Robert Hight's challenge for 2023: Improve on the exceptional
Robert Hight's 2022 season in NHRA's Camping World Drag Racing Series was stunningly impressive, and although the championship did not come to fruition for the longtime John Force Racing Funny Car driver, winning eight races in 12 final rounds in a field packed with vibrantly capable cars borders on absurd. Hight was up to the task and well-equipped in his Jimmy Prock-tuned Chevrolet Camaro, and for the first time in his career as a nitro pilot, he recorded zero first-round losses. The strength of Hight and his team last season has been bolstered by increased support and rejuvenated leadership as they aim to finish at the top in the season ahead.
"Last year was pretty impressive," said Hight. "Having a team that doesn't make mistakes, one where you're all pulling in the same direction, that's what it takes to have a season like we did. I don't see why we can't have a lot of success this year, too."
Despite leading the points through all but seven of the 22 races last year, Hight was, in fact, put to the test all season long. Matt Hagan was a threat throughout, and in a season that produced four wins in eight finals for "Hulk Hagan," he lined up across from Hight eight times on Sunday. On six of those occasions, Hight sent him away empty-handed, but both times Hagan got the upper hand, it was in the money round.
Bob Tasca III recovered from a few early-season stumbles and made a habit of going rounds on Sunday to join the championship conversation, ultimately claiming three wins in five finals — and, significantly, getting the win light over Hight in a fate-shaping second round at the NHRA Finals.
The championship trophy went home with Ron Capps after an eventful and stunning performance there at the season closer, after he had held steady at third and sometimes second place for the bulk of the season. Although he didn't take possession of the points lead until the final hour of the final event, Capps had actually been the biggest thorn in Hight's side. The veteran drivers ran into one another 10 times on Sunday last year, and Capps stopped Hight four times — more than any other driver.
Capps absolutely earned the championship trophy, but Hight had been galloping right alongside the hardware all year and had been the points leader at the conclusion of each of the 12 events leading up to the NHRA Finals. Losing in the second round, then watching Capps go on to win the semifinals to secure the championship was a painful, disheartening end to what had been a very good season.
"I wouldn't say that I’m over it," Hight admitted. "It was a tough pill to swallow, the way last season ended. But doing the work to put together new deals this winter — in a way, that took [my] mind off of it. I'm kind of glad that we had an extra month this offseason with all the things we've been putting together. We needed that extra time.
"The biggest problem I have right now is — looking at the season we had and not being able to get the job done — how can we do better? You always want to work to get better, you always want to improve and grow, but what we did last year is going to be a tough act to follow. It's not going to be easy. It'll be hard to be better than we were, but that's what it's going to take."
Another potential challenge ahead could simply be change, but Hight is already standing eye to eye with the shift of tides, prepared and eager to embrace new and strengthened allies – and to take them to the winner's circle.
Early February brought a flurry of announcements out of the John Force Racing stable, many pertaining specifically to Hight. Jimmy Prock will remain at the helm as crew chief, but co-crew chief Chris Cunningham will move to Austin Prock's Top Fuel dragster to work alongside Joe Barlam in the wake of Rahn Tobler's retirement. Prock's expertise will now be complemented by a new duo: his son, Thomas Prock, along with former car chief Nathan Hildahl, will be co-assistant crew chiefs on Hight's Funny Car.
While the lead crew has somewhat shifted, the vinyl aesthetics of Hight's Funny Car will also be refreshed. An expansion of the team's partnership with Cornwell Tools will include primary sponsorship of Hight's Funny Car at 11 of the 21 races, and Flav-R-Pac Frozen Fruits and Vegetables will also expand their partnership with JFR as primary sponsor for Hight's car at the first four races of the year. He'll open the season in the Flav-R-Pac/Cornwell Tools/AAA Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car.
"For 18 seasons, I've only had one major sponsor," said Hight. "There are very few people who can say that they started their career with a company, like I did with Auto Club, and that company stayed on as a primary sponsor for 18 straight seasons. I was very proud of that stat. Now I'm looking forward to opportunities with new groups that are coming on board, and I feel I can represent them well. To see a Cornwell Tools Funny Car and a Flav-R-Pac car on the track and in the winner's circle – I'm excited about that."
Hight is also excited to get to play his natural role of "dad" at the racetrack. His daughter, Autumn Hight, graduated from Jr. dragsters to Super Comp and made her debut at the season closer this past November and will continue to expand her experience behind the wheel.
"We didn't get her car until late last year, so we're going to hit some division races this year and some national events," said Southern California-based Hight. "Autumn is a senior in high school, and that's a busy year with a lot going on. Her time is limited, but she wants to get back to racing – she'd like to jump back in right now. She had a blast, and she did a pretty good job, too."
Hight's main focus, of course, will be on regaining the footing they had through most of 2022. The upcoming Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway will be Hight's 397th race in a Funny Car, and he's slated to hit 400 at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. Hight's tenure is bettered by only John Force (831), Cruz Pedregon (645), Ron Capps (608), and Tim Wilkerson (570) in today's current class, but "time logged" has no impact on his drive. Hight is chasing a more historic note.
"When I retire, I want to be No. 2 in championships," said three-time champ Hight. "Right now, I'm chasing Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme; they both have four in Funny Car. No one is ever going to top Force — that isn't in the cards for anybody — but I want more championships. That's what I'm going after."