For the third time in his eight year career Robert Hight and the Auto Club Ford Mustang have won the most prestigious race on the NHRA Mello Yello Series, the 59th annual Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals.
Hight defeated Jack Beckman in the final round 4.111 seconds to 6.072 seconds just three rounds after Hight clinched his spot in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
Hight entered the race in the No. 10 spot in the points and left Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis in the No. 9 spot and with his 28th career win, the second most for a John Force Racing Funny Car driver. Hight was previously tied with Tony Pedregon at 27 Funny Cars at JFR.
Entering the race as the No. 7 qualifier Hight was not overly confident at the end of the day on Sunday. A conversation with crew chief Mike Neff, winner of the past two U.S. Nationals gave Hight a confidence boost.
“Mike Neff really changed things for me this weekend. Yesterday when the day was over we were seventh and that is not our usual solid qualifying effort. When we got back to the pits he came up to me and said we have them right where we want them. I looked at him like, ‘Are you kidding me?’
He said he has won the last two US Nationals and we didn’t qualify well. He said come Monday we will be fine. He said we will run well,” said a focused Hight.
“To add to the pressure we have to go up there and race Cruz Pedregon in the first round. He is one of the toughest competitors out here and when his car is on, he is tough to beat. We are trying to stay in the Top Ten. There are like a million things going on. I didn’t sleep last night,” said Hight.
Once again the calming influence of crew chief Mike Neff helped his driver relax and focus on the task at hand.
“Right before the first round Neff came up to me and said, ‘Listen regardless of the outcome we are in this together. We are going to believe in each other and we are going to stick together.’ It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.
I am up there trying to do a good job for him and this Auto Club team. They were doing well until I stepped into the seat. It was the perfect time to win,” said a relieved Hight in the Wall Parks Media Center.
At the end of the day Jamie Allison released a statement of support for the four Ford Mustang Funny Car teams as they enter the 2013 Countdown.
“What a great way to enter the playoffs – with a win for Robert Hight!” said Jamie Allison, Director of Ford Racing. “Of course, when one of your teams doesn’t make it it’s bittersweet, but we’re looking forward to a strong finish to the season for Ford. We’re committed to helping our teams win the championship this year. We wish all of our teams good luck in the Countdown.”
It had been thirty five races since Hight saw four win lights on race day. His last win was the Four Wide NHRA Nationals in Charlotte. He had one final round appearance in that stretch losing to Johnny Gray in Topeka this year.
“This is definitely the biggest win of my career. You start doubting yourself. We won four in a row early on last season and then went on a complete dry spell. I think I have only been to one other final and that was Topeka this year,” said Hight who has won at least two NHRA Funny Car races every season his entire career.
“You start wondering about yourself. Then we make the big switch and I go over and drive for the Castrol team and we just move all my Auto Club decals. They were running well and winning and you start doubting yourself. You start asking yourself if I am the problem. John (Force) went to the final in Sonoma and all that stuff starts wearing on you. You start thinking about it.
Hight defeated Cruz Pedregon in the first round and clinched his spot in the Countdown when Bob Tasca III lost in the first round to Tim Wilkerson. Hight reflected on how tough the Funny Car class is and how he entered the Countdown in the No. 10 position in 2009 on the way to his first Funny car championship.
“It is not getting any easier. In fact I think competition is tougher now than when I won the championship in 2009. You don’t see people going out there and winning three races in a row any more. It just doesn’t happen. From the No. 9 position we are going to have to put together a hot streak. If we want to win the championship we are going to have to win at least two races and go to the semi-finals in the rest of the races.”
This was the sixth year in a row for John Force Racing to win the Funny Car title at the Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals. Hight started the streak in 2008, then teammate Ashley Force Hood followed with wins in 2009 and 2010, and Hight’s current crew chief Mike Neff added his two U.S. Nationals in 2011 and 2012. The team has won eight of the last ten Funny Car titles going back to Gary Densham in 2004.
“Keeping the winning streak alive was huge. Pulling up into the staging lanes right before we ran and you saw all these guys in JFR uniforms. There are more than normal because we are based in Brownsburg just right up the street.
There are so many guys that are behind the scenes that don’t get to go to the races,” said Hight. “From guys that make our chassis to the engine builders or the guys in the paint department we are a big organization and you want to get them in the winner’s circle. You want them to be a part of this and have a big celebration with them. That is exactly what we are going to do.”
Hight is now only one U.S. Nationals win behind team owner John Force who took out Paul Lee in the first round before losing to veteran Del Worsham in the second round. After Force beat Lee in the opening round the winningest driver in NHRA history was pulling for all his teammates and sponsors.