Looking For Domination in Consistency
Robert Hight is getting used to his position as the President of John Force Racing, Inc., He does not get a seven figure salary, the use of a private jet or stock options. What he does get is the opportunity to drive what many consider the most outrageous race car on the planet, the 320 mile-an-hour Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang Funny Car.
In Hight’s world, that is compensation enough.
The intense 44-year-old has taken his car to more final rounds (49), won more races (31) and started from the No. 1 qualifying position more often the last nine years than any other professional Funny Car driver. Beyond that, he’s won the championship (2009) and he has set NHRA national performance records.
Yet, despite it all, as a racer he remains unfulfilled.
This year, as he has in every previous campaign, Hight is looking for perfection – or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. While he knows that no one can win every one of the 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Series, the former clutch specialist believes it is possible to dominate for an entire season.
Getting comfortable with new crew chief Mike Neff who joined Hight right before the 2013 Countdown has been a work in progress that showed immediate success and at the start of the 2014 season is showing some long term staying power.
Hight has been good to start the season and he’s been good at the finish. Unfortunately, to this point in a spectacular career, he hasn’t been good, start to finish. That’s the goal and he is off to a great start in 2014 with four final round appearances in five races, two wins and the points lead.
Hight is widely considered the gold standard by which other pro drivers are measured. No one, not Force, not Don Garlits, not Don Prudhomme, not Kenny Bernstein, not even Tony Schumacher began their careers by winning multiple races and starting at least once from No. 1. Hight has also led the points at least once in eight of nine seasons.
That’s the foundation on which Hight begins his tenth season as a professional driver. His resume is the more impressive because he never had driven competitively in any kind of race car before Force named him the team’s test driver in 2004.
A year later, he was named driver of the Auto Club Ford, a car in which he won in just his fourth pro race and in which he earned the Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie of the Year. He’s never looked back.
Although his worst-to-first 2009 title run was a career-maker, Hight should have won the championship two years earlier. That was the year he withdrew from an event in Houston, Texas, following a testing accident that claimed the life of friend and teammate Eric Medlen. He wound up losing the title by 19 points.
“I can’t give John enough credit,” Hight said of his meteoric rise as a pro driver. “He took a chance on a guy from northern California that had never driven anything but a Ford F-150 truck. He sold me to all the sponsors. He put me with the very best people and it’s been a dream come true.”
Force may have provided the resources, but Hight insured the results. In seven seasons, he has started from the front 45 times, more often than anyone except Force (148), Bernstein (50) and Cruz Pedregon (55).
After toiling in relative obscurity for 10 seasons at JFR, first as a crew member on Force’s Castrol GTX Funny Cars and later as manager of the team’s California shop facility, Hight was ready when opportunity knocked. Now, he is hoping to secure the team’s 19th series title in the last 25 NHRA seasons.
By the time he was 16, he already had restored a Plymouth Belvedere, a car that would serve as transportation to college in Sacramento where he earned AA degrees in business and accounting while working part-time at Tognotti’s Speed Shop.
Upon graduation, and to the consternation of his parents, Hight began looking for career opportunities in drag racing. After starting as a Top Fuel dragster mechanic for Roger Primm Racing and driver Del Worsham, he fumbled his first opportunity with Team Force because of opposition from his family and then girlfriend.
Fortunately, he got a second chance when he took over as the clutch technician on Force’s Castrol GTX hybrid midway through the 1995 season. He celebrated in the winners’ circle his first week on the job, a habit that’s been hard for him to break.
While he was winning on the track, Hight also was having success elsewhere. What began as a friendship with Force’s oldest daughter, Adria, slowly blossomed into a romance that led to the couple’s 1999 wedding. In 2004, Adria gave birth to a daughter, Autumn Danielle, who today is her dad’s biggest fan.
Ironically, Hight’s commitment to his racing career almost ended that relationship before it even began.
“She would see a light on (at the shop) and stop to talk,” he said of his wife, the Chief Financial Officer at JFR. “She asked me to do things with her, but I wouldn’t (because) I was afraid I’d get in trouble. John made a point of reminding the crew that dating his daughters was off limits but, finally, she talked to him and he told me, ‘if you want to hang out with Adria, don’t worry about it. You’re not going to get in trouble.’”
It was all the re-assurance he needed.
Although he always nurtured the dream of driving a race car, Hight never believed the opportunity would present itself. It’s a perception that changed when Force opted to give Medlen a chance to drive the Castrol SYNTEC Ford that had been vacated by Tony Pedregon after he won a championship with JFR in 2003.
Ultimately, Medlen’s driving success provided validity for Force’s “Next Generation” initiative and Hight credits his friend, a six-time tour winner, with helping to insure his success.
If there was a victim of Hight’s total commitment to his racing career, it was his “other life” as a world class marksman.
One of a small number of shooters to have achieved the Grand Slam of marksmanship – 200 consecutive targets at the standard 16-yard distance, 100 at the maximum handicap distance (27 yards) and 100 doubles (two targets at once), Hight was good enough to be considered for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.
It’s an opportunity he chose not to pursue because of his racing career although he has applied the sport’s hand-eye coordination and concentration skills to his driving.
As a youngster, he also dreamed of a career in baseball and although he never played professionally, his racing success led to his introduction to one of his baseball idols, former Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda.
“It’s been great,” Hight said of his career, “but Jimmy and I still have a lot to accomplish. I’ve got a great team. We’re not through winning. I can promise you that.”