Robert Hight was ready to go for the NHRA season opener at California’s Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in February.
Then, he discovered in cross-country trips from his Anaheim Hills, Calif., home to the John Force Racing headquarters in Brownsburg, Ind., that the bitter midwestern temperatures were irritating his still-healing collarbone. He had broken it during the final-round crash that made his Countdown victory last September at Gateway Motorsports Park even more spectacular.
Within two weeks after the crash, he had undergone surgery, gotten fitted for custom padding and won the next race, pressuring eventual champion J.R. Todd until the final day of the season.
Losing in the first round at the final two races, losing his grip on first place and being unable to stop Todd kept Hight motivated.
Then came the mad scramble at John Force Racing — where Hight has been president since January 2011 — to get Austin Prock on track in time for the Winternationals.
Back in April 2018, team owner John Force had spoken of a three-year plan to groom Prock for his pro debut. But drag-racing legend Don Prudhomme found sponsorship for Prock and the race was on to assemble a Top Fuel team for the youngster.
The Winternationals was just five days away when Hight received the phone call informing him of the 11th-hour development. So Hight switched gears, put aside his own preparations and organized the formation of Prock’s team.
Prock had tested in a Funny Car but never in a dragster, so he was getting the feel of the Montana Brand/Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster — of any dragster — for the first time with five days until showtime. Hight was engaged fully in the process of Prock’s premiere, from deciding the 23-year-old former midget and sprint car driver would race a dragster rather than a Funny Car to completing contracts to ensure the proper decals were affixed to the car.
That was in addition to monitoring costly but crucial safety improvements to both of the team’s Funny Cars and Brittany Force’s dragster. The NHRA mandated specific extra padding for the Funny Cars and JFR was fashioning a wider Top Fuel canopy.
That would have been enough to keep Hight occupied throughout an offseason. But on top of that, the lingering issue of the sanctioning body’s unclear-at-best concussion protocol also needed to be addressed. So at the urging of IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal, John Force’s son-in-law, Hight and Force met with Indianapolis-based orthopedic expert Dr. Terry Trammell and NHRA tech officials Glen Gray and Tim White to learn how best to protect drivers.
All of these distractions didn’t faze Hight one bit on the race track. He won the season-opening Winternationals and has led the standings ever since. He built his 34-10 record during the first 16 races on five victories in seven final rounds. His victory at California’s Sonoma Raceway in late July was the 50th of his career.
This hectic pace is simply a way of life now for Hight, who said that during his early days in the sport, “Mechanically, I knew enough and I could get a job on a team — I didn’t know I could get a job with John Force.”
Hight’s career has evolved in a rather stunning way. At first, he was elated just to be a crew hand. He served as the clutch specialist for seven championship seasons from 1995-2001. He eventually wanted to get off the road and manage the facility, then had the urge to drive, which Force satisfied in 2005.
“It’s one thing to be a crew member. These guys work very, very hard, do the same thing week after week. I didn’t want to continue doing that. Now, driving, that’s another thing. It’s not the same,” Hight said. “And years later, I still love it just as much as I did. It never gets old. I never look at is as, ‘Oh, gosh, I’ve got to get on a plane again tomorrow.’ Heck no — I’m going to a race. Even when I’ve been in slumps, it was never, ever,‘Why am I doing this?’ Nothing like that. It’s like, ‘This is going to be our weekend,’ always dreaming that this is the weekend we’re going to turn things around.”
Hight is a two-time champion (2009 and ’17) and president of the company. And he, too, claims he’s amazed at how far he has come in a sport his parents urged him not to pursue.
“I pinch myself. It’s hard for me to believe,” he said. “Honestly, I never thought I would get to drive. It was my dream, but you’ve got to face reality. Luckily, John gave me the chance. In all honesty, it wouldn’t have happened if I had not been married to his daughter.”
That’s one wrinkle in an otherwise perfect story. Hight and Force’s eldest daughter, Adria, are the parents of teenage daughter Autumn. But Hight and Adria Force split several years ago, although their relationship is amicable for their daughter’s sake — and the fact they still work together. Adria Force is the CFO of John Force Racing.
“We get along fine. We have to work together every day. If we didn’t do it right, it would be awkward for everybody that works around us and that isn’t fair to them,” Hight said. “We communicate, like we always did. There’s not going to be any fighting. Things didn’t work out and we moved on.”
Many wonder how Hight feels being overshadowed by the larger-than-life John Force, the boss who has eight times more championships and literally 100 more victories.
“I don’t look at it like that,” Hight said. “John’s been racing 40 years and he’s a 16-time champ and has more wins than anybody else. He deserves to be where he’s at today. I’m very grateful for him giving me this opportunity to drive. If it wasn’t for John, I wouldn’t be doing this. So it doesn’t bother me one bit. I’m probably his biggest fan. I like the role that I play. I’m not a storyteller. I’m not a comedian. I’m more serious and technical. I think it’s a good balance.”
A sign of Hight’s loyalty came in 2007 when Force was hospitalized for several weeks with multiple fractures and injuries from a frightening crash. Hight stayed by Force’s side and even provided some custodial care. That’s about as personal as it gets, yet Hight said, “When you care about somebody, you do whatever you can to help him. It didn’t bother me a bit.”
Hight thinks a team with two John Force personalities might be impossible.
“It would clash. I just don’t know that that could work,” Hight said. “John’s an easy person to get along with. John can get along with anybody. But Kobe Bryant could not play with LeBron James.”
But he was quick to say Force gives people the limelight more often than fans might recognize: “Definitely. He wins a race against you, and he wants to pull you into the interview and get you some attention, too. That’s the kind of person he is.”