NHRA: Robert Hight looks for another jackpot in Las Vegas

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When people think of John Force Racing, it’s almost always about team founder and patriarch, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion and the winningest driver in drag racing history, John Force.

But when it comes to success thus far in the first three races of 2019, folks are talking not so much about Force but rather more about JFR team president Robert Hight.

It’s not a surprise, really.

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Hight, a two-time NHRA Funny Car champ (most recently in 2017), has blasted out of the starting gate with outstanding success and consistency. He won the season-opening race in Pomona, California, reached the semifinals in the following race at Chandler, Arizona, and last week won the 50th anniversary Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

To say the 49-year-old Hight is red hot is an understatement.

This is huge, my fourth time winning here,” Hight said following the Gatornationals. “This is a big one, the 50th. There will only be one of these. It seems like my boss, John Force, always wins the big races. He just seems to win all the cool races but I finally got one.”

Hight, who is also Force’s son-in-law (married to Force’s oldest daughter, Adria), has blasted out to a big lead in the Funny Car points standings, holding a 105-point edge over “Fast Jack” Beckman. Matt Hagan is third (-115 points), followed by Force (-130) and Tommy Johnson Jr. (-139).

Hight, along with all the regular racers on the NHRA national event tour, are enjoying this weekend and next weekend off. But Hight is already thinking about how he can continue his run in 2019 at the next race, the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, April 5-7.

John (Force) probably is not going to want me going to Vegas because I beat him the first three races,” Hight laughed. “It would be cool if we were racing in the final.”

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Force has been chasing a milestone win since last season: his next triumph will be the 150th of his storied NHRA career.

That car and that team are really stepping up,” Hight said. “John’s going to get some wins. His 150th is coming, I know it is. It’s a lot of fun right now in our camp because all our cars are running well. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

The key to Hight’s success thus far has been hallmark consistency established in the setup on his Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car that has been dialed in by crew chief Jimmy Prock and assistant crew chief Chris Cunningham. That consistency streak actually began last season, when Hight finished second in the standings and won four races, the most victories he’s earned in a season since 2014, when he won five races.

Given he already has two wins in the first three races of 2019, there’s no question Hight, Prock and Cunningham have definitely hit upon a winning combination.

I’ve never seen a fuel car so consistent as what I have right now, especially a Funny Car,” Hight said. “Jimmy Prock is on it. He and Chris Cunningham are really happy with the clutch package we have and they keep talking a lot about how my car ran in 2017 (when he won his last championship).

It just responds and it repeats, so that’s a good sign. … Hopefully it gets better and better.”

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Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”