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Force-Schumacher Funny Car powers clash in Gators showdowns

Robert Hight, fresh from his Funny Car victory at Phoenix, continues to shine at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.  (Photo By Ron Lewis)
Robert Hight, fresh from his Funny Car victory at Phoenix, continues to shine at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla. (Photo By Ron Lewis)

Robert Hight arrived in Gainesville, Fla., this past week rejuvenated from his Funny Car victory at Phoenix. And he planned to put some bite in the National Hot Rod Association's classic Tire Kingdom Gatornationals.

But he hit a snag before he even reached Auto-Plus Raceway on the outskirts of town. The airline lost his luggage.

Then as the race weekend progressed, the John Force Racing organization, of which he's president, took a $150,000 budget hit -- and a personal scare -- with his sister-in-law Courtney Force's wall-banger in qualifying. Boss John Force, who had won the Winternationals and was helping keep the team 1-2-3 in the standings, lost in Sunday's first round to rookie Alexis DeJoria. And the weekend ended with a rain delay after the first two rounds of eliminations.

Through it all, Hight predicted Saturday, "This is a race with a lot of history. I am going to make my mark tomorrow."

He did Sunday, driving his Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang to a track-record 317.12 mph in his quarterfinal victory with a 4.039-seond elapsed time that was the class' quickest of the day.

The E.T. almost eclipsed the track mark of 4.026 that Cruz Pedregon set in qualifying No. 1. (Or, in John Force's words, "Cruz hit a moonshot but he does that. God bless him and he gets away with it. I love the way he races.")

When the rain-delayed third of 23 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series races resumes Monday morning, Hight will take on Valvoline NextGen Dodge driver Jack Beckman from the Don Schumacher Racing camp. And the rivalry between the two Brownsburg, Ind.-based teams extends to the other semifinal race. That one matches last year's Gatornationals winner and Funny Car points leader Mike Neff against DSR's flinty Johnny Gray in the Service Central Dodge Charger.

"I thought the weekend was going to be really rough, because I started off losing my luggage when I got here. And now we've got rain," Hight said during one of Sunday's delays. "But the plus side is that we're running strong and I'm still in it. So I'll be here tomorrow.

"I'll be here for a couple more days, if that's what it takes. Tomorrow looks good, so hopefully we can finish this thing up tomorrow and I can put this Auto Club Mustang back in the winners circle. I honestly think we have a good shot."

An aborted run Saturday morning was his and his team's only misstep. But he followed it with a stout 4.0-second pass to mirror Neff's run in the lane next to him in the final qualifying session that day.

Highjt said racing alongside Neff "was awesome" and that running last "gives you the chance to see what other guys are doing."

It didn't faze Hight's crew chief, Jimmy Prock.

"When Cruz went out there and ran 4.02 and Beckman ran 4.04, Jimmy didn’t change anything," Hight said. "He didn't go into the box. He left it alone. Looking back on it, we could have run close to that good, we think. He can see the problem, not that running 4.05 is a problem. That is a really good number. If we needed to throw down a great number tomorrow we can step on it. We know what we need to do. Then again we are not going to just throw a run away. We are going to take that 'Moneyball' approach."

Hight said, "If you aren't making good runs in qualifying, you aren't going into the race with a lot of confidence. We were pressing [Saturday] morning and it didn’t go. At least we know our boundaries -- and the good news is we didn't do that in the first round."

Maybe surprisingly, he said, "Mike Neff has the best car out here. He made four solid, solid runs in a row. When the conditions get great, those other guys throw down. They got away with a couple of good numbers. You have to give Neff and his team credit, because that Mustang is running really well and you make four runs like that and you’ll be in the winners circle. That is what we need to do."

Force, who like daughter Courtney, lost in the opening round Sunday, knew what he needed to do Sunday.

He said, "I told Courtney, just like I told Ashley (her older sister, Ashley Force Hood, who raced for several years but is on hiatus from competition after having a baby last summer), that when you're in the dumps because you got beat, get out to the ropes and [start] signing autographs -- because half of [the fans] don't even know you got beat. They just love you.

"Get out there and they'll make you feel better," Force said. "They love us. They love our products, and they buy them – all the Fords, Traxxas cars and trucks, Castrol oil, all of it."

If only Force could talk somebody into promising not to lose Hight's luggage on the way home, he'd have something.

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