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JOLIET -- It rained Sunday on Robert Hight’s parade.
The literal downpour was an inconvenience for the reigning Full Throttle Funny Car Champion. More painful was the figurative drenching that followed, one that left both Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock wondering exactly what happened.
Bidding for his fourth straight NHRA tour victory, Hight may have been derailed by a series of forecast-defying thunderstorms that stopped competition for four hours and 51 minutes between the second and third rounds. By the time the rain was gone, so too was the magic that made Hight’s blue-and-white Auto Club Ford Mustang virtually unbeatable during a span of more than a month.
Capitalizing on cooler weather and a cooler race track and enjoying the psychological lane choice advantage that invariably has belonged to Hight, Hagan guided his Die Hard Dodge through the 1,000 foot timers in 4.035 seconds at 312.78 miles per hour in the final to win the 13th annual United Association Route 66 Nationals.
To add insult, Hagan set an NHRA national record in the semifinals when he used a 4.022 to take out Hight’s teammate, Ashley Force Hood.
Although he won his semifinal race against Fast Jack Beckman in 4.041 seconds, Hight lost his newly-minted track records, lost lane choice and, most importantly, lost the psychological advantage forged in becoming the first Funny Car driver in 10 years to win as many as 15 consecutive rounds.
“We got snake bit in the second round when our blower seized up,” Hight said. “We haven’t hurt any parts whatsoever the last four races [but] I felt something was wrong at the top end after that second round run. When I lifted, it was beating and banging. It felt like there was a belt catching [and I knew] the blower had seized up.
“The last time we were running the blower that we were running was in Houston and we had to put a new case on it,” Hight continued. “We put it in for the semis and it ran 4.04 but it hurt it again. [I think] we could have hauled ass that run. We tried fixing it and we hurt it again in the final. They said there were sparklers flying out and everything. The engine was wounded.
“[Hagan and I] were together until the 330 and then he put about three hundredths on me to half track. It was like I was sitting still and I almost lifted. He was just marching away from me. Everybody pulled together and there is nothing to hang our heads about.
“But it’s like I’ve been saying, [the other Funny Car teams] aren’t out there watching us win all these races and just sitting still. We have to keep working because those guys are trying to keep getting better. You bring out the best in your opponent.
“The big thing is we leave here with the points lead, we’re running good and we can just start another streak. They don’t go forever, but I definitely don’t feel down headed to Englishtown. I know we can do the job.”
Despite the final round loss, Hight did leave Route 66 Raceway with the Full Throttle points lead, moving around boss, teammate and father-in-law John Force, the 14-time series champion, who lost to his daughter in round one.
In fact, when the tour moves this week to Old Bridge Township Raceway Park (Englishtown, N.J.) for the 41st annual NHRA SuperNationals, Fords will occupy three of the top four spots with Hight No. 1, Force No. 2 and Force Hood and Hagan tied for No. 3. The other two Ford drivers, Bob Tasca III and Tim Wilkerson, are seventh and eighth, respectively.
It was Hight’s second final round disappointment at Route 66 Raceway, a track on which he was beaten by his boss in the 2006 final. Still, the Ford driver is well-positioned to successfully defend the title he won with a closing rush a year ago.
By moving around Force in points, he kept alive his streak of having led the Funny Car division at some point in each of his six pro seasons.
For Force, who won three of the season’s first six races, it was largely a lost weekend. Battling clutch problems, the 129-time tour winner qualified only 15th and never was able to get his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford to the finish line under power.
“I am excited to take three cars [out of here] 1-2-3 in the points,” said the 2008 inductee into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. “Hagan is tied with Ashley for third [but] to bring these Mustangs to our home base in Englishtown for our 25th year is pretty exciting.
“We applauded Robert and his whole team when they came in [after the final]. We congratulated the other team for winning. John Medlen and Delgado their group over there at Schumacher Racing. At the end of the day, Matt Hagan did his job and they had a good race car, but so did we. We’ll go to Englishtown and we’ll be ready.”
Force Hood had another solid raceday that just ended a bit prematurely. She had nothing to be ashamed of after running 4.044 in a losing semifinal effort.
“This has been one of the strangest days,” said the reigning Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Champion. “The weather, the changes in conditions, the amazing runs later in the day. Of all my rounds, I probably felt the most confident heading into the semis.
“It was our best run and we lost. It was very up and down emotionally,” said the graduate of Cal State-Fullerton. “These guys worked so hard. They did a great job. It just wasn’t our day. You have to think about the points. That is our big goal. We all want strong-running cars and we all want to win a lot of rounds later this year.
“We want to win every race, but you really want to be winning in the Countdown,” Ashley continued. “We have very strong-running cars right now. I think you try and keep that consistency. This might not have been our weekend or Robert’s or my dad’s, but that doesn’t mean this can’t be our championship.”
“I think if anything, this weekend has been good for all of our teams,” suggested the former high school cheerleader. “It really lit a fire under everybody. We were all pulling for Robert to win this race. We wanted him to get four-in-a-row. We wanted to take out the Schumacher team. We will be just that much more determined next week. Luckily, we only have to wait a few days. We won’t have time for this feeling to fade.”