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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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”