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Thursday, April 26, 2012
Robert Hight targets fifth straight win

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

When you talk to the NHRA legends, the ones who have been where Robert Hight is now, to a man, they all say Hight stands above them at this moment in NHRA history.

Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Cruz Pedregon and 15-time Funny Car champion John Force, Hight's boss and teammate, are in awe of Hight's remarkable winning streak.

They all have done what Hight has done: win four consecutive NHRA Funny Car events. Three of them -- Prudhomme, Force and Pedregon -- have done what Hight hopes to do this weekend in winning a fifth consecutive event.

And Prudhomme is the record holder with seven consecutive Funny Car victories over two seasons (1975-76).

Robert Hight
A familiar sight in 2012: Funny Car driver Robert Hight hoisting a Wally in celebration.

But that was then and this is now. And now, in their eyes, is better.

"What Robert has done is pretty unbelievable," Prudhomme said. "Robert's car [the AAA Mustang] is really quick, but there are a lot of cars out there that can challenge him.

"When I did it we had such a dominant car. We knew we were going to win if we didn't make a mistake. You don't see that anymore. So I really admire Robert. I've seen a lot guys come along, but Robert has earned my respect."

Hight begins his quest for five in a row on Friday at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas. The track sits near massive oil refineries and the Houston Ship Channel, where rough and rugged men do tough work.

Hight can relate. He has one tough task ahead of him against some rough and rugged competition.

"It's harder to win now than ever," Hight said. "So many of these races are decided by hundredths of a second. We've been fortunate to step it up when we really needed to. It won't be easy, but I like our chances."

In one way, Hight already has broken new ground. He is the first Funny Car driver to win four consecutive events since the NHRA shortened the races to 1,000 feet in 2008 instead of the traditional quarter mile (1,380 feet).

"That's another reason it is tougher now," said Bernstein, the six-time NHRA champion who won four Funny Car races in a row in 1987. "You can't just out-horsepower people much anymore. That was a luxury we had.

"You could drive around people in the last 300 feet if you had more horsepower. You don't have that extra distance now. You really have to be on your toes."

So add Bernstein to the list of Hight admirers.

"Robert is a great driver," Bernstein said. "He has a world of talent. You know he's going to be consistent and he's always good on the tree [the starting line lights].

"He really studies the game, too. He studies every situation for every race. He knows these tracks and where the problem areas are."

Hight, 41, won his first Funny Car championship in 2009. He wants a second crown this year, but he has one disadvantage the other guys on this type of winning streak didn't have: They all went on to win the title that season, but there wasn't a playoff when they did it. The championship was based on the full season of points.

The NHRA now has the Countdown playoff for the last six races. So building a big points lead early doesn't mean as much. Hight could have this historic run and still lose the title in the playoff, but he isn't concerned with that now.

"I want to do this," Hight said. "If someone told me today I could either get this fifth consecutive win or not get it and win four in the Countdown, I would take the five now. That's how much this means to me.

John Force, Robert Hight
John Force, right, on red-hot teammate Robert Hight: "I know people will say I'm biased. But I'm telling you, Robert is the best in the business right now."

"This is history, to be able have my name with the greats of all time. I don't want to let that slip away. It would be unbelievable. Those guys are all Hall of Famers, some of the best who've ever done this."

And no one is better than Force, Hight's father-in-law and the man who gave him a shot seven years ago to go from working on the cars to driving them.

"I know people will say I'm biased," Force said. "But I'm telling you, Robert is the best in the business right now."

Force is the last man to win five consecutive Funny Car races, and that was 18 years ago. He is the only man to do it twice, first in 1993 and again the following season.

"When you get on a run like this, luck is part of it," Force said. "But Robert has done this fair and square. He doesn't play games at the starting line like me. He just goes up there and believes he can outrun you. And he does. I am so proud of him."

Cruz Pedregon has been battling the drivers at John Force Racing for 21 years. He beat Force for the title in 1992 when Pedregon had his five-win streak down the stretch.

He won his second championship in 2008 with a hot streak in the Countdown, winning the last three events. Hight was still in contention for the crown with one race to go, but Tony Pedregon, Cruz's brother, defeated Hight in the first round of the last race to clinch the 2008 title for Cruz.

So Cruz has enjoyed the benefits of a hot streak, but he is amazed at what Hight has done.

"No doubt about it, Robert and that team have it all going on right now," Cruz said. "They've been together as a team for a long time and he's with a great organization.

"Even so, the depth of the Funny Car class is at an all-time high, which is why this streak is so impressive. I'm a big stat guy, and there are 12 cars out here with a legitimate shot at winning a race. That wasn't true when the rest of us did this."

The fact this type of winning streak is more difficult today also means that it's easier for someone to end it, which Cruz believes he can do this weekend.

"Robert has that little extra going for him right now, but I know our car can beat them," Cruz said. "We are not going to make this easy for him. We'll do everything we can to stop him.

"When a guy gets on a run like this it really fires you up to try to beat him. So watch out, Robert. We're coming for ya."

Hight's ready for it. Staying focused isn't a problem. If anything, he's too focused.

This is history, to be able have my name with the greats of all time. I don't want to let that slip away. It would be unbelievable.

-- Robert Hight

The entire Force family went on a brief vacation to the Virgin Islands a few weeks ago before the Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte. Relaxing while lying on the beach wasn't too appealing for Hight. His thoughts were on trying to get that fourth consecutive victory.

"Robert is intense," Force said. "We're on the water and my wife [Laurie] looked at him and said, 'Robert is just like you. He is the only person more miserable when he's happy than you are.'"

Hight laughed about it, but he doesn't deny his drive to succeed.

"Yes, it's kind of funny," he said. "The only way I can ever enjoy a vacation is right after I won a championship. And I'm probably not the most fun guy be around right now because I want this fifth win so bad."

Prudhomme said it's that determination and dedication that make Hight so good.

"I know exactly how he feels right now," Prudhomme said. "In 1976, my wife and I took a trip to Hawaii with a couple of friends. But I left and came back early because we were getting a new body for the car. My wife wasn't too happy, but for me, it was like a baby being born.

"Robert is in this position because he lives for it. He learned that from the best in watching John all these years."

Hight was shocked at all the kind words the other drivers were saying about him.

"Wow, to know those guys feel that way, well, I can't tell you how much that means to me," Hight said. "I grew up idolizing all of them. It still gives me chills that I get to line up on the track against John and Cruz and guys like that."

And he may have to beat them both to get that fifth consecutive win Sunday. Force has a track-record seven victories at RPR. Pedregon has two wins and three runner-up finishes at the Baytown facility. But Hight also has experienced success on this track.

"I have good memories of Houston because I won my first race there in 2005," Hight said. "And John got his 100th career win there [in 2002]. I did the clutch on that car."

Now he can make a little history again, winning five in a row at a time when drivers, who have been there and done that, think it's a bigger accomplishment than ever.

"It's so much more competitive today," Bernstein said. "Robert has his work cut out for him, but if anybody can do it, he can."