National Hot Rod Association racers seem to enjoy the exercise of gathering at the starting line on race-day mornings for driver introductions. They socialize with each other for probably the only time all weekend., sometimes bringing their children along. They laugh. They talk.
Funny Car driver Ron Capps made this past Sunday’s routine at Heartland Park Topeka memorable for Robert Hight — but after Hight scored a runner-up finish to Johnny Gray, Capps might have second thoughts about sharing such observations.
Capps came up to me and said it was good to have us back. That just shows the class of the guys we race. I am sure if we start really doing well he is going to take that back. – Robert Hight
“It was cool,” Hight said. “Capps came up to me and said it was good to have us back. That just shows the class of the guys we race. I am sure if we start really doing well he is going to take that back. It is cool that he noticed we had improved and said something.”
Capps even said he saw usually serious-looking Jimmy Prock, Hight’s heretofore frustrated crew chief, sporting a smile. Said Hight, “It is noticeable that the Auto Club team is back.”
Not only is Hight’s team starting to show its performance potential, but so is the entire John Force Racing organization.
Traxxas-sponsored Courtney Force has carried the banner for the Mustang trio early this season, winning the Winternationals from the top qualifying spot, leading the points on two separate occasions and advancing to two finals in the first four races. As the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour heads to Englishtown, N.J., she is the lone JFR driver with a winning elimination-round record at 9-7. (Hight is 8-8, and John Force is 5-8.)
It appears she won’t have to do all the heavy lifting from now on. John Force set the track elapsed-time record to flex his qualifying muscles for the first time since the 2012 Joliet, Ill., event. The JFR team was 1-2-3 in the order for the 11th occasion. That hadn’t happened since the 2010 Houston race.
John Force said, “This means a lot. It shows that John Force still knows what to do. I surround myself with good people. I would like to take credit, but credit goes to the people that give you the power. It starts at [his Castrol GTX Ford crew chief] Mike Neff and then right down the line. All our crew chiefs work together from Jimmy Prock to Dean Antonelli to Ron Douglas. That is what it is all about.
“We have been struggling. We are a good team because we work together and we communicate. Even with all my experience I sometimes still struggle with the driving. I told Neff if I knew what was going on then I wouldn’t need to pay all these crew chiefs,” the 134-time winner said.
He said he used his late father’s advice: “Don’t change in the middle of the stream and don’t forget which way you are going. The guys believe in me and I believe in them. They turned my cars around.
“You know you can’t just go back to how it was. We’re not running the car we ran in 2010 [when he and Neff collaborated for his 15th crown]. The technology changes and you’ve got to change with it. We have been working on different chassis and they are starting to run for us. We’ll figure it out and get ourselves back in the hunt.”
Hight can do that. The only other time he was winless after the first seven races was 2009. That year he squeezed into the Countdown to the Championship in the 10th and final place, got hot in the playoffs, and won the title.
Something positive certainly is going on with Hight, who had said before the Topeka race, “I don’t think I am in a drought but we are definitely not where we want to be.” At the close of the weekend, he wasn’t exactly where he wanted to be, either, as Gray won. But Hight was so elated about Prock hitting what appears to be the right tune-up for the first time in ages that he said before eliminations, “We ought to be deep in this deal and maybe meet one of my teammates in the final.”
I don’t think I am in a drought but we are definitely not where we want to be. – Robert Hight
The Don Schumacher Racing tag team of Capps and Jack Beckman prevented that in Round 2. Still, Hight earned eight qualifying bonus points last weekend for the first time in more than a year (the 2012 spring Las Vegas race). That’s quite a switch from last season, when he mustered only seven qualifying bonus points from the July event at Sonoma, Calif., through the November season finale.
John Force improved from 12th to 10th, to make the provisional Countdown field, although he still hasn’t advanced beyond the second round since Race No. 2, at Phoenix. Courtney Force is fifth in the standings.
Said Hight last Sunday, “I just kept expecting good runs. Without a doubt having a weekend like this is great. Now it is just a matter of time. We are going to win some races.”
He’ll see then how encouraging Capps is at driver introductions.