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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IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.