At the 2019 NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona back in February, Robert Hight came out swinging with the quickest pass on day one of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. On day two he collected his first pole position of the year. On day three, he hoisted his first Wally.
Fast forward nine months and 23 races later and Hight ended the 2019 season exactly the way he started it – right at the top.
Hight collected his third NHRA Funny Car world title and second in the past three seasons Sunday at the 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway, doing exactly what he had to do to earn the title – survive and advance.
His third championship puts him on an elite list of only four other drivers to win three or more Funny Car championships within NHRA competition – John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme, Raymond Beadle and, now, Robert Hight.
“You can count on one hand the guys that have won more than two Funny Car world championships. There are some pretty big names,” an elated Hight said. “And then you add my name to that list? It is like it doesn’t belong.
“With the competition level in Funny Car today you are not going to see the days of John Force winning 12 or 13 races, it is not going to happen. It is not possible. To win six races from start to finish, lead the points start to finish with the competition level in Funny Car, I’m going to cherish this championship the most because we earned it. We did our job.”
While exciting, Hight’s 2019 season ended just about as bizarrely as one could imagine.
After securing the championship in a win against Matt Hagan in the semifinals of Sunday’s race at Pomona, Hight decided to do a celebratory burnout to salute the fans prior to his final round matchup with Jack Beckman.
After a long, smoky burnout, Hight shifted the car into reverse, but on its way back to the starting line the car quit and Hight was forced to abandon his Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car midway down the track.
While distracting, Beckman proceeded to power his way to the finish with the quickest pass of the day to collect the win.
“I told Jimmy (Prock) to start first because normally we start second because we have a pretty quick routine and I didn’t want to screw Jack up at all. He is trying to win a race,” Hight said. “I wanted to do a big ole’ long burnout for the fans. It is something you dream about. We don’t get to do those things anymore because of how finicky these cars are and I was really hoping we could back up and make a great run and I could show the crew chief that long burnouts don’t hurt anything.
“That is what the fans love and they loved that. But I honestly don’t know what happened. I put it in reverse and I started hauling backwards. Maybe I was going too fast and all of the fuel ran to the front of the tank, but it leaned out and I’m thinking, ‘what do I do now?’
“I had to climb out of the thing, but the fans went nuts. It sucked because we didn’t get to run for a race win and get our seventh win of the season, but to hear the fans go nuts over that burnout was pretty cool. I just wish I could have made the run to prove to the crew chiefs that long burnouts don’t hurt anything.”
But it wasn’t all burnouts and celebrations for Hight at the NHRA Finals as the California native had to survive a gauntlet to secure the title. Hight eliminated team boss John Force in round one in Pomona and Shawn Langdon in round two before squaring off with Hagan in the semifinals.
With a title on the line, Hight got away first with an .041 reaction time and never trailed with a 3.977-second pass at 324.59 mph to Hagan’s 4.015 at 326.95 mph to dispatch his closest challenger coming into the weekend.
That pass secured Hight’s third Funny Car championship as he claimed the title by eight points over Beckman. Hagan finished third in the final standings.
“It was definitely a wild and crazy weekend. It started with qualifying, we went into the last round of qualifying in the bottom half of the field and you don’t’ want to do that here at Pomona because this place is very tricky,” Hight said. “You really need lane choice and my guys did a great job making a real decent run to get us locked in. Then we have to race the boss who has had the best car since Seattle. He’s still in this thing and he wants to win a championship because you never know when these opportunities are going to come around again. We had our work cut out for us and we got the win and we got to race Langdon in the next round and got by that.
“The most important run of my life was the semifinals against Matt Hagan. I’ve thought about this before – when it comes down to one run to win a championship how will you perform? Will you choke? Will you get the job done? You don’t’ know until you get there. You just keep trying to trick your mind that this is just another run, but you can’t trick yourself.
“My heart was beating out of my chest when I was staging the car and we got it done. Not to say that the next time it won’t go another way, but this time we got it done. It really would have been a shame to lose the championship after the season that we had. We’ve led the points from day one, which has been a dream of mine since the Countdown era to lead the thing from start to finish. To not have the Countdown save you or fall on your face when you get in the Countdown.
“This has been the most steady year that I’ve ever had. That is a real tribute to the Auto Club team, Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham, it is amazing. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to drive this Funny Car.”
A steady year would be an understatement to describe the year for Hight.
With the exception of a brief drop to third in the Mello Yello championship standings following Reading, Hight led the Funny Car points wire-to-wire and collected six wins in nine finals along the way.
Hight had wins at Pomona, Gainesville, Houston, Topeka, Sonoma and Charlotte and was the No. 1 qualifier eight times en route to a clean sweep of the Funny Car title.
Along the way, Hight collected his 50th NHRA victory at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals in July, a cherry on top of a truly historic season for the John Force Racing driver.
“Getting my 50th win, that was a big deal. There are not a lot of Funny Car drivers that have 50 wins and I am number three on that list,” Hight said. “We were just competitive all year and it started at this track in February. We were No. 1 qualifier, won the race and we were the No. 1 qualifier the first few races of the year. We started out good and finished good. Every single race we were a threat and that is what you dream about.”
In addition to his 50th win, Hight reiterated how exciting it was to lead the points all season and not have to rely on – or lose by – the points shift that accompanies the Countdown to the Championship over the season’s final six races.
“We’ve lost championships because of the Countdown and then my first championship I won because of the Countdown,” Hight said. “I barely got in at Indy and got on fire and won three races out of the six in ’09 and went on to win the championship. That was a lot of fun that year because I was racing my teammate for it. It wasn’t bunched up like it is today. In ’17 it was a pretty big deal as we got on a roll starting at the Western Swing setting records and, once the Western Swing started, we were on our way.
“That was all a lot of fun, but it doesn’t compare to what we were able to do this year.”
From a crew member on John Force’s team, to a three-time world champion driving for the legend himself, Hight was reflective following his win of just how far he has come in the sport he calls home.
“What is funny is back when I wanted to be a crew member, it wasn’t easy to do,” Hight said. “It was hard to get on a good team. It wasn’t like today. There are not that many kids (today) that want to do this kind of stuff and work on cars. Back when I did it, everybody did. There was a line to get on a good team like Kenny Bernstein or John Force. But that was my goal. Those were the elite teams and you are going to learn something and go somewhere.
“It took a while. A guy from Reno, Nevada, Roger Primm, gave me the opportunity and then I got to go to work for John Force. It was just like when I first got to drive, I thought I had made the big time. I’m working on John Force’s Funny Car, which is the coolest thing in the world. I really thought that would be my career path as a crew chief.
“I love nitro cars. There is nothing like them. I wanted to be around them and then John Force gives me the opportunity to drive and now here I am today. It has been a blur.”