BRISTOL — The movie “Moneyball” has provided NHRA Funny Car driver Robert Hight and his race team the correct change for the 2012 season.
Team owner John Force took Hight and his crew to see the film over the winter. Hight explained the purpose was to learn from a plot which consists of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane using statistics to build a competitive baseball team and apply that to their race team.
“We’re trying to take a new approach and look at statistics,” said Hight on Wednesday at Bristol Dragway to promote next week’s Ford Thunder Valley Nationals. “When you look back on a season, a lot of times, you beat yourself. These cars have so much horsepower that a lot of times you end up smoking the tires.
“We don’t look at that, that somebody outran us or beat us, sometimes we beat ourselves. You have to figure out the ways of how you’re losing, and the answer isn’t always spending more money. Anyway, we’ve looked at that, and it’s really paid off.”
The new approach was a result of Hight and the rest of the John Force Racing team losing last year’s Funny Car championship to Matt Hagan and the Don Schumacher Racing