Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro, took a few minutes to sit down and look at how his second NHRA Mello Yello championship came together as well as how important the championship was to his family and his relationship with crew chief Jimmy Prock. Hight, a four-time winner in 2017, captured the second championship of his career on the strength of two wins in the Countdown and three No. 1 qualifying efforts.
Q: Was the second championship more satisfying than the first?
I believe it was. It was easier to win the championship in 2009 because we did it from the No. 10 spot. I don’t think that is possible anymore unless you win four or more races in the Countdown. Four out of six would be tough to do. All I had to do was show up in 2009 and qualify and it was over. I also think we went into Pomona this year needing to go round for round with Ron Capps. He went a lot of rounds this year and won a lot of races. He was the current champ so there was a lot more pressure on him. This one was more special. I also got Jimmy Prock back as my crew chief. I was pretty bummed in 2013 when John (Force) switched crew chiefs and he ended up winning the championship that year. I was pretty bummed and then Jimmy left after that. We were lucky enough to get him back and I was really lucky to have him as my crew chief. I always thought that there was some unfinished business. With all that and the difficulty to win in this class and how hard it is this championship is more special.
Q: Talk about going up against Ron Capps this year and that rivalry this season?
He is a great driver on a great team. He won the most races this year. Jimmy Prock called it when they were winning all those races this year and he said it would be tough for them to keep this up so we better get our act together at the right time. They were peaking at the wrong time which turned out to be the right time for us. Jimmy didn’t think they could maintain that level. Our goal was to get our act together by the time the Western Swing started and that is exactly what we did. We won two of the three Swing races and set national records along the way. So the rivalry was fun. Capps is a great racer and I respect him. We both give it our all and we don’t play any games up there. I was the first to congratulate him when he beat me and he was the first to come over and congratulate me. It is a rivalry that is going to continue. It is a long way from over.
Q: Talk about the performance of your car and your team over the last half of the season?
The way my Funny Car ran from Denver until the end of the season gave me so much confidence as a driver. When you feel like you roll up to the starting line and you have to pull a rabbit out of a hat because your car isn’t very good that is when you make mistakes. When you have the confidence that you just have to do your job you can win a lot of races because it makes it so much easier. For a while I was down on myself the last couple of years. I don’t blame the car. I blame myself. I am realistic and think, ‘Am I part of the problem?’ You start getting down on yourself and losing confidence. It is tough so when we got that first win and started turning it around, my driving got better. My lights got better. I was having a lot of fun. We were all having fun doing it as a team. I think that is the most important thing. We have a group of guys that can work together and are really like family because you are with them all the time on the road. We had a blast. For the most part this is the same team I won with in 2009 with the exception of Chris Cunningham. He makes Jimmy better. I am looking forward to next year already.
Q: Talk about your relationship with Jimmy…
I started my career with Jimmy from 2005 until 2013 so most of my 41 wins are with Jimmy. I was really bummed when we split up. He was my best friend. There wasn’t a day that went by when we didn’t talk to each other. Our wives used to joke about it. They thought Jimmy and I talked more to each other than we did to them. We were always on the same page. Racing was all we did and it was what we loved. I felt like I won the lottery when I got him back. We have to make this work and we did. Jimmy and I are very close and I feel like he is the best out there. There are a lot more wins to come and we just have to keep it together.
Q: You and Brittany have two double up wins together and you clinched your championships together. What is that relationship like?
It is pretty cool. I was at the top end when she won her first race in Gainesville and that was the first double up for John Force Racing. It was the coolest thing to see her get that win. It took a while for that to happen and she was so jazzed when it happened. To get to do it again in the Countdown in Dallas when it really counts and all of us were dreaming of winning two championships with two great teams. To both clinch championships on the same day in back to back rounds was amazing.
All I can say is Brittany Force is going to become so much better of a driver because now she has done it and dealt with the highest level of pressure that a driver can get. She had more pressure than I did to win her championship. She was behind in the points and she had to go down the track to win. I didn’t have to because I was the first pair in my battle. There wasn’t that kind of pressure on me. She dealt with the highest level of pressure and dug down to do her job really well. The next time it will be easier because she has done it before. I am really proud of her and proud of that whole team. To be at the top of both of these classes we are going to have fun next year being champs.
