NHRA Funny Car points leader Robert Hight agreed with his chief rival Ron Capps that the wait between the Las Vegas race two weeks ago and this weekend’s title-deciding Finals at Pomona, Calif.’s Auto Club Raceway seems like an eternity.
And he gets no relief even in his sleep.
Hight’s razor-thin 15-point lead is vulnerable, especially considering the NHRA decided late in the season to spice up the championship battle by awarding points and a half at this event. Drivers will earn 30 points for each elimination round-win rather than the customary 20.
This six-race title chase is nothing like the one he mastered in 2009.
“In 2009, all I had to do was qualify [at the finale],” Hight said. “I said to win the championship this year, you need to win three races, and Ron and I each have won two.”
Teetering on the edge of glory or missing out on his second series crown has triggered a recurring dream for Hight; one that takes him to the brink of a showdown with Capps.
“And it left me hanging every single night,” Hight said. “Didn’t win. Didn’t lose. I’m not sure what that’s telling me, except it’s time to go racing.”
Qualifying opens Friday with two sessions. Two more are scheduled for Saturday, with eliminations and final championship calculations Sunday.
Hight was quick to say, “It’s a dream to be in this position. It’s not a nightmare. It’s a dream.”
Ron Capps is the reigning Funny Car champion.
For the fans, it’s drama at its best: Hight’s Auto Club Chevy Camaro versus Capps’ NAPA Dodge Charger, John Force Racing versus Don Schumacher Racing.
Capps, the current Funny Car champion representing Don Schumacher Racing, and Hight, president of John Force Racing, have set the stage for a duel between the NHRA’s top two powerhouse organizations. The tension is ratcheted even more because of the starting-line altercation two Sundays ago between Force and Schumacher at Las Vegas. But it’s a match of tech wizards, as well, between Capps’ crew chief, Rahn Tobler, and Hight’s tuner, Jimmy Prock, both of whom have guided their drivers to some gaudy achievements this year.
Hight has won four of the past nine races, including the Dallas race as he topped Capps in the final round. He was the first Funny Car driver to dip into the 3.60-second elapsed-time range. He owns both ends of the national record (3.793 seconds, August, Brainerd, Minn., and 339.87, July, Sonoma, Calif.). Hight climbed from as far back as 10th place after Race No. 2 (at Phoenix) to lead the points for one week following his Countdown-opening victory at Charlotte.
Capps has registered eight victories in 12 rounds and led the standings for nearly the entire season. He also defeated Hight in the final round in Houston but lost to him in the showdown at Dallas. Then they split the Texas races. Now, each wants to be the Lone Star in the Funny Car class after this weekend.
“It is a unique dynamic, and it has played out well for the fans,” Capps said. “You always expect Robert’s team to be in it late, and it’s always been a battle between us. This year, everybody knows about the power Prock makes and the speeds they’re running. With Tobler and our team, we’ve been able to put pressure on our opponent and stay consistent, so the dynamic has been fun. You couldn’t ask for two more different situations. But Robert and I let the cars do the talking. It’s fun to get up there, step on the gas, and see who wins.”
For Hight, it’s simple: “We just have to go further than Capps. No matter what, we need to go one round further than him, or we both lose in the same round, and it’s over. But our goal [coming] into Pomona is to win that race, go in there and go four rounds, and cap off a championship with a huge win at our home track in front of our sponsors, at the Auto Club Finals. That’s what we’re going to do.”
JFR also has one of two contenders in the other nitro-class nail-biter.
Brittany Force is poised to follow in her father’s championship footsteps – if she can ambush gritty Texas privateer Steve Torrence.
This time last year, Torrence and Brittany Force shared race data as part of a deal where tuning consultant Alan Johnson split his time, attention, and expertise.
Steve Torrence leads the Top Fuel standings by 20 points.
This year, all Torrence and Force share is the chance to wear the Top Fuel crown.
Torrence, driver of his family-owned Capco Contractors Dragster, leads Force by a mere 20 points, but he’s lucky to have that. She reached the final round at Las Vegas, and if she hadn’t fouled on the launch and disqualified herself and had defeated Terry McMillen, she would have entered the Finals tied with Torrence.
Either way, the Top Fuel class will crown a new champion.
“We just need to take care of business on our end and everything’ll be OK,” eight-time winner Torrence said. “When we go out and everyone on our team does his job, we have been really successful. If we stay calm and stay focused, I have no doubt that we’re up to the challenge. We don’t want to make the mistake of becoming too conservative. We don’t want to treat the Finals any different than any other race. We just want to go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year long.”
Force said she’s relying on logic.
“Looking at this team and this car, I know we’re totally capable of winning it,” she said, referring to her Monster Energy Dragster and her Brian-Husen/Alan Johnson-guided crew.
“I don’t try to focus on the big picture of the Countdown and how many points you need. I try to look at it at the end of the day,” she said. “Obviously, I hear things and how many rounds out we are, but my main focus is one round at a time. That’s the way I approach it. Some drivers feed off how many points they are behind and how far they are back, but for me, I do it one round at a time. It’s too much pressure, too much on my plate if I look at it another way. And then my focus is lost. It’s not in the right place. It’s not in the car. It’s a distraction. For me, less distraction is better when I’m in the car.”
But she’s human, and naturally she is excited about her opportunity.
“It seems unreal to be here,” Force said. “I’ve watched my dad win 16 championships, and coming into my fifth year, I’m still trying to wrap my head around winning a single race. That’s so huge for me, so exciting. That’s something I’m so proud of. And now to be thinking that we’re in the hunt for a championship, it just seems unreal.”
Brittany Force is in her fifth season in the NHRA.