— When the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season opens, it will mark the 305th Funny Car race for Robert Hight. Despite all that experience, returning to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona for this weekend’s opener, the 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com, remains special for the reigning world champ.
“I remember the first time I ever went to the Winternationals as a fan,” Hight said. “It is monumental. It is the first race of the year and there is a lot of history there. You always have the same butterflies whether you are the champ or not when you roll out in front of that tower at Auto Club Raceway. There is nothing like Pomona, California.”
The start of the 2018 season will also be special for Hight as it marks the second time he will begin a NHRA season as the defending champion. A brilliant second half of 2017 helped Hight claim his second world title in the loaded Funny Car class and the veteran hopes that momentum continues at the season-opener in his 10,000-horsepower Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS.
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including live finals coverage beginning at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 11. It is the first of 24 events during the 2018 NHRA season and the John Force Racing driver remains just as focused coming off a championship season.
Hight, who has 41 career wins, and crew chief Jimmy Prock put together a number of historic moments to close 2017, winning four times over the final 11 races. Hight also became the first Funny Car driver to reach the 3.70s, going 3.793, and he set the national speed record at 339.83 mph. The next step is maintaining that consistency from start to finish in the rugged category.
“It would be a pretty bold prediction to say we are going to win again but I definitely want to be in the hunt,” Hight said. “You really want to be in the ball game at the end of the season. My goal is really to be good from start to finish. We want to win a lot of races and we want to be able to say we would be the champion whether there was a playoff or not. We have a good combination that we can start the year with and carry it on. I like our combination and we have a good handle on things. I can’t wait to get this season started.”
A victory at this weekend’s Winternationals will be difficult enough, let alone claiming a third world title. But Hight will certainly be a contender in the loaded field that includes 2016 champion Ron Capps, who won eight races a years ago, JFR teammates John Force and Courtney Force, Hagan, J.R. Todd and class newcomer Shawn Langdon. The spirited competition in the class brought out the best in Hight a year ago, and he’s looking forward to more challenges in 2018.
“Last year was a whole new deal,” Hight said. “I was fighting the reigning champion Ron Capps, the guy was amazing winning eight races throughout the season. We had our hands full. There was so much more pressure. We all got through it. We did what we had to when the chips were down. We came through when the pressure was the highest. That gives me a lot of confidence coming into this season. Winning two championships in a row will be tough but that would be the coolest thing because no one has gone back-to-back (in Funny Car) since John Force.”
In Top Fuel, Brittany Force returns to the track where she clinched her first world title last fall, and is after her first Winternationals win against stars like defending event champ Pritchett, Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta and Steve Torrence, who had eight wins in 2017.
Line won the Winternationals for a fifth time overall in Pro Stock, and the three-time world champion will look for another stellar start in the loaded class against standouts like reigning world champ Bo Butner Greg Anderson and Tanner Gray, who was NHRA’s top rookie in 2017.