Jacksonville Sports Day

COUNTDOWN TO GATORNATIONALS: Hight After More Early-Season Dominance This Weekend

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The 2015 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season may still be young but good luck convincing Funny Car standout Robert Hight the early-season races do not matter. 

After all, the 2009 Funny Car world champion’s victory at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville a year ago came in the middle of a run that included six straight final round appearances.

Hight is after more early-season dominance at this weekend’s 46th annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville, where he is eager to put together another stretch like he did a year ago, this time in his 10,000-horsepower Auto Club Chevy Camaro.

That impressive opening run for Hight, who has 34 career victories, kept him in first place in the points standings for most of the regular season, and that remains the goal for Hight, who continues to aim high in the rigorous Funny Car class.

“I have said many times that I want to win a championship by dominating all season,” Hight said. “I still think we have a chance to do that with this Auto Club Chevy Camaro. I get my confidence from (crew chief) Mike Neff and having a great race car. I try and give my guys confidence by not making mistakes when I am driving. Winning races is a partnership. Everyone on the team has to work together. This class is so competitive that everything needs to almost perfect to get a win.”

Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Steve Johnson (Pro Stock Motorcycle) join Hight as last year’s winners of the event that will once again be televised on ESPN2. The race is the third of 24 during a 2015 season where Hight currently sits in third place in the points standings.

He has posted back-to-back semifinal finishes to open the season as he chases points leader and reigning Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan, who has back-to-back wins at the controls of his Mopar/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger to open his red-hot 2015 campaign.

Hight is aiming to get back to that level, but remains confident about where his team is headed, especially after the transition to new sponsors and a new car during the off-season. The potential is obvious, as evidenced by a strong early-season test session and consistent results in the first two races.

The next step is recording victories in a star-studded class that includes the likes of Hagan, John Force, who fell to Hight in the final round at Gainesville a year ago, and teammate Courtney Force, who will try to become the first female in Funny Car history to win the Gatornationals. Other marquee contenders include Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., Del Worsham, three-time national event winner Alexis DeJoria and two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon.

“I feel good about where we are,” Hight said. “My team is working really well together and I have a lot of confidence in my crew chief Mike Neff. This team has been together for a number of years. We were all busy in the off-season but everyone was also focused on getting ready to race. That is one thing I will say about my team is they are very focused. They have confidence but they aren’t over confident. I feel really good about this team and I have been lucky to have had great crews my whole career.”

The magnitude of the race at Gainesville isn’t lost on Hight, either, as winning the Gatornationals marks a major accomplishment for any driver. The history of the race is a major part of the weekend, as are the annual massive crowds that welcome the NHRA to the East Coast for the first time each year.

That has Hight full of anticipation to race this weekend in hopes of edging closer to John Force’s Funny Car record seven wins at the track.

“This is a race you want to win in your career for sure,” Hight said. “It is right up there with Indy and Auto Club Raceway at Pomona as far as history. Kenny Bernstein made the first 300 mph run here and they have great crowds. It is the first time we are on the East Coast to start the season so the fans are super excited to see us. You can see the history from Thursday night’s Hall of Fame ceremony right through the weekend.”

In Top Fuel, Doug Kalitta defeated Antron Brown in a thrilling final last season to claim his second Gatornationals victory. Kalitta is looking for a repeat performance in Gainesville, but will face stiff competition from the likes of reigning world champ and most recent event winner Tony Schumacher, Spencer Massey, past world champ Shawn Langdon, 2014 rookie of the year Richie Crampton, three-time world champ Larry Dixon, Amalie Motor Oil fan-favorite Terry McMillen, Dave Connolly, J.R. Todd, Steve Torrence and Brittany Force.

Allen Johnson, the 2012 Pro Stock world champ, got the best of eventual world champ Erica Enders-Stevens in the final at Gainesville last season. Enders-Stevens is looking for her first Gainesville victory while other top challengers include Winternationals winner and four-time Gatornationals winner Line, Shane Gray, Greg Anderson, Vincent Nobile, Roger Brogdon, who won the most recent event in Phoenix, rookie Drew Skillman, Chris McGaha and Jonathan Gray.

The AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals is the first of 16 events for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. Riders will be looking to knock reigning series and four-time champion Andrew Hines off his title perch. Last year, Hines and his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec dominated the series by combining to win 11 of the 16 events. Others to watch in the two-wheel category include defending race winner Steve Johnson, father and son duo Hector Arana Jr. and Hector Arana, three-time world champ Angelle Sampey, and husband and wife duo Matt and Angie Smith.

As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful motorsports attraction on the planet. While visiting the pits, interactive NHRA Nitro Alley and the NHRA Manufacturers Midway, fans will also want to check out NHRA’s popular Hot Rod Junction presented by the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum that offers a spectacular display of many nostalgic dragsters, race cars and hot rods on display, including vintage machines that were driven by ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, K.S. Pittman, Big John Mazmanian and Bruce Larson, among others. There will also be several NHRA Legends of Drag Racing autograph sessions, allowing fans the rare opportunity to meet drag racing stars of the past.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *