Past NHRA Funny Car champion Robert Hight will be the first to admit persistence means everything. After all, the art of pestering made him a household name amongst NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series fans.
This weekend, Hight’s greatest act of never giving up comes full circle as the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series rolls into Heartland Park – Topeka for the NHRA Heartland Nationals.
Hight earned his fuel Funny Car license in Topeka, back in 2004 after charting a path from being a crewman to team driver, replacing Gary Densham.
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“I pestered (John Force) to get the opportunity,” Hight said matter-of-factly. “Eric Medlen had already started driving, and we knew that there was going to be a seat open with the AAA car with Gary Densham in a couple of years.”
Hight was a jack-of-all-trades kind of a crewman, with an equally vast inquisitive nature. Despite the 100 questions routine, which Hight vows was no act, Force didn’t immediately catch on to the idea his crewman wanted to climb the ladder.
“John acted like he didn’t know I was interested, but all the years I worked on his car, every single day I would ask him questions about a run, just wanting him to know I was interested in what he was experiencing as a driver,” Hight said.
It finally took an unnamed JFR employee to point out the obvious to Force – Hight wanted to drive a Funny Car.
“They said, why don’t you give Robert a chance to drive?” Force recalled. “I said, ‘He hasn’t shown any interest. He never mentioned it to me.’
“I went to Robert and asked him if he wanted to drive, and he said, ‘Sure I do. But everybody wants to drive, so I wasn’t going to waste your time coming to ask you when those jobs just aren’t available.'”
Force counseled the aspiring Hight, “You need to go down to Frank Hawley’s school and see if it’s something that you like. You might get there and drive a car and it might not be for you.”
After a little horse trading between Force and Hawley, Hight not only mastered driving a Funny Car but fell head over heels in love.
Force put the novice driver to the test immediately.
“Right after that, he started putting me in his funny car on Mondays to test,” Hight recalled. “It was very nerve-racking because I still worked on the car. It was the car that John was trying to get a championship in and all the guys that worked with me on the crew, working on this thing, and I didn’t want to go out and do something stupid and crash this thing. It was fun but nerve-racking.”
Then on the day after the NHRA Summer Nationals in Topeka, the boss told Hight to take his car to the finish line under power.
“I remember getting down there and having Bernie Fedderly on the radio telling me that I ran quick enough to get my license,” Hight said. “I was pretty jazzed. John was one of the first down there, riding up on his scooter, and he shook my hand.”
Not trying to be a wet blanket on Hight’s fire of enthusiasm, Force offered a dose of reality to the newly licensed driver.
“He immediately changed the tone of everything by saying, ‘just because now you have a license doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get an opportunity to drive. We have to go to Auto Club; we have to go to our manufacturer, we have to go to all these sponsors to see if they’ll even allow me to put you in a car.'”
Hight took the buzzkill in stride.
“John was right in what he said,” Hight said. “These sponsors spend a lot of money. But luckily the Auto Club has been my only sponsor since I’ve been driving. They told John, ‘we’re not going to tell you how to run your race team just like we don’t want you to come in here and tell us how to run our insurance company. You think this kid can do it; we’ll give him a chance.”
Twelve years later, Hight has been proving all parties right with 37 wins in 59 finals and a Funny Car championship to his credit.
So what was it Force saw in Hight, outside of the fact he was his son-in-law at the time?
“He was a natural, in the shop late at night all the time,” Force explained. “I should have seen then he had an interest in all of this. He was never the kind of guy to blow his own horn. He was just like me in working his way up the ropes. He drove the 18-wheeler, worked on the cars, and he knew them inside and out. He even worked the shows and understood the life of a driver.”
But best of all, he wasn’t a Force clone.
“He wasn’t like me – a [expletive] – he was the real deal, and it wasn’t hard to see that early,” Force added. “Don’t ask the question if you didn’t want the truth. He’s right to the point and tells it like it is. I liked that about him.”
Bobby Bennett is the Publisher/Editor of CompetitionPlus.com, a leading independent online drag racing magazine, since 1999. For the latest in dragster news worldwide, visit www.competitionplus.com or follow on Twitter @competitionplus