NHRA: Robert Hight begins bid for next 50 wins this weekend in Seattle

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When Robert Hight began working as a clutch specialist on John Force’s Funny Car in 1995, it was clear he had ambition and goals to achieve. He toiled in that role for eight years, earned his Funny Car driver’s license in 2004 and began racing full-time on the NHRA national circuit the following season.

And he never lost sight of that ambition and goals. He became president of John Force Racing and this past Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, north of San Francisco, became only the third driver in Funny Car history to earn 50 career wins (the others are John Force, with 149 wins, and Ron Capps with 62 Funny Car wins).

No. 50 couldn’t have come at a more special place for Hight.

“I’m amazed that we’ve racked up that many wins in 15 years,” Hight told NBC Sports. “It’s special to do it in Sonoma, where I attended my first NHRA national event and is the closest racetrack to where I grew up in Northern California (tiny Alturas, Ca.).

“Sonoma is really my home track. We came in there as defending champion and got it done again, and we did it from the No. 1 qualifying spot, which shows the domination we’ve had all year long actually.”

To further put Hight’s accomplishment in perspective, the two-time NHRA Funny Car champ is in a unique fraternity with Force and Capps.

“It’s amazing because if you look at the Funny Car racers of the past and who I think are the all-time greats, besides John Force, there’s Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme, Raymond Beadle, Ed McCulloch,” Hight said. “When I grew up those were the guys I watched in Funny Car. Those guys were my heroes. And now to say I’m ahead of them all in wins is pretty amazing. You only dream of stuff like that.”

Only one other thing would have made Sunday’s win even sweeter, but it was not to be.

“Honestly, I thought it was going to come down to John and I in the final, but then he had a mechanical problem and couldn’t even make the run in the semifinals,” Hight said. “That would have been pretty exciting, to race him in the final. One of us shooting for 50 and the other shooting for 150 and being teammates. That would have been a lot of fun.”

Ironically, Hight hit win No. 50 before he even turned 50 years of age: he hits the mid-century mark on August 20. He sees how his boss – and father-in-law (Hight is married to Force’s oldest daughter, Adria) – continues to have a successful career at the age of 70.

When asked how many more wins he can earn in his own career, Hight remarked, “You look at John Force, he’s 20 years older than me and he’s still going strong. No one will ever catch John for wins in Funny Car. Capps and I are racing for second, basically.”

Hight has won five of the first 15 races this season in Funny Car, as well as recorded eight No. 1 qualifiers. He’s led the points since the season-opening race at Pomona, California. The two-time champion is bound and determined to avenge last year’s end result: he lost the championship to J.R. Todd on the final day of the season.

Otherwise, Hight would have a third championship. Coming so close to the title at the end of 2018 convinced Hight and his team to do something that is somewhat unusual in NHRA. Typically after every season, even the most successful teams start from scratch and rebuild for the next season.

That wasn’t the case with Hight and Co. They knew they had a strong car and a strong team. So instead of re-doing anything, they merely refocused and built upon the success of last season with that elusive third championship in their sites in 2019.

“We really did a lot of hard work over the winter,” Hight said. “We won the championship in 2017, went down to the last day in 2018 for a chance to win it, didn’t get it done and (crew chief) Jimmy Prock and (assistant crew chief) Chris Cunningham, the whole team, a lot of times over the winter you work on new things to go quicker and faster.

“We didn’t do that this year. We worked on consistency and looked real hard why we didn’t get that championship last year. That’s what we worked on, to get more consistent.

“You take every run you make, especially the ones where you don’t make it down the track, smoke the tires or lose traction, and you start working on the areas to improve it. By doing that, you’re increasing your odds, and it really has paid off.

“Most of the time, when you lose a drag race you beat yourself. It’s not that you get outran, you smoke the tires and you beat yourself. So, you have to minimize all that. It’s been a very good approach.”

While the record books will indicate Hight has won 50 races, he doesn’t look at it that way. Rather, his team has 50 wins.

“It’s the team around me, that’s what I love most about a win, it’s not what I do in the car,” Hight said. “I used to be a mechanic, used to work on the cars and I know how hard each individual works. It’s really fun to go out and get a win as a team because this is a team sport. It’s not like golf, where you make a bad shot, it only affects you. That’s what really keeps me going.”

Hight goes for his sixth win of the season in this weekend’s NHRA Northwest Nationals in suburban Seattle, the third and final race of the annual Western Swing. Given the success he’s had this season, along with three races remaining until the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Hight feels he’s peaking at the right time.

“Jimmy Prock always says when you go out on the Western Swing, that’s when you really need to have your combination ironed out and worked out,” Hight said. “You don’t need to be testing and trying new things or fighting problems this time of year. This is where you really hone in on a combination and for better or worse, you stay with it.

“The Funny Car class is the hardest class to win in and it’s the most competitive. To have five wins shows these guys have done their homework and we are more consistent. Most of the races, we’ve been top speed and low ET. We have eight No. 1 qualifiers so far (in the first 15 races).

“Really working on the consistency and the areas where we needed to improve, I think that’s paid off. I don’t think we’re necessarily quicker or faster than we were last year, but just more consistent. And that’s how you win drag races.”

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NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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