Q: What was it like to share this championship with your daughter Autumn who can really understand the meaning?
She spends all summer on the road going to races with me. She loves going to as many races as she can especially the close ones like Las Vegas, Phoenix. She loves racing. From Vegas on all I know is I had to hear about how nervous she was every day. She would say, ‘Dad I am so nervous.’ I would tell her not to be nervous because all we have to do is go out there and do our job. It shows you how badly she wanted it. If you watched the race on FOX they zoomed in on her during the broadcast and to see her react to me winning. I think she was more excited than I was. To see that emotion was priceless. I would like to somehow get a photo of that. She and I are a team. At the banquet I brought her out on the stage with my team because we all feel like she is on the team. She is my biggest supporter.
Q: What did John say to you after you clinched the championship?
He just made a run and when he got to the other end he was emotional. He said he was crying before his run because I clinched on a run before him. I think it was pay off for all the hard work we have put into this operation the last three years. We have had a lot of sponsorship changes and personnel changes. We tried to put the right people together which is an ongoing battle. It was validation that all this hard work paid off and what we are doing is the right direction. At that point Brittany hadn’t won the Top Fuel championship and we were on top of the world thinking we had won the Funny Car championship and then she gets the win and we were like, ‘Wow, there is no way to ever top this.’
Q: What does it mean to JFR to have both of the Nitro championships?
It is going to be huge when you go into a board room. Sponsors want winners. You have to stay in the spotlight and be relevant. The best way to do that is to win. In the era of the toughest competition we won both classes and one of them was with a single car team in Top Fuel. It just shows that we are going to be contending. We aren’t going to back down. We are only going to get better and stronger. This is beyond our wildest dreams.
Q: How excited are you to defend this championship?
Very excited. You have a target on your back and everybody is gunning for you. You want to represent the sport and the Funny Car class and do a good job. You want to present yourself as a champion. I am ready to get back out there and start getting round wins. Both of my championships would not have been won without the Countdown. The first year they had the Countdown I would have been the champion if they would not have reset the points. It has helped me and it has hurt me. Next year my goal is to lead the points from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. I want to win a championship whether there is a Countdown or not. I think we are only going to get better and I think that is possible if we all work together and stay focused.
Q: When did you feel like you were in control for the championship or did you even feel in control before you won it?
I never felt like we were in control even going into Pomona with a one round lead. What we hoped for going into Pomona was to get a bunch of those little bonus qualifying points and extend the lead so Capps would have to win two rounds on Sunday. Anything can happen when you are dealing with a car that has thousands of parts. Sometimes they have a mind of their own, no matter what your team does and how good they are. Anything can happen. That plan didn’t work because we got in on the last run as the No. 15 qualifier. Actually, going into Sunday we felt like we were the one chasing Capps. We had the tougher race first round if you compare us to Capps. I never felt like we were in control but once we won first round with the run we made, which was low ET for eliminations, I felt like now we were in it but there was still a lot of pressure. It could have come down to Ron and I in the semis and you have to go up there and cut a light. So many things could happen so I never felt like it was a done deal until he smoked the tires.
Q: Can you talk about how you felt on Friday and Saturday?
Friday we smoked the tires both runs but I didn’t really worry about that. I knew we would get two shots on Saturday and I knew it wasn’t going to rain and conditions would be decent. I wasn’t really that worried about it on Friday. Once we made the first run on Saturday and smoked the tires and we weren’t in then it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, anything could happen on the last run.’ Something could break. It could drop a cylinder. The stress level felt like they were testing me on Saturday for what I was going to have to do on Sunday. I am getting a head start on all the stress. On the last run I thought it was fine until right before half-track it started spinning the tires. I had to pedal it and get it recovered to get it in the show and then it blew up. We were all excited but we were still nervous. We had four runs and hadn’t made it down the track yet and we have to race Tim Wilkerson. We are trying to go round for round with Capps and it was a lot to think about. I couldn’t sleep at all on Saturday night. I still knew I had to believe and believe in my team. We are here for a reason and we have a job to do and we have the best car. Nobody was down and we knew we had to fix it. We all just stayed focused and determined to do our jobs. No one was negative and we all came together and it worked. Jimmy and Chris got it together and I knew if you gave those guys five shots they would figure it out.
John Force Racing