MADISON, Ill. — Robert Hight was transported to a local hospital for observation after winning the Funny Car portion of Sunday’s AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park due to a massive engine explosion on his event-winning pass.
Hight, who was facing Tim Wilkerson in the final round of the second NHRA playoff event of the season, got the jump off the starting line by .018 seconds and never trailed during the 1,000-foot distance. Hight’s winning 4.036-second run at 276.29 mph defeated a losing 4.413 at 201.91 for Wilkerson, who struggled with tire haze at about 600 feet.
The two-time and defending Funny Car champion turned on the win light for his 44th national event victory, but only after his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro went up in a massive fireball at roughly the 800-foot mark down the track, blasting the body off before the car pitched hard to the left and slapped the wall beyond the finish line.
Hight climbed out of the car under his own power and was alert as he spoke with Safety Safari officials. However, he was moving gingerly before being guided by safety personnel into a waiting ambulance.
Hight became the first nitro Funny Car event winner to miss the post-race victory ceremonies in more than two decades. The last time such an occurrence happened was in 1997 at the Gatornationals, when Al Hofmann defeated Mark Oswald but suffered a fiery crash in the shutdown area that led to a broken arm for Hofmann.
After the explosion, crew chief Jimmy Prock spoke about the intensity and bittersweet tone of Sunday’s win.
“You never want to see that happen,” Prock said. “You just hope that he’s alright, and luckily it looks like he was. It looked like he hit the wall pretty hard, but he was able to climb out of it and that’s a good thing. You never want to hurt anyone.”
Prock also affirmed there would be no worries about the team being ready for the upcoming Countdown to the Championship race at Texas Motorplex.
“We’ll be fine,” Prock noted. “We’ve got race cars … brand new chassis sitting at the race shop. We’ll go back, put another car together and be ready for Dallas.”
John Force Racing officials released an update Sunday evening that Hight was scheduled to be released from the hospital that night.
“First, we are happy Robert is okay. He went to a local hospital to be checked out and after being x-rayed and evaluated he was scheduled to be released tonight,” said team owner John Force. “I’m glad Robert has the points lead and now we are going to rest and get ready for Dallas.”
Wilkerson described the chaos from his point of view in the right-hand lane after exiting his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang with a runner-up finish.
“My run started to come loose at about 400 or 500 feet, and I pedaled it one time … and it started to lean back in it, but I saw Robert poke his nose in there and go on by and I said, ‘well, crap, it’s over and I just got whooped,'” noted Wilkerson. “About that time, his deal all came loose over there (in the other lane).
“Thank goodness Robert was OK; that’s the most important thing. The safety of our drivers is really all that matters. My guys were all depressed and upside down and sad, and I got them together and told them that we were in another final round and our car’s in one piece. Those are the positives; that and that Robert’s OK.”
Hight, who was also the No. 1 qualifier for the event, defeated Dale Creasy, team owner John Force and Tommy Johnson Jr. en route to facing Wilkerson in the final round.
Wilkerson knocked off Matt Hagan, Courtney Force and J.R. Todd before losing to Hight.
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also won in their respective professional categories on Sunday at Gateway.