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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Penske won’t discuss if Castroneves returns to Indy in 2020

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INDIANAPOLIS – NBC Sports.com asked Indianapolis 500 winning team owner Roger Penske if three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves would return to the team in 2020?

Penske immediately brushed off the question.

“We’re not going to talk about that right now,” Penske told NBC Sports.com. “I’m just not going to talk about it. We’re going to have a meeting about it before we decide, but I’m not going to talk about that right now.

“Simon won the race and that is what I’m focused on right now.”

Simon Pagenaud, gave Penske a record-extending 18thIndy 500 win on Sunday. Penske confirmed that Pagenaud will be back with the team in 2020 after he scored his first win in Sunday’s 103rdIndianapolis 500.

Castroneves was an NTT IndyCar Series regular at Team Penske from 2000 until the 2017 season. After that, Castroneves was shifted over to the team’s Acura IMSA Sports Car program, but the three-time Indy 500 winner was given a ride at both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the past two years.

The popular driver from Brazil is trying to join AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time Indy 500 winners.

But the whispers in Gasoline Alley indicate his future with Team Penske at Indy remain uncertain.

“I’ve heard the rumors, too,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.com on pit lane after his disappointing finish in the Indy 500. “I will definitely give it a good, hard think about coming back in 2020. I want to be the rest of the season, here.”

But, will Castroneves run the Indy 500 again?

“Who knows?” Castroneves told NBC Sports.com. “Let’s see what happens.”

Castroneves’s bid for a fourth Indianapolis 500 was derailed in a pit road incident after his first pit stop when he ran into James Davison’s Chevrolet on the team’s first pit stop on Lap 30.

The front wing of Castroneves’s Chevrolet was damaged and INDYCAR officials gave him a “Drive Through” penalty for “Avoidable Contact.” Castroneves would ultimate drop three laps down but finished one lap down in 18thplace.

Castroneves explained what happened to him earlier in the race and how it affected the rest of his Indy 500.

“The accident that happened in the pits hurt us for sure,” Castroneves explained. “We had a problem with the fuel mapping, and I couldn’t go over 200 miles an hour for four or five laps. We lost 35 seconds. There was a bug in the system.

“Then, we went back out and that was it. I wasn’t able to recoup after that. I was excited. The car was very, very good entering the race.”

Castroneves spoke with second-place finisher Alexander Rossi, who was furious with the driver from Brazil earlier in the race for not moving out of the way, even though he was three laps down at the time.

The two drivers hugged, and Castroneves walked back up pit lane.

“I did what the team told me to do, and they told me to go as fast as I could,” Castroneves explained after talking to Rossi. “It’s racing and everybody is upset they didn’t win.”

Castroneves hopes his walk up pit lane is not the final time as an Indy 500 competitor.

But it could be.

“I hope I can come back next year,” Castroneves said. “I’m really upset as a competitor, but extremely happy for Team Penske and for Simon Pagenaud for winning the race.

“The good news is I go back to the Acura sports car, but I will be dreaming about coming back here again.”