On Sunday afternoon during the season-opening event in Pomona, the pit area surrounding the Auto Club Ford Mustang wasn’t awash with smiling faces. Big numbers in testing and a No. 1 qualifying effort were followed by a frustrating opening-round loss when the race car was backed down too much and shook the tires. Robert Hight was visibly frustrated, and you could get between crew chief Jimmy Prock and his computer monitor at your own risk.
The event was frustrating but not deflating for the team that were anything but backed-down when they proceeded to reel off three consecutive wins. It's tough to say if the loss had a Bruce Banner-Incredible Hulk effect on the team, but their opponents haven't liked racing them since they got angry. There are maybe a handful of teams who are nearly unbeatable when they’re “on” (Matt Hagan, Mike Neff, and Cruz Pedregon come to mind), and the switch has certainly been flipped in the Auto Club camp. A confident Auto Club team is a dangerous Auto Club team.
“You can just see it when you are in the car and [Prock] is not having a hundred trips to the box,” said Hight. “You just see the confidence in his eyes and that gives you more confidence. You just go up there and cut a light and hopefully see that win light.”
Scoring three straight wins in the class that features drag racing’s most temperamental cars doesn’t happen very often, at least not since John Force’s 1993-2002 era of domination. Hight previously did it in the middle of the 2010 season. The other three most recent occurrences are Pedregon winning the last three races of the 2008 season, Force sweeping three races early in 2005, and Tony Pedregon winning three in a row in the middle of 2002.
Another indication how tough Hight is once he gets rolling is his record in final rounds. He is 15-2 in finals since the start of the 2009 playoffs. He made 4.0-second runs in both of his losses, which came at the hands of Hagan at the 2010 Chicago event and in the quickest side-by-side race in history at the season-ending race in Pomona in 2011.
One difference in Hight’s team this year is the depth of talent available in the camp. Hight maintained the exact same crew for the past five seasons with the exception of the body and tire position with Prock and assistant crew chief Eric Lane having been with the team since its inception. In addition to having the other John Force Racing crew chiefs and track specialist Lanny Miglizzi available to them, the team is also working with John Medlen, Dale Armstrong, and Ron Armstrong this season.
The “same old, same old” seems like a good formula for race situations. Despite going through some dry spells in 2011, Hight scored five wins that equaled the class-high mark. The presence of the trio of innovators at the races and especially at test sessions enables the forward-thinking Prock to sort through new ideas to benefit the performance of Hight and, by proxy, his teammates. This is one of few teams on the tour that legitimately looks forward to going out on test dates rather than viewing it as an obligation or punishment.
How long Hight can keep his momentum rolling and his ability to rebound once it ceases are to be determined. For the time being, competitors aren’t at ease when they see a blue car in the opposite lane.
The Fast Five
’s second win of the young season occurred in a different manner than his win at the season opener. He relied on career performances to topple foes in Pomona, whereas killer lights and consistent runs did the trick at The Strip. Massey qualified No. 2 but didn’t make the quickest run of any one round until the final. In fact, he didn’t make the quickest run of his own semifinal pair, but he used a .040 light to hold off Steve Torrence and score a final-round berth. A 3.83 with an event-best .038 light was enough to defeat teammate Antron Brown in the final.
Other than the result of the final round, Antron Brown
’s performance mirrored his 2011 win all the way down to the special Aaron’s/Matco Tools wrap on his dragster. Like 2011, Brown had trouble in qualifying and managed to get through the first round, this time via a holeshot win over Shawn Langdon. Like 2011, crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald cracked the code, and Brown ran low e.t. of eliminations, this time with a 3.77 at a career-best 326 mph. Brown won a pedalfest against No. 1 qualifier Morgan Lucas in the semi’s but wasn’t able to down his teammate in the final.
Bob Tasca III
scored his first round-win of the season and then some. Tasca recently added Dickie Venables to his arsenal that includes crew chiefs Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner, and the trio deciphered a track that had been giving other tuners fits. From the No. 2 qualifying position, Tasca used a holeshot to get by Jeff Arend in the first round and relied on a solid Quick Lane/Motorcraft Mustang beyond that to reach the final and vault all the way up to No. 6 in the point standings.
Pro Stock didn’t seem like a class that would boast four winners in the first four races due to the way it started as the Greg Anderson and Jason Line show, but here we are after Allen Johnson
became the latest addition to the winner’s circle. It was a victory not only for the Mopar team but for the engine shop led by Johnson’s father, Roy, which also produced the bullet that propelled Vincent Nobile into the opposite lane in the final. Anderson and Line were trailered in the second round by Johnson and Nobile, respectively. A.J. ran a smart race with good-enough setups that didn’t straddle the edge from crew chief Mark Ingersoll, whose victory was a sentimental one a few weeks after the loss of his father, Buddy.
One race after getting surprised by 2010’s quickest leaver, Rickie Jones, in the opening round, Vincent Nobile
flexed his bulging starting-line muscles once more in his first final-round effort of the season. He cut a .002 light in round one to hand Jeg Coughlin Jr. a rare holeshot loss despite Coughlin cutting a very good .016. He followed that with a holeshot win against No. 1 qualifier Jason Line. He drew a red-light from Greg Stanfield, who hadn’t given up a starting-line advantage all season, in the semifinal round at this event for the second straight year to reach the final against Allen Johnson.
Stat of the race:
In an event that could be dubbed “the Holeshot Nationals” or “Leaving Las Vegas,” a remarkable 12 elimination rounds were decided by holeshots in an event that didn’t feature Pro Stock Motorcycles. Top Fuel accounted for five holeshots alone and Pro Stock featured four and Funny Car had three.
Crew chiefs of the race: Todd Okuhara
and Phil Shuler
gave one of Top Fuel’s best leavers the opportunity to succeed with four consistent runs; Jimmy Prock
orchestrated the best run during qualifying and in three of four elimination rounds; Mark Ingersoll
, along with Roy Johnson
and John Nobile
, helped provide the setups for both Pro Stock finalists.
Best races: Antron Brown vs. Shawn Langdon, Top Fuel round one:
They ran two of the six quickest e.t.s of the round beside one another, and Brown’s .048 light decided the race by seven-10-thousandths of a second (approximately four inches).
Spencer Massey vs. Steve Torrence, Top Fuel semifinal:
Torrence probably deserved a better fate than having a perfectly good .056 light and low e.t. of the round result in a loss, both those are the breaks in the late rounds of Top Fuel racing. Massey earned the .009-second winning margin for the FRAM team.
Vincent Nobile vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Pro Stock round two:
Coughlin rarely gives up holeshot losses, but there’s not a big window for success when your opponent cuts a .002 light and is right with you in performance. It wasn’t the end of the day for Coughlin, however, as he went on to win the event in Super Comp driving wife Samantha’s dragster.
Matt Hagan vs. Mike Neff, Funny Car round one:
The 2011 Full Throttle champ was hungry for his first round-win of the year, and he would have to work for it against the second-ranked driver of the young 2012 season. Hagan got a slight edge on the Tree and parlayed it into a holeshot win when both drivers recorded 4.16s, and Hagan crossed the finish line first by a .013-second margin.