ROOKIE HIGHT ON THE FAST TRACK IN HEARTLAND PARK-TOPEKA DEBUT Auto Club Ford Among Funny Car Favorites TOPEKA, Kan. -- John Force is bidding for his third victory in as many weeks on the NHRA POWERade tour, but if one was asked to pick a ...
ROOKIE HIGHT ON THE FAST TRACK IN HEARTLAND PARK-TOPEKA DEBUT
Auto Club Ford Among Funny Car Favorites
TOPEKA, Kan. -- John Force is bidding for his third victory in as many weeks on the NHRA POWERade tour, but if one was asked to pick a Funny Car favorite in advance of this week's 17th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts Summer Nationals, it would be difficult to discount rookie Robert Hight and the Team Castrol/Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang.
Already an event winner this season (at Houston, Texas), Hight just missed a second victory two weeks ago when he lost to Force by .002 of a second in the final round of the Summit Southern Nationals at Atlanta, Ga.
Consequently, while Force may be the POWERade points leader, Hight is the tour's unchallenged performance leader. His average time for his last 10 quarter miles is 4.810 seconds and he now owns the dubious distinction of having become the first Funny Car driver ever to LOSE consecutive races while breaking the 4.80 second barrier -- 4.796 against Force at Atlanta and 4.793 last week in a second round loss to veteran Gary Scelzi.
"He could just as easily be in the lead," Force said of his 35-year-old son-in-law. "He's done a great job."
Instead, Hight will be third in points this week when he makes his first competitive appearance at Heartland Park. He trails only Force and Scelzi, drivers who between them have won 16 series championships. Hight hasn't even driven in 16 events.
The runaway leader in the race for the Auto Club's 2005 "Road to the Future" award that identifies the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year, the soft-spoken Hight gives all the credit to Force, for giving him the opportunity of a lifetime, and to crew chief Jimmy Prock, for giving him a race car that has been a contender at every event.
In fact, in his eight pro starts, Hight has qualified no worse than sixth and twice has started the Auto Club Mustang from the No. 1 position.
"Jimmy's really come into his own as a Funny Car crew chief," Hight said. "He seems to have just the right tune-up for every condition. The thing is, we've been consistent and that's what John always has said: 'you can't win championships if you're not consistent.' You have to win some races even when you don't have the best car. You've got to find a way."
So far, Hight has found a way. He's done virtually everything asked of him as the successor to popular veteran Gary Densham, who won two races in each of the last four seasons in the Auto Club Ford.
Ironically, though, Hight might not have gotten an opportunity if Force hadn't taken a chance on another rookie driver.
When the 13-time series champion put Eric Medlen in the cockpit of the Castrol SYNTEC® Ford last year as the successor to Tony Pedregon, it was a gamble, albeit a calculated one.
"If Eric had failed, Robert wouldn't have gotten his chance," Force said. "Because of Eric (who won last year at Brainerd, Minn.), when I went into the boardroom, it was a lot easier to sell them on Robert."
An added benefit has been Medlen's interaction with Hight. The two already had a relationship, having served together on Force's Castrol GTX® crew, but the bond has been reinforced since they have become "student drivers" along with 22-year-old Ashley Force in a calculated program to create the Next Generation of JFR winners.
"Eric went through all the rookie stuff a year ago," Hight said, "and he's walked me through every bit of it. I would never be where I am without him."
Where the two ultimately will go, together, is anyone's guess. One thing's for sure, though, they're bound to get there in a hurry.