TOPEKA, KS --- When you have four Funny Cars competing for sixteen qualifying spots the odds are against you sometimes. The goal is to get all four Funny Cars qualified and then get as many round wins as possible.
As tough as the Funny Car category is this season in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series John Force Racing has faced more than its fair share of tough match-ups. Tomorrow another intra-team battle will unfold between points leader Robert Hight and Rookie of the Year top contender Courtney Force. This will be the third time this season Hight and Courtney have squared off. Hight has won four national events already this season and is looking for the elusive three-peat at Heartland Park Topeka while the youngest Force is looking for her first win of her career.
For Hight the match-up will be especially tough considering he had a hold of lane choice going into the final qualifying session only to see his teammate race around him by one thousandth of a second. Force’s run of 4.109 seconds was the quickest pass of the final qualifying session.
“It is always a tough deal to race a teammate in an early round. This Auto Club Mustang will be ready. We have had a couple little things bite us but we are right on the edge,” said Hight a five time finalist in 2012 and the run-away points leader. “Jimmy and Eric have a really good tune up and I have a lot of confidence in them. I want to with this race three times in a row. It will be tough but every race is tough. Cruz ran good yesterday and Courtney ran good today. We are right in the thick of things. We have won from the middle of the pack already this year.”
Hight has good reason to be confident in his crew. They have a 20-3 round win record this season and are 8-0 the last two years at the NHRA Dollar General Summer Nationals. He has only dropped one race in the first round this season and that was in the season-opening NHRA Winternationals.
As the Top Rookie of the Year candidate for Auto Club’s road to the Future award, Courtney Force, made a couple strong passes today for the third and fourth qualifying sessions of the weekend. She was able to qualify her Traxxas Ford Mustang in the No. 9 spot going into Saturday and make a 4.135 ET at 304.67 mph in the heat for her first pass of the day. They posted a 4.135 ET and were second quickest of the round, gaining the team two useful bonus points.
“Today we got to qualify earlier in the day than yesterday. Q3 and Q4 were pretty much in the hottest part of the day, but I think they were good conditions to learn from to get the car ready for race day. It’s always tough trying to get a car down a race track that’s hot, but we managed it and I think we ran pretty well,” said the rookie driver. “We ran a 4.135 elapsed time in the first session and were second quickest of that round of qualifying so we got two bonus points.”
Force, the youngest daughter of fifteen-time champion and legend of the sport of drag racing John Force, ran a 4.109 ET at 310.13 mph in her second session and ultimately switched qualifying positions with teammate and brother-in-law Robert Hight. She will go into Sunday’s eliminations in the top half of the field, the No. 8 spot.
“The second run out we were kind of learning some new things with me as the driver. I was trying to take in all of the information that my dad and my crew chief Ron Douglas were telling me. Ron had me placed in a little bit towards the centerline when we went up for Q4 and told me to launch and then ease back over and keep the car straight down the middle after that,” said the Cal State-Fullerton graduate. “There were apparently some issues with some spots in the track that we wanted to avoid so that’s why we were trying to do that.”
“It was a big accomplishment because you want to be subtle about those kinds of things or else you can cause the car to smoke the tires if you’re too aggressive. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you’re in that car and just inches in or out of the groove can cost you a run and you know, it’s a lot of money for a run, it’s important.”
Unfortunately for the John Force Racing clan, neither Force not Hight could get out of having each other for a first round match-up on Sunday. The spokesperson for Ford Racing’s Driving Skills for Life initiative will have lane choice over Robert Hight in the first round of eliminations on Sunday.
“I did manage to get around him (Hight) so we have lane choice, which is good for our Traxxas Ford Mustang. Robert is going to be a tough competitor, obviously, with four wins under his belt already this season. They have Jimmy Prock over there and a tough team, but you know what, I have a tough team too. I think Ron Douglas knows how to tune this race car and getting our car down the track today in the dead heat shows us that we should be good for tomorrow,” said Force.
While Hight will be looking for his fifth win teammate Mike Neff will be looking for his second win of the year and redemption at Heartland Park Topeka. As a finalist last year the driver and tuner of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang is looking forward to getting back on track after a tough outing in Atlanta two weeks ago when he narrowly missed making the field. He did not suffer in the point standings but the misstep helped focus Neff.
In the killer conditions of Friday night Neff posted the No. 3 time of 4.063 seconds and today when the conditions warmed up he made a solid run to start the day – 4.150 seconds - and then he went for it in the final session.
“The positives so far have been that we made a good run last night when the conditions were good. There is a good chance we’ll get weather like that tomorrow morning. We made a nice run today when it was warm,” said Neff. “Today in the last session we tried to be aggressive and find out where the limit was. It didn’t go but we learned from that. So far it has been a pretty good weekend. This Castrol GTX Mustang is tunable. I feel like I have a good handle on it and I am going to go up there tomorrow morning and be aggressive. You have to be if you want to win in the class. There are too many good Funny Cars out there. I am excited to get to the track tomorrow.”
John Force has done more winning at Heartland Park Topeka than anyone else in the Funny Car class. In fact he has won the event nine times in the previous twenty-three events. His Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford Mustang was consistent this weekend running ETs of 4.215, 4.135, 4.187 and 4.190. For the winningest driver in NHRA history consistency is OK but he knows he will have to step up tomorrow against veteran Johnny Gray.
“You can’t complain when you are all qualified and all your Mustangs are in the Top Ten in points. We have to do some damage tomorrow. I don’t like two cars racing each other but they will both race for the win. We’ll go on from there,” said Force. “We are spread out over the ladder which is good. I have had a lot of wins here for Castrol and we’ll try and get another one tomorrow. I am honored to be representing Carroll Shelby on all our Fords from my team to Tasca to Wilkerson. He was a great man and we will go out tomorrow and make him proud.”
Force holds a 10-6 career win record over Johnny Gray going into tomorrow’s eliminations.