NHRA: Robert Hight back after surgery following ‘worst explosion of my career’

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For much of his career, in particular the better part of the last two seasons, Robert Hight has been a pain in the neck to his fellow Funny Car competitors.

You get that way after winning a second career NHRA Funny Car championship last season, as well as being in the points lead heading into this weekend’s AAA Fall NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex south of Dallas.

But Hight was the talk of Friday’s first day of qualifying at Texas, not so much for what he did in the two rounds, but rather for the news that came out shortly after he made his first qualifying pass.

John Force Racing, of which Hight is president (as well as son-in-law of team patriarch, 16-time Funny Car champ John Force), announced that Hight underwent surgery September 26 to surgically repair a broken left collarbone.

Hight suffered the injury three days earlier on Sept. 23 while racing to victory at Gateway Motorsports Park in suburban St. Louis.

Hight was crossing the finish line when the motor on his AAA Chevrolet Camaro suffered a major explosion. The impact forced Hight’s car into the left retaining wall, where doctors believe the injury initially occurred.

He was taken to an area hospital by ambulance immediately after the incident, but was released several hours later after the collarbone break was diagnosed.

Hight had originally thought he could play through the pain in the final four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. But upon further examination, it was determined that he had to undergo surgery to repair the collarbone, lest he potentially be ruled medically unable to race by the NHRA.

Hight’s surgery involved stabilizing the left clavicle with a titanium rod and four screws, hardware that not only will help him heal faster, but also that will likely remain in his collarbone for the rest of his life.

Fortunately for Hight, he was cleared to return behind the wheel Thursday by Dr. George Hatch of Keck Medical Center of USC’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery. That was good enough for the NHRA, which reinstated Hight to race again.

Hight is 7th after Friday’s two rounds of qualifying, with two more rounds set for Saturday.

Hight spoke with National Dragster editor Phil Burgess about the incident.

“In the final round (at Gateway), I saw Tim [Wilkerson] fall back and I could see the finish line coming so I stayed with it,” Hight said. “The next thing I knew the world exploded. It was the worst explosion I’ve had in my career.

“(The car) turned left but both front tires were off the ground. There was nothing I could do. I saw the wall coming up at a pretty good angle and then it hit hard. It never knocked me out or anything; I was just wishing it would stop because it was bouncing down the wall.

“I didn’t know I was hurt until I tried to get out and realized there was something wrong with my shoulder. I could feel it instantly, so I took my time getting out of the car so I wouldn’t cause any more damage.

“The worst thing was that no one could tell me if I’d won. I knew I was close to the finish line and wasn’t sure if I’d hit the wall before or after.”

Even after the surgery, Hight told Burgess, “I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to race and it wasn’t like I was ready to do anything just to get back into the car.”

Hight is wearing a special carbon fiber protective shield to keep the shoulder belts off the area that was surgically repaired.

“(The doctor) told me that with this plate, the collarbone is as strong as it was before I broke it and would be just as strong once it was healed,” Hight told Burgess.

After Friday’s two qualifying rounds, Hight gave the media at the Motorplex more insight into what he underwent the last two weeks:

“First I have to thank Tom McKernan from the Auto Club for helping me get right into one of the best doctors on the west coast,” Hight said. “I was able to get in right away and get my surgery so I could get back to the track. Immediately after the surgery I felt better. There was never any doubt I would be racing and today was a good day. I don’t feel any more sore now than I did yesterday.

“It has been a long week and a half. The worst feeling was the slim chance that I could be on the outside looking in. That wouldn’t have been any fun. Until you get in the car and make runs you don’t know how it will all work out. It is nice to get the first day over.

“We didn’t run the way we wanted to run (Friday). It is a brand new car and I think we will have better conditions tomorrow. I think you will see this AAA Texas team make some big strides tomorrow. I honestly believe we will be top four by the time the dust settles tomorrow.

“You don’t normally get back to this kind of activity after that kind of explosion. The doctor told me when he saw the video he said I should have had a lot more damage than a collar bone issue. He said those race cars must be pretty safe and he is right.”  

But while Hight is feeling better, that’s not good news for his opponents: “I’m just glad to get that first run behind me and be able to move on to trying to win the championship,” he told Burgess. “I’m good to go.”

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F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

MORE: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas fastest in Day 1 of F1 practice
MORE: Sergio Perez fastest early on Day 2 of F1 Practice

The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.