GAINESVILLE, FL ---- Robert Hight may not have had a strong two days of qualifying at the 45th annual Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals but when it counted his Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car was the class of the field winning for the first time in 2014. Hight reached the final two weeks ago in Phoenix but today he notched his thirtieth career win tying him with Funny Car legend Kenny Bernstein for sixth all-time in the Funny Car class. Hight outran John Force, 4.074 to 6.345 seconds.

“I can’t even believe my name is associated with guys like that. Guys like Kenny, John Force and Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme were my heroes. Kenny is a guy I always watched. He was always so professional. He was a businessman. He was one of my all-time favorites, He worked very hard to get where he was. To tie him with Funny Car wins is amazing. He is a four-time champion in Funny Car and I am trying to win my second,” said Hight.

Hight had to beat teammate and 16-time Funny Car legend John Force in the final. Both Funny Cars had strong performances on race day but their qualifying efforts left a lot to be desired. Hight was the No. 10 qualifier and Force raced to the final round from the No. 16 spot.

“If you would have told me this morning that John and I would be in the final I don’t know if I would have taken that bet. I know our teams work really hard and work well together but we were struggling. For both of us to get to the final round and do it on performance was awesome. My Auto Club team was great today. In the final I had some motivation. I wanted to lock up a spot in the Traxxas Shootout. We got our win and John is already in there so he didn’t need another win. We are trying to chase him down in the points. We picked up another round on him. This is a major win for us. The Gatornationals is the East Coast kick off. I have won this race twice and my crew chief has won this race before. We always carry Eric Medlen with us and today was a good day,” said Hight.

“I could lie to you and say we were playing with them but that is not the case. We go up there every run trying to do well. Usually we will test if we are in solid and we have been running good. That is when we might take a run to try something. Truthfully you really need four runs to get ready for race day. You test on Monday if you get a chance. Going up there in the final I am racing the all-time leader in Funny Car. It is tough to race him.”

Hight started the day in a tough first round match-up with Tony Pedregon. Hight and his Mike Neff tuned Auto Club Funny Car stepped up and posted the best ET of the event 4.061 seconds to get the win. Prior to staging Hight watched as Neff did something unusual before the body was lowered.

“Mike Neff is a smart racer. First round he did something he never does. We backed up from the burn out and they lifted the body and he got in the box. We set low ET of the event first round. He is just a savvy racer,” said Hight of his crew crew chief.

“He must have thought of a change he could make when we made the burn out and he wanted to make that change before we ran. We were racing Tony Pedregon and his brother (Cruz) was low ET. He just wanted to play it safe. I have a lot of confidence driving for Mike Neff. He was a driver before. He always comes up and says, ‘No pressure let’s have some fun.’ I am very fortunate to be on this team. I can’t wait to be with him for a full season. I think we are going to hurt some feelings.”

The Hight Force match-up was the 40th all JFR Funny Car final and Hight’s win was the 227th Funny Car win for JFR.

After qualifying No. 16 with a less-than-impressive 4.38 ET, John Force drove his Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang to the finals today. This was John’s twelfth Gatornationals final round appearance and the fourth time he has faced teammate Robert Hight in a final round at any NHRA event. John Force maintained the Funny Car points lead, with event winner Hight in second place and daughter Courtney in tenth.

“We shouldn’t have even been in the race as we were the 16th qualifier and got in with a 4.38. But you know, maybe I’m guilty of wanting to win every race and I know my team is trying as we’re pitching Corporate America. With Robert winning with the Auto Club Ford Mustang, that puts him into the Traxxas Shootout and I’m already in so we need to get Courtney in. You got to look at positives and negatives as I wanted to win. But it’s a win-win for us here at the Gatornationals,” said John Force.

Even though the 16-time champ has made hundreds of runs down Auto Plus Raceway in Gainesville over the past three decades, he was a little rushed during the final round when he went to stage against Robert Hight. 

“I actually screwed up and drove up and put on my top light on the Christmas tree. It didn’t hurt me leaving or nothing but I was a little too quick and I didn’t want Robert to think I was trying to screw with him. What’s funny is Robert is president of John Force Racing and we are constantly in the boardrooms meeting with major companies fighting to get sponsors for next year, yet we hardly talk when we’re at the race track and that’s because we’re both going after that points lead,” said John Force.

Going into the final round, John Force was determined to give Robert Hight a run for the money despite Hight having the quicker Mustang and lane choice. When the Christmas tree flashed green, both John and Robert’s Mustang’s had almost identical reaction times. Unfortunately for Force, the Castrol GTX Mustang hazed the tires at mid-track and Hight motored by him to get the win light.

Despite struggling in qualifying, crew chief Jimmy Prock and the team addressed several possible issues following the final session yesterday and then tuned Force’s Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang into a round-winning race car today. It was during the semi-finals that John Force would defeat his daughter Courtney in the Traxxas Ford Mustang.

