Driver Robert Top Gun Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock, who just three weeks ago hadn’t put their Auto Club Ford Mustang in a single 2010 Funny Car final and were languishing in ninth place in Full Throttle points, celebrated in the winners’ circle for the second straight event Sunday.
Hight and Prock, who authored a spectacular worst-to-first run to the 2009 NHRA Championship, ended a dominating weekend at Atlanta Dragway by prevailing in an all-Ford, all-John Force Racing final round to win the 30th annual Summit Racing Southern Nationals.
Hight’s victory ahead of sister-in-law Ashley Force Hood was a classic. The 40-year-old series champion won in 4.185 seconds at 298.01 miles per hour; Force Hood, the No. 1 qualifier and track record-holder, stopped the 1,000-foot timers in 4.232 at 297.48 mph in her first final round appearance of the year, but her third straight at Atlanta Dragway.
The final round result created a JFR logjam at the top of the Full Throttle standings with 14-time series champ John Force still in the lead, Force Hood second and Hight third as the tour moves next to Topeka, Kan., for the 22nd running of the O’Reilly Auto Parts Summer Nationals one week hence.
“How about these Ford Mustangs?” Hight said. “We’re leaving here 1-2-3 in points [and] that’s pretty awesome. We’ve had a great week. All the pro champions went to a Coca Cola banquet [on Thursday] and we got to see where they make Full Throttle. We just had a great time and they were very gracious to us.
“Jimmy Prock is definitely focused right now,” Hight continued. “He has a good race car. We basically only missed [the tune-up on] this race track one time all weekend [the fourth qualifying session when Prock pushed just a little too hard and the Mustang lost traction]. It’s fun right now to drive this Auto Club Mustang, [but] it won’t get any easier. These Funny Cars are all tough.”
Hight had especially kind words for the NHRA’s track preparation.
“With heat like this, it was a great race track,” he said. “The NHRA and the Safety Safari did an unbelievable job. Sometimes I dread coming to these hot race tracks, but I hope we get some more heat because right now Jimmy definitely has a handle on this thing.”
Hight, who presented 2009 championship rings to his team this week, has another presentation to make once he gets home to California.
“We gave my team all their champ rings this weekend,” said the former clutch technician on Force’s Funny Cars. “When we gave them to them, I said, ‘guys, lets go out here and race like champions.’ Two wins in a row shows that that championship wasn’t a fluke and that this Auto Club Ford Mustang is for real. Now, I’m going to take this trophy home to my daughter Autumn. She was mad last week that I gave that one away to the Auto Club—so this one is for her.”
It was the former world class marksman’s 16th victory since he first climbed behind the wheel of the Auto Club Ford in 2004 as the team’s official “test driver.” The 2005 NHRA Rookie of the Year now has earned multiple victories in each of his six pro seasons.
After struggling in qualifying two weeks ago in the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Madison, Ill., Hight has been on a tear. After logging the quickest time in the last three rounds of the Illinois race, he was quickest in every competitive round at the Southern Nationals, which he won for the second time in four years.
“Jimmy Prock has been spending a lot of sleepless nights worrying about this engine,” Hight said. “When you’re fighting a gremlin, you forget about all the other things. You just have to work on the engine. But when we qualified in the bottom half of the field [at the Midwest Nationals], Jimmy made wholesale changes and we haven’t looked back since.”
For Ashley, who has emerged as the fresh new face of high performance, it was a rebound weekend, albeit a bittersweet one. After three consecutive No. 2 starts, the 27-year-old claimed her first No. 1 of the season and took her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang to the final for the first time since last year’s Auto Club Finals.
Nevertheless, there was some marginal frustration in the fact that she couldn’t close the deal for the second straight year at Atlanta Dragway, the track on which, in 2008, she became the first woman to win an NHRA Funny Car race.
However, losing this time to a teammate in the 32nd all-JFR final in history (and 25th since the team switched to Fords in 1997) was far more palatable than last year’s narrow loss to former driving instructor Fast Jack Beckman and the MTS/Valvoline Dodge.
Moreover, on the way to her 10th career final, the graduate of Cal State-Fullerton kept her Atlanta record perfect against her famous father. When she beat him in the first round in 2007, it marked the first time in his career he had lost to a woman driver. She followed up a year later by beating him in the final round and, in so doing, denying him his 1,000th round win in what was his 500th race.
Finally, Sunday’s narrow second round win, 4.200 seconds at 296.89 mph to 4.206 seconds at 295.92 mph, made her a perfect 3-0 against her dad in an event in which he has appeared in more final rounds (14) than he has in any other.
“Considering we went into race day and had gone A to B just once made me a little nervous,” Force Hood said. “I went in thinking for sure I would have to pedal my Mustang [feather the throttle to maintain traction] just based on our qualifying performance.
“Ron and Guido (crew chiefs Ron Douglas and Dean Guido Antonelli) proved me wrong again. They had a great tune up for race day,” marveled the woman who finished second in 2009 points. “I don’t know if we would have done anything differently. The track might have been able to take a little bit more, but it is such a fine line you have to walk. You want to get down the track every session and that is what we did.
“We made it to the final and we’ll leave here 1-2-3 in points. We moved up three spots in the points. We’re pretty happy with that.”
For his part, Force kept his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang solidly in the points lead he has maintained since winning the season-opening 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. The 61-year-old Force, who two years ago was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, leads his daughter by 115 points; his son-in-law by 120.
“I didn’t get hurt much in the points,” Force said, “maybe a round. Our race cars are running good and I’m excited about that. Bobby Tasca III, with [Tim] Wilkerson, is starting to run. He has bought some parts from us. We always said we are all one Ford.
“Robert is the champion and Ashley ran right with him. She has been in two finals this year [including the wholly unconventional 4-Wide Nationals at Charlotte, N.C.] and she’ll get a win soon. I think we have five wins out of eight and Wilkerson won in Gainesville, so that’s six of eight for Ford.”
It was the third all-JFR final at Atlanta and it marked the 17th time in the last 19 years that at least one Force-owned Funny Car has made it to the money round in the Southern Nationals. In addition to Force Hood’s win against her dad in 2008, former JFR driver Tony Pedregon earned his first pro victory when he beat the boss in the 1996 Southern Nationals finale.
Although rain was in the forecast every day, not a single run was lost to weather. Nevertheless, the NHRA set a frenetic pace on Sunday, decreasing the amount of time to service the pro cars between rounds from 75 to 65 minutes.
“Having the show move along was a big deal,” Hight said. “You don’t want to sit in these cars for very long. These suits are hot. When you get in the car and you are strapped in, you’re not really uncomfortable the way the belts hold you in. It is actually comfortable sitting in the car. Your legs don’t go to sleep [but] the heat will get you and you don’t perform well when your body temperature is elevated.
“I have done some reading on that. It is very important for the show to go smooth like it did today and you just have to keep at it.
“When it is hot, it is even more important to keep the car in the groove,” Hight continued. “The groove is where the main traction is [and] it is of ultimate importance to keep it there. You let it get inside or outside, the tire gets hot and starts slipping and then it is over. You have to focus on driving this car. The NHRA did such a good job with this track [that] it made it a little easier for the drivers.”
Source: Ford Racing