In winning last week’s JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Chicago, two-time and reigning NHRA world champion Robert Hight showed once again why he, crew chief Jimmy Prock and the team that supports their Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car never can be counted out.
Even though, admittedly, he never ran fast enough in qualifying to deploy the braking parachutes, Hight turned things around on race day and rolls into this week’s NHRA Virginia Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park outside Richmond as one of the favorites along with teammate and points leader Courtney Force.
“Qualifying obviously didn’t go that well,” Hight said of his No. 12 start at Chicago, “but when you have a team like this behind you, you never lose faith. I always believe in them. I know we’ll face some of the same challenges this week at Richmond with the summer heat and the different way the NHRA is prepping the track, but I have confidence that Jimmy, Chris Cunningham and the rest of my guys will give me an Auto Club Camaro that can win no matter the conditions and no matter where we start.”
Winning, after all, is Hight’s unspoken middle name. No one ever has started a pro career in the way the former competitive marksman has — by winning at least one tour event every season. In Hight’s case, last week’s success ran his streak to 14 consecutive campaigns with at least one tour victory and at least one No. 1 start.
Overall, the President of John Force Racing has won 42 times on the Mello Yello pro tour and on each occasion has done so at the wheel of a Funny Car backed by the Auto Club of Southern California. Not that it’s been that easy.
“There are no easy outs out here,” said the diehard LA Dodgers baseball fan. “When you win one of these races, you definitely earned it. There is a lot of pride in winning, especially with so many competitive cars out there right now. You saw a lot of first round upsets in Chicago and you’re probably going to see more this week.”
One of the issues that has leveled the playing field is NHRA’s track preparation. It’s a policy designed to slow the cars down after Hight pushed the Auto Club Camaro through the 1,000-foot timers in a national record-setting 3.793 seconds at almost 340 miles an hour (339.87 mph) last season.
The upshot is that generally there is less available traction, forcing both crew chiefs and drivers to make adjustments.
“Now, as a driver, you have to keep the car right in the middle of the groove,” Hight said. “You have to do more driving, which I like. The other side, though, is that when you have crew chiefs like mine who want to swing for the fences and have low ET every round, the new track prep is an issue. It has been a big learning curve for us but I think at Chicago we may have turned a corner.”
Although his first win of the current season came a month earlier than his first win in last year’s championship run, it still came too late for Hight to win bragging rights under his own roof. Daughter Autumn, 13, won a Jr. Dragster race at Barona Drag Strip in California the week before her dad’s Chicago’s win.
“Trust me, I’ve heard it a lot already that she won before dad did this year,” Hight said. “I’ll be honest, as excited as I was about winning my first race of the season, I was maybe even a little more excited for her.”
Nitro qualifying for the Virginia Nationals will begin on Friday with sessions at 3:30 and 6 p.m. and continue Saturday at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Single elimination finals will begin at noon Sunday.