance to drive competitively in 2005, he made the most of the opportunity. After starting from the No. 1 qualifying position in just his third event, he celebrated in the winners' circle race one race later (at Houston, Texas).
He won twice in his first year, led the driver points for five races and, at season's end, was named the winner of the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA's Rookie-of-the-Year. He hasn't slowed down since and, entering the 2008 season, has started from No. 1 in one third of all his races (23 times in 68 events).
After toiling in relative obscurity for 10 seasons at JFR, first as a crew member and later as manager of the team's California shop facility, Hight was unusually well prepared when finally presented an opportunity to drive. Now, as the lead driver for a team anchored by his father-in-law, he is hoping to claim the team's 16th series championship in 20 seasons.
Despite his lack of experience, Hight was identified even before his first competitive quarter mile as a "sure bet" for Rookie-of-the-Year honors by no less an authority than 2005 NHRA Funny Car Champion Gary Scelzi.
Before the start of his championship season, Scelzi told nhra.com: "Robert Hight will be 'Rookie of the Year. He's a marksman (a former California trap shooting champion) and the concentration he uses in that sport is really helping him in the car. I've seen him test and he'll be a big player."
Indeed, it has been a rocketship ride for the soft-spoken Californian who grew up outside the glare of the motor racing spotlight in Alturas, a small community tucked into the northeastern corner of the state. He developed an early interest in all things mechanical and, by the time he was 16, already had restored a Plymouth Belvedere, which would serve as transportation to college in Sacramento, where he earned AA degrees in both business and accounting.
Upon graduation, he began to look for opportunities in drag racing although he initially didn't consider driving to be an option. He got his first opportunity working as a Top Fuel dragster mechanic before being asked to take over as clutch technician on Force's all-conquering Castrol GTX Funny Car.
In his first race at JFR (Denver, Colo., 1995), Hight celebrated with Force in the winners' circle and in his five seasons as a full-time crewman, Force won 41 races and never failed to win the championship.
Of course, while Hight was winning big on the track, he was winning even bigger off of it. What began as a friendship with Force's oldest daughter, Adria, slowly blossomed into a full blown romance that led to the couple's 1999 wedding and the 2004 birth of daughter Autumn Danielle Hight, the 14-time champion's only grandchild.
Ironically, Hight's commitment to his racing career almost ended that relationship before it even began.
"She would see a light on (at the shop) and stop by to talk," he said. "She always asked me to go do things with her, but I wouldn't. I was afraid I'd get in trouble because
John made a point of reminding all the crew that dating his daughters was off limits.
Finally, she told John and he came over to me and said, 'hey, if you want to hang out with Adria, don't worry about it. You're not going to get in any trouble.'"
Despite the fact that he always had harbored the dream of driving, Hight never believed the opportunity would present itself. However, that perception changed in 2003 when Force opted to put the late Eric Medlen, Hight's crewmate, in the cockpit of the car vacated by departing champion Tony Pedregon.
Medlen's 2004 rookie success paved the way for Hight and, ultimately, for Ashley Force, the champion's 25-year-old daughter, who now drives the Castrol GTX Ford.
If there is a victim of Hight's commitment to a driving career, it is his "other life" as a world class marksman. A state trapshooting champion at age 15, he is one of the few shooters in the world to have achieved the Grand Slam of marksmanship -- 200 straight targets at the 16-foot standard distance, 100 straight at the maximum handicap distance (27 feet) and 100 doubles (two targets at once) in the same competition.
He even was good enough to be considered for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team, an opportunity he didn't pursue because of his racing career. As a shooter, Hight worked extensively with experts in hand-eye coordination and concentration, elements also critical to success in drag racing.
"In drag racing, you only have to keep that focus for two minutes -- from when you start the car, through the burnout and then the run," he said. "In shooting, you have to retain that focus a lot longer, so that probably helped me.
"I definitely think that dealing with the pressure of shooting helped (my driving)," Hight said. "The thing that surprised me, I guess, was that the pressure in racing is a lot more intense. In shooting, if you screw up, basically the only person you hurt is yourself. But when you screw up in the race car, you're not just letting yourself down, you're letting down everyone else on the team. That's real pressure."