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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Five things to watch for in Bommarito Auto Group 500 at Gateway

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There have been five different winners in the last five weeks of the NTT IndyCar season and driver that kicked off that streak in Elkhart Lake is in desperate need of a victory to help close the points gap to the leader. After being involved in the Lap 1 accident at Pocono Raceway last week, Alexander Rossi sits 35 points behind Josef Newgarden. Rossi’s two victories this season have come on road courses.

This week’s Bommarito Auto Group 500 the World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway is the third race on this track since IndyCar first revisited it in 2017. Newgarden took the checkers in 2017; Will Power grabbed the glory last year. Gateway also hosted races from 2001-2003.

Here are some of the storylines to watch this Sunday:

  1. For most of the drivers in the field, this will mark only their third time to race at Gateway, but two drivers were around in 2003 when IndyCar visited this track previously. Scott Dixon finished 15th in that race. He found the handle when Indy returned in 2017 to finish second and then third last year. Tony Kanaan was second in 2003; unfortunately he went the other direction and has not scored a top-10 at Gateway since.
  2. If one is looking for perfection on this track type, Simon Pagenaud is the only driver to sweep the top 10 on ovals in the past two years. In his last 10 starts on them, he has garnered an average finish of 5.2; his last five attempts have been sixth or better including a win in this year’s Indy 500. Pagenaud finished third at Gateway in 2017 and was fourth last year.
  3. The top two drivers in the points standings should also challenge for a top-five this week. Rossi was perfect alongside Pagenaud on ovals until his accident last week at Pocono with a sweep of the top 10 and seven top-fives in his last nine races. Newgarden also has nine top-10s and a worst of 13th on ovals in the past two years.
  4. Don’t count Dixon out of the points battle yet. While he currently sits 52 points out of first, Dixon is the hottest driver on the circuit with a current streak of five top-fives to his credit including his victory at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago. His oval record is a little spottier with two runner-up finishes and two 17th-place finishes in the last four races.
  5. Last week’s first-lap carnage ended Rossi’s top-10 streak at seven, but one other driver was able to sneak through and extend his. Graham Rahal will vie for his ninth consecutive top-10 this week, but that success is questionable in light of his Gateway record. Rahal finished 12th in 2017 and was barely able to crack the top 10 in 10th last year.

See More: IndyCar championship contenders seeing fortunes rise and drop

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