“You know you’re on the right team and the right family when your own daughter Courtney in the Traxxas Ford Mustang says ‘Dad, I know how bad you want to win; don’t worry about me, just go get ‘em’. She knows I’m chasing sponsors and she went after me and they blew the tires off and we did too but it was down track. I love her with all my heart as I do with all my kids,” said John Force.  

Courtney Force came to compete at the 2014 NHRA Gatornationals, No. 12 in the Mello Yello Funny Car point standings, but after a semi-final finish today, she is sitting comfortably in the No. 10 position.

“We had a great weekend out here at the Gatornationals. I’m really proud of my Traxxas Ford Mustang team. These guys have been busting their butts and working hard. We struggled the first two races, so to test and Phoenix, come out here and get things turned around is great,” said Force.

Force qualified in the No. 5 spot and took on Matt Hagan in the opening round today. She posted a 4.102 ET at 315.56 mph to his tire-smoking effort of 4.307 seconds, putting her 6-5 to him on race day.

“I’ve got great crew chiefs behind me with Ron Douglas and Dan Hood. To be able to come out here and qualify in the top half of the field was big for us, but to get that first round win against Hagan was huge for my team,” said Force.

She went on to dismiss fellow Ford driver Tim Wilkerson in the second round, setting her up to take on teammate, dad and boss John Force in the semis. She smoked the tires and pedaled it to put a 6.090 on the board.

“We got all the way to the semis; our car was running pretty consistent up until the semifinal round against my dad. Unfortunately he was able to take that win. I tried to pedal the car and get it down there and had it sideways.

“We really wanted to go after it, but at the end of the day we’re happy. I think we’ve learned some things here. I’m excited for my teammate Robert Hight and my dad. It was great to see all three JFR Ford Mustangs go to the semifinal round and to have an all Force final. I’m excited Robert was able to pick up the win and get into the Traxxas Shootout” said Force.

Despite making her best run of the weekend, Brittany Force’s Castrol EDGE Dragster came up short in round one of eliminations. Facing eventual Top Fuel winner Doug Kalitta for the fifth time this season, Brittany’s impressive 3.82 second ET along her nearly identical reaction time was not enough to hold off Kalitta’s 3.79 second ET.

“It’s always disappointing to go out in the first round, but to be able to have four qualifying passes and your best pass of the weekend be on Sunday, we’re happy about that. We left pretty closely off the line and Doug beat me by a little bit,” said Brittany Force.

At any race, qualifying is important key when getting the car dialed-in and set-up for the track conditions come race day. Unfortunately, the Castrol EDGE team and its crew chief Todd Smith were plagued with mechanical issues during some of the sessions.

“Qualifying was not what we hoped for as we had a couple of small parts issues that caused us really big engine damage. We knew we had a good car and we just had to fix these parts issues and get the damage repaired. We had our best shot this morning and we plugged the numbers and the car ran what we wanted,” said Todd Smith, crew chief on the Castrol EDGE Dragster.

Just as crew chief Todd Smith and Dean “Guido” Antonelli are always working to improve the performance of the Castrol EDGE Dragster, Brittany Force is also striving to be a better competitor. One key aspect that Brittany is focused on as a drag racer is her reaction times.

“I’ve been working on improving my reaction times as my crew guys have changed some things in my car such as the throttle pedal. For a while, my reaction times weren’t that good and we knew part of the reason was the throttle set up in the cockpit. Since we changed that, I think we’re heading in the right direction,” said Brittany Force.

The Top Fuel sophomore leaves the NHRA Gatornationals in seventh place in the Mello Yello series points and only one round out of fifth. With the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals less than two weeks away, Brittany Force will once again hit the strip in search of her first Top Fuel win.

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FUNNY CAR – 1. John Force, Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, 316; 2. Robert Hight, Auto Club Ford Mustang, 273; 3. Alexis DeJoria, 187; 3. Del Worsham, 187; 5. Bob Tasca III, 184; 6. Tommy Johnson Jr., 168; 7. Ron Capps, 164; 8. Matt Hagan, 161; 9. Jack Beckman, 151; 10. Courtney Force, Traxxas Ford Mustang, 146

Dusty Brandel

President of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association, Inc. Worked with Mike Hollander since Tapsis, Compuserve, etc. and has posted to the website since the beginning. First Female photo-journalist to be given a garage and pit pass for the NASCAR garage, 1972 at Ontario Motor Speedway. One of first seven female writers, photographers given access to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage and pits in 1971. Past President of Greater Los Angeles Press Club, 1992-96, and first female editor of the 8-Ball publication for the Press Club

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Volume 2014, Issue 3, Posted 10:05 PM, 03.16.2014