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

Bruce Martin Photo
Bruce Martin Photo
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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.”