Robert Hight has enjoyed immense success at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the odds again seem to be favoring the Funny Car star leading into the 15th annual SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals.
Looking to add to an already sizable resume at one of the world’s most state-of-the-art dragstrips, Hight, fresh off a victory at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, is poised to continue his early-season momentum March 28-30 at the fourth of 24 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events in the 2014 season.
This event always seems to bring out the best in Hight and his 8,000-horsepower Auto Club Ford Mustang: Hight has scored three of his four Las Vegas victories at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals, the most of any Funny Car driver. His four overall Vegas victories makes him a must-see attraction at one of the crown-jewel facilities of the NHRA Mello Yello Series circuit, and Hight, the 2009 world champ, talked about the challenges of the race.
“We always look at Las Vegas in the spring as the first really warm racetrack we are going to hit,” Hight said. “By the time you get to April in Las Vegas, it is starting to get hot, and it will be the first race for the hot-weather tune-up. To be successful, you need those four good qualifying runs, and you really need to stay focused all weekend. You can’t chase the bright lights of Las Vegas. The time to party is hopefully Sunday night after you have won.”
A year ago, Hight was kept out of the winner’s circle; Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) won the event that will again be televised on ESPN2. It snapped Hight’s quest for three straight wins at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals, but his hot start to 2014 makes him a favorite heading into this year’s event.
Hight, who has 29 victories, carried his hot finish to last season into 2014 and is second in points behind John Force Racing teammate and reigning world champion John Force. He outran his team owner and mentor in taking the victory in Florida at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville March 16. He posted a runner-up finish in Phoenix and sped to a career-best e.t. at the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, posting an impressive 3.986-second performance to crack the three-second barrier for the first time.
The strong start also exemplifies just how well Hight has meshed with crew chief Mike Neff, who was inserted into the position midway through the 2013 campaign.
“Mike really has a great tune-up this year, and we are starting to get into a really comfortable groove,” Hight said. “He is one of the best crew chiefs at the track. He will get the most out of a tune-up and track conditions, and that gives you so much confidence as a driver. I know that I just have to do my job. If I have a solid reaction time and keep it in the groove, we have a great chance of getting a win light. It is a lot of fun to drive a Funny Car that just pulls the whole way down the track, and Neff will give you a race car like that.”
It took some time for Neff, Hight, and the rest of the Auto Club team to find their rhythm in 2013, but everything clicked down the stretch: Hight won the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis to also clinch a berth in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship. He followed with a victory in Charlotte to kick off the Countdown and finished fifth in the points standings.
Hight is again a bona fide championship contender, but he will have a host of challengers in Las Vegas, including the legendary Force, a 16-time world champ who has four wins at the track. Ron Capps has a Funny Car-best five victories at The Strip at LVMS, and Alexis DeJoria outran Hight in the Phoenix final round to earn her first victory.
Other marquee challengers include defending event winner Pedregon, who has three Vegas wins, Courtney Force, Jack Beckman, Del Worsham, Tommy Johnson Jr., Bob Tasca III, and Tony Pedregon in what has developed into one of the tightest Funny Car fields in history.
“You have to keep working hard,” Hight said. “That is the key. You can’t let up. When we are running well like this, you know the other teams are working around the clock to try and catch us. We can’t let our guard down or get satisfied. We just have to continue to work hard and focus on these race cars. That starts with the teams to the drivers to the guys in the shop. It has been an unbelievable start, but at the same time, we know how quickly things can turn around.”
In Top Fuel, Schumacher has ruled The Strip, piloting his U.S. Army dragster to seven wins, and Antron Brown, the 2012 Top Fuel world champ, won the most recent event in Phoenix and posted a runner-up finish at the Gatornationals. Al-Anabi Racing’s Shawn Langdon took home the 2013 world championship, and his teammate, Khalid alBalooshi, has started strong by winning the illustrious Winternationals to begin 2014. Everyone is chasing red-hot series leader Doug Kalitta and his Mac Tools dragster after he won the Gatornationals, posted a runner-up finish at the Winternationals, and qualified No. 1 at the season’s first two events. Other contenders include Brittany Force, coming off her first final-round appearance, Spencer Massey, Steve Torrence, Leah Pritchett, rookie Richie Crampton, and veteran David Grubnic.
In Pro Stock, the reigning world champion is Jeg Coughlin Jr., and his Mopar Dart teammate, Johnson, is the defending event winner and current series leader, having won the last two events this season at stops in Phoenix and Gainesville. Winternationals winner and one-time Las Vegas winner Jason Line and his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro are after another early-season victory, and his teammate, Jimmy Alund, who is filling in for Greg Anderson, is also expected to challenge for the win. National speed record holder Erica Enders-Stevens, who finished as runner-up at the Gatornationals, V. Gaines, Shane Gray, Vincent Nobile, and Dave Connolly always provide tough competition in the ultracompetitive factory hot rod category.
The SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals is always a big weekend for Pro Stock drivers with the lucrative K&N Horsepower Challenge. Eight Pro Stock drivers will duke it out for bragging rights and a hefty $50,000 paycheck Saturday of race weekend. Johnson is a two-time and defending K&N Horsepower Challenge winner.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds and enjoy cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food, and fun for the entire family.
On Thursday, March 27, NHRA will host a Fanfest at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino (5-7 p.m.). The NHRA Fanfest will give fans an opportunity to meet and greet drivers, get autographs, check out some show cars, take photos with their favorite drivers, and more before the drivers go full throttle at LVMS.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins Friday, March 28, with sessions at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, March 29, at 1:10 and 4:50 p.m. The K&N Horsepower Challenge will run at 1, 3:45, and 4:45 p.m. Saturday. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday, March 30.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, log on to LVMS.com or call Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 800-644-4444. General admission tickets for children 12 and younger are free with any paid adult ticket.