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

NHRA
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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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AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”