Highly touted as a pre-season favorite to win the Funny Car championship, many expected to see Robert Hight visit every winner’s circle on the circuit. However, his Auto Club Ford Mustang team encountered one of the worst slumps in recent memory and had a horrible regular season performance. They barely squeaked into the Countdown to 1 playoffs in dramatic fashion at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
Courtesy: NHRA Media Relations
MILLINGTON, Tenn. – In the sport of NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing, every racer knows that in just a few seconds – less than the blink of an eye – a racer can go from being a hero to a zero, and vice versa.
Nobody knows that better than Robert Hight.
Highly touted as a pre-season favorite to win the Funny Car championship, many expected to see Hight visit every winner’s circle on the circuit. However, his Auto Club Ford Mustang team encountered one of the worst slumps in recent memory and had a horrible regular season performance. They barely squeaked into the Countdown to 1 playoffs in dramatic fashion at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
At the time, he said he believed if his team got in the Countdown they could win it. Now he’s proving it.
After winning the first two playoff events in Charlotte and Dallas, the team has regained its swagger, and is focusing on finishing the deal. They have moved from ninth to first in the standings and now hold a 13-point lead over second place Ashley Force Hood.
“The first two weeks of the Countdown couldn’t have been any better for us,” Hight said. “We won them and went from worst to first, so it’s very exciting for me. It’s something I never thought was going to happen. I never lost faith in my team. You dream big, but this is huge.”
Hight will try to extend his points lead and come even closer to winning his first NHRA season title with a strong performance at the 22nd annual O’Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals presented by Pennzoil, Oct. 2-4 at Memphis Motorsports Park. Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car); Mike Edwards (Pro Stock); and Craig Treble (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the event, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.
After the season he’s had – which has included an uncharacteristic seven first round losses and two DNQs – the change in performance has given his team a powerful second wind that may just propel Hight to the podium at the awards ceremony.
“The first part of the year, we stunk this place up,” Hight said. “It was terrible. You begin to wonder, you know, if you can win because winning these races out here, they’re not that easy to win. Every round… if you’re a little late, if something happens, any little thing, you’re gonna lose.”
The turning point came after his DNQ at Brainerd. In an unprecedented move, he switched cars and crew chiefs with team owner John Force for the race in Reading. After that brief experiment, the two drivers went back to their primary teams at Indy, and Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock responded with a No. 1 qualifying performance and a runner-up finish to make the playoffs.
“It’s been a crazy month,” Hight said. “With all the switching we did with me going to John’s car (team owner John Force) and vice versa. It has been crazy. But for whatever reason, it has worked out. John Force, he’s not a tuner, but he definitely knows how to shake things up and whatever he did, it’s worked.”
Now that Hight and Prock are in the zone that many expected for the regular season, they can transform their less than spectacular regular season effort into a playoff run that could become known as one of NHRA’s greatest championship comebacks.
“Robert’s car has been running great and my personal opinion is Robert Hight is the favorite to win the whole thing,” said teammate Mike Neff, who is in ninth place in the point standings. “It is all about hitting your stride at the right time. They hit their stride in Indy.”
Hight has been the top qualifier at Memphis Motorsports Park three times – in consecutive seasons from 2005 to 2007. He has yet to reach a final at the Tennessee track but hopes to change that statistic this weekend.
“This is probably the best race car I’ve ever had,” Hight said. “We’ve won races and been close to winning the championship, but we’ve never been this dominant, this consistent, this steady; it’s going down the racetrack every run.”
Among the top threats to Hight’s late-season surge are Funny Car regular season champ Tony Pedregon, championship challenger Ron Capps, who led the point standings for most of the regular season, and defending winner Wilkerson, also last year’s championship runner-up. All three drivers are past winners here. Hight’s teammate, Ashley Force Hood, may have the most consistent car in the category, as her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang has posted two victories in seven final rounds and raced to five No. 1 qualifying positions. And no one can count out John Force, a five-time winner at the Tennessee track, the most for any pro driver in any category.
In Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher moved back into the series points lead with a win at Dallas, in a sizzling final round against rival Larry Dixon. Both drivers are past winners at Memphis Motorsports Park. Veteran driver Cory McClenathan held the series points lead for the first time in more than a decade after his emotional win in the first round of the playoffs. A two-time winner at Memphis, McClenathan has been a runner-up in his quest for the world championship crown four times and finished third in three other seasons. Others to watch in the 7,000-horsepower category include regular season champ Antron Brown, who will be driving a special red and white dragster with Toyota/Matco Tools sponsorship on the side. Brown won here on two wheels in 2004.
Defending Pro Stock winner Edwards comes to Memphis as the hottest driver in the category. NHRA’s new 3-2-1 qualifying bonus points system has been a boost for his championship dreams. At Charlotte he scored 10 extra points during the four rounds of qualifying and went on to win the race, and at Dallas he netted the maxium 12 bonus points and finished with a 90 point total for the event. He currently leads Jeg Coughlin by 65 points. Four-time world champ Coughlin, a two-time Memphis winner, is hoping for a three-peat under the Countdown format. Other favorites in the 200-mph category include hard-charging Greg Stanfield, who posted back-to-back runner-up finishes at Indy and Charlotte, and past champions Greg Anderson and Jason Line, Summit Racing teammates who are both past winners at this track. Anderson earned his second victory of the season this past weekend in Dallas, and moved to third in the standings, 80 points behind Edwards.
Hector Arana also benefitted from the new qualifying bonus system and powered his Lucas Oil Buell to wins in Charlotte and Dallas to open his series lead over defending world champ Eddie Krawiec. A runner-up finish here last year helped Krawiec win the championship title. Three-time world champ Andrew Hines, rookie Doug Horne and 2007 champ Matt Smith are the other favorites in the two-wheel category.
SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions for the O’Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals presented by Pennzoil, are scheduled for 2:15 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 2 and 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 3. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 4.
ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 10:30 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, Oct. 3. On Sunday, Oct. 4, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will feature NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET), and three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. (ET).
LUCAS OIL SERIES: The O’Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals presented by Pennzoil also will feature competition in four categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 2. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 3.
ON THE WEB: For complete online coverage of the O’Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals presented by pennzoil please visit www.nhra.com.