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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Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”