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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Donny Schatz edges Kyle Larson for Outlaws victory at Lake Ozark

Trent Gower/World of Outlaws
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Donny Schatz made a last-lap pass on Kyle Larson, snatching a World of Outlaws victory Saturday night at Lake Ozark Speedway.

Larson started on the pole, led 30 of 35 laps and was in control until a caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish before a limited crowd in Eldon, Missouri.

Schatz and Larson traded the lead twice over the final two laps, but the 10-time champion emerged with his first victory since the NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series returned in mid-May from a two-month layoff because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

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“Man, I don’t know what to say, but Kyle’s a damn good racer,” Schatz, who led five laps, told DirtVision after his 296th Outlaws win. “I kind of had to go where he didn’t. We got that green-white-checkered, and I decided I was going to send it. He decided the same thing.

Donny Schatz celebrates at Lake Ozark Speedway after his second Outlaws Sprint Car victory of the season (Trent Gower).

“I’m glad to get the win. It feels like it’s been forever. I’ve been out here 24 years, and every night is a learning experience still.”

Larson finished second in his fifth start since he began racing with the Outlaws after being suspended from NASCAR.

“Obviously, it would have been nice to get the win,” Larson said on DirtVision. “I figured Donny would rip the middle. The restarts before, he’d almost clear me in (turns) 3 and 4. I should have known to protect and block his momentum. I felt I exited 2 OK. We don’t have spotters or rearview mirrors so you can’t see how close he is or really hear it when the pace is so slow.

“I just didn’t do a good enough job to run a smarter final couple of laps.”

Brad Sweet, Larson’s brother in law, finished third, with Shane Stewart and David Gravel rounding out the top five.

Larson rebounded from a 10th in Friday’s feature at Lake Ozark Speedway, continuing his streak of top-10 finishes in all five of his starts since the Outlaws’ return.

“We got our car a lot better from last night, so that was a plus,” said Larson, who finished second and first in back-to-back nights last week at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at Pevely, Missouri. “These guys are really tough. To be on the podium with Donny and Brad, they’ve won lots of big races and championships, it’s nice. I just didn’t do what I needed to do that last restart.”

Larson nearly had a flawless night Saturday, turning a 11.426-second lap to capture his second pole position this season and won the pole dash to start first in the feature.

Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing from his NASCAR Cup Series ride last month for using a racial slur in an iRacing event, said last week that he plans to run several more NOS Energy Sprint Car Series races this year.

Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR but was approved to race by the Outlaws after completing sensitivity training.