NHRA: Hight soaks up first Daytona trip, primed for Phoenix

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Often times it’s John, Courtney or Brittany Force that’s making the rounds as NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and/or John Force Racing ambassador at other racing events.

This past weekend, it was JFR President and a Funny Car ace and 2009 class champion in his own right, Robert Hight.

Hight spent the weekend at Daytona International Speedway in an ambassador role for Chevrolet, JFR and the NHRA as NASCAR kicked off its respective Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series seasons in an off-week for NHRA after the Winternationals at Pomona and next week’s second race outside Phoenix at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.

The trip was Hight’s first to Daytona and although he later admitted on social media he’s “not a good spectator,” he said he still thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“I’ve never been here. But you’re right, it’s like going to a state-of-the-art baseball stadium,” Hight told NBC Sports from Daytona this weekend.

“The escalators, the merchandising, the stands, displays and everything else. It’s unbelievable. It’s the way a stadium should be. I’ve got to take a lot of stuff in. (Saturday) during practice, I got to do some on-air stuff from FOX, and promote the next race in Phoenix. These people truly get into this race.”

Hight was coming into Daytona off a high from Pomona, where JFR started its 2016 season with some solid speed across the board both in Funny Car and Top Fuel.

Hight qualified third and could well have made the finals before a blower belt issue sidelined him in the semifinals. Ron Capps edged him, and then proceeded to edge Del Worsham in the finals.

“It was tons better than last year. We were all competitive,” Hight explained. “We all qualified in the top half of the field.

“Race day, I had the quickest car first and second round. I had issues with the blower belt against Capps. The belt was starting to shred. It came off before the finish line. I believe I could’ve won it, but we found the problem.

“We’re running right with the top cars. We were 3-4 hundredths behind (prior to this year).

The step in performance comes with better cohesion and understanding of the product compared to 12 months ago.

It seems hard to fathom John Force Racing as anything but a powerhouse, but with the team needing to get its commercial house of cards in order prior to 2015 and with a major switch from Ford to Chevrolet, there was more upheaval going into a season than at any point in years.

Hight explained how impressed he was with the first race turnaround.

“That was our focus all winter; we had to not leave anything on the table,” Hight said.

“Racing has changed in the last two years. It used to be you could play it safe, and get the win light. You push, and put it right on the edge. But you saw the final with Capps and Del. They’re separated by less than a thousandth at 320 mph.

“For us, we’re 100 percent better. This time last year, we were just worried about putting the organization back together. We’ve got the funding.

“It takes time to work with a new manufacturer. We’d been with the other one for a lot of years. The right hand knew what left hand was doing. Now, we know what Chevrolet wants. We’re working with their engineers.

“It’s a lot of fun being with those guys. They’re so excited about NHRA drag racing. In about two months, we should have a new Camaro body coming. It’s gonna be cool, and help us competitively.”

Hight caught FOX’s first weekend of broadcasts and said NHRA had assembled a good crew, and offered positive feedback.

Heading into Phoenix this weekend, he’s keen to lay down a time close to or exceeding what was a career-best pass in testing.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I did a 3.88, a career best, when we were testing there a few weeks ago. There’s no reason to think we can’t do it again, especially coming off how we did at Pomona. You could see one of us from JFR in Victory Lane.”

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds