NHRA

NHRA: Robert Hight standing tall in bid for third Funny Car championship

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With a surname like Hight, it’s not surprising that Robert Hight is standing tall in the NHRA Funny Car ranks heading into this weekend’s NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina.

Hight – whose real height is 5 foot, 10 inches – is towering over the rest of the Funny Car class as the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs move into its second half.

After Charlotte, two Countdown races remain to crown a champion: in Las Vegas (October 25-28) and the season finale in Pomona, California (Nov 8-11).

Hight is going for his second consecutive Funny Car championship this season and the third of his career (his first title came in 2009). No Funny Car driver has won back-to-back championships since Hight’s boss, John Force, did so in 2001 and 2002.

Heading into this weekend, Hight, who is president of John Force Racing, has won the last two races (St. Louis and Dallas) and leads J.R. Todd by 50 points, followed by Tim Wilkerson (-133 points), Tommy Johnson Jr. (-136) and JFR teammate Courtney Force (-155).

“That final round in Texas was huge,” Hight said of Sunday’s win at Texas Motorplex. “It was a 40-point swing. If I would have lost I would have only had a 10-point lead.

“We got the win in the AAA Texas Camaro and now we have 50 points on second place. That isn’t a huge lead but it sure is better. We will have to keep our focus.”

While Hight, who now has four wins in the first 21 races of the 24-race 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, has made his success in the playoffs look easy, it hasn’t exactly been that way.

At Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis nearly three weeks ago, he suffered the worst engine explosion of his career. The explosion was so bad that it propelled his car into a concrete retaining wall, causing Hight to suffer a broken left collarbone.

Three days after that incident, he underwent surgery to repair the collarbone, having a titanium plate and four bolts inserted to reinforce the collarbone. He will likely have to keep the rod and bolts in his collarbone for the rest of his life.

“I was laying (in the hospital) and hearing them say collar bone and eight weeks to get well,” Hight recalled after being taken to a local hospital following the explosion at St. Louis. “I was thinking ‘Oh Man!’ I have the points lead and these opportunities don’t come around that often.

“I got back to California and Tom McKernan with the Auto Club said he would take me to see some doctors. The first doctor said the same thing, ‘Just let it heal.’ The next doctor at USC said I needed to get it fixed especially considering the line of work I am in. He said I could be back in a couple of weeks.

“I did everything he said I should do. I went back late on Thursday after over a week of resting. He gave me the clearance and I built an apparatus to keep the shoulder restraints off of my collar bone.”

Hight wasn’t medically cleared to race this past weekend at Dallas until one day before the event began last Friday.

“I was apprehensive about getting back in the car on Friday,” Hight admitted. “You don’t know what to expect especially since it was a brand new race car.

“We had another car in the trailer but (crew chief) Jimmy Prock didn’t really want to run it. We ran it earlier in the year. We had to start with a brand new car. There are always gremlins and things that you have to work out with a new car. This AAA team was flawless. We just got better all weekend long.”

After four qualifying runs, Hight went into last Sunday’s eliminations 7th in the 16-driver Funny Car field and powered forward to yet another victory.

“There is no way I could have raced without the surgery, some rest and the redesigned safety equipment from Simpson,” Hight said. “I had to go over and thank Greg Anderson, the Pro Stock racer from Mooresville (NC), since he actually had a similar chest protector designed after he had heart surgery few years ago.”

Hight has three career wins at zMAX Dragway in the fall NHRA race there. His 11 Countdown wins to date are also the most of any Funny Car driver in Countdown history.

“I love racing at Charlotte,” Hight said. “Our focus will be on winning that race. I would love to get three wins in a row in the Countdown and get our fourth win at the Carolina Nationals.”

Qualifying for the NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway begins Friday with sessions at 3:30 and 6 p.m. ET and continues Saturday at 1:30 and 4 p.m. ET Eliminations will begin Sunday at 11 a.m. ET.

“I made a prediction early on going into the Countdown that I needed to win three races and not have any first round losses,” Hight said. “So far so good. We are halfway through the Countdown and we have two wins and a semifinal.

“Fifty points is not a big lead over JR Todd. That car is strong and he is a good driver in a car that has been to two finals in the Countdown. We have to keep pushing all the way to Pomona where it is points and a half. Anything can happen. We have to keep pushing.”

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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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