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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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”