Those plans went up in smoke — literally.
Force and Brown spun their tires in the finals, helping Robert Hight and Doug Kalitta record easy victories in the top two divisions.
Hight beat his boss, 16-time champion Force, in the Funny Car division. Kalitta topped 2012 series champion Brown in Top Fuel.
“I’m racing the all-time leader, John Force, 16-time champ, my boss, the guy that gave me the opportunity to do this,” Hight said. “It’s tough to race him. … It’s also a lot fun when you actually race in the final and it’s your teammate and you guys can just go up there and have some fun.”
The 64-year-old Force was trying to become the fifth driver in Funny Car history to win as the No. 16 qualifier. He opened the day by upsetting top qualifier Cruz Pedregon, then knocked off Del Worsham and daughter Cortney Force to reach his second final in three events this year. That set up an all-Force final, with the team owner facing off against team president Hight, who is married to one of Force’s four daughters, Ashley.
And Hight didn’t even think about letting his boss win, not even with Force repeatedly talking about the need to win to “chase corporate America” as he’s losing two key sponsors after this season.
Force was the first to congratulate Hight after the race.
“He told me he was trying to get me,” Hight said. “He peddled his car a couple of times and smoked the tires. Luckily we got lane choice over him in the final, and I think that may have been the difference. We put those guys over there on the right, where they hadn’t made a run all day.”
Hight covered the 1,000-foot strip in 4.074 seconds and reached 314.46 mph. Force was well back after smoking his tires shortly after the green light.
Allen Johnson won the Pro Stock division, and Steve Johnson won in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Brown was looking to defend his title at the Gatornationals, joining an elite group of repeat winners that includes Don Garlits, Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher, Eddie Hill, Darrell Gwynn and Shirley Muldowney.
Like Force, Brown also spun his tires and couldn’t make a clean pass.
Kalitta’s 3.83-second run at 323.74 mph wasn’t his fastest of the day, but was good enough to get him his first victory of the season.
Kalitta had been the top qualifier in the season opener in Pomona, Calif., and again last month in Chandler, Ariz. But he failed to win either event, so this was something months in the making. One of his three teammates, Alexis DeJoria, won in Arizona.
So for the second consecutive event, crewmembers from the four-car organization formed a celebratory mosh pit at the starting line after the race.
“We’ve been trying to get a win all year,” Kalitta said. “We’ve been right on the cusp. I definitely would not want to be at the bottom of that pack. … It’s good that we can all get in there and celebrate. I was happy that all my guys got to the end of the track and nobody was hurt.”Antron Brown, Cars, Doug Kalitta, Gatornationals, John Force, NHRA, Robert Hight