Robert Hight wasn’t about to let a broken collarbone get in the way of his pursuit of a third Mello Yello Funny Car championship, at least not if he had anything say about it.
The Funny Car veteran took over the points lead two weekends ago with his victory in St. Louis but a huge engine explosion at the finish line plunged his Auto Club Chevy hard into the guardwall, fracturing his left collarbone in the process.
“I felt it nose over a little bit like a dropped cylinder, but it had blown a spark plug out in the second round against John [Force] and ran 4.01 and if I had lifted there I would have lost the race,” he explained. “In the final round, I saw Tim [Wilkerson] fall back and I could see the finish line coming so I stayed with it. The next thing I knew the world exploded. It was the worst explosion I’ve had in my career.
“It turned left but both front tires were off the ground. There was nothing I could do. I saw the wall coming up at a pretty good angle and then it hit hard. It never knocked me out or anything; I was just wishing it would stop because it was bouncing down the wall.
“I didn’t know I was hurt until I tried to get out and realized there was something wrong with my shoulder. I could feel it instantly, so I took my time getting out of the car so I wouldn’t cause any more damage.
“The worst thing was that no one could tell me if I’d won. I knew I was close to the finish line and wasn’t sure if I’d hit the wall before or after.”
Hight was transported to a local hospital where x-rays revealed the break and doctors told him that the collarbone would heal just fine on its own -– in two months. Goodbye, championship.
Not entirely satisfied with that prognosis nor ready to pack up his championship hopes, Hight returned to Southern California where the team’s longtime sponsor and supporter, Tom McKernan of the Automobile Club of Southern California, got him two doctor appointments. The first doctor was also of the let-it-heal school but the second, Dr. George Hatch at USC's Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, decided that with Hight’s line of work and his desire to get back into the car, it would be better to perform an open reduction and internal fixation surgery that would use a metal plate and screws to rejoin and stabilize the fracture. Hight had the surgery Wednesday but even then it wasn’t a sure thing that he could race.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to race and it wasn’t like I was ready to do anything just to get back into the car,” said Hight. “I was going to take his advice and follow his instructions. He told me to come back [Thursday] to see how it was going.”
In the meantime, Hight built a carbon fiber shield similar to what Pro Stock racer Greg Anderson used after heart surgery to keep the shoulder belts off the surgery area. He got into the car with the belts tight and felt fine, then returned to see Dr. Hatch.
After Hight assured the doctor that his job did not entail any heavy lifting and that, in the course of driving, he did not need to lift his arm above his head, the doctor cleared him to return to competition this weekend.
“He told me that with this plate, the collarbone is as strong as it was before I broke it and would be just as strong once it was healed,” Hight said. “I wasn’t in any real pain, just sore. But I decided that if I felt the car nose over or drop a cylinder or anything like that, I was going to lift, and, because [Texas Motorplex] has a long runoff, I was only going to pull one parachute.”
Other than smoking the tires downtrack, Hight’s first pass early Friday afternoon in a brand-new car went fine and he experienced no problems at all with the shoulder. He expects to be back to pulling both parachutes next weekend in Charlotte.
“I’m just glad to get that first run behind me and be able to move on to trying to win the championship,” he said. “I’m good to go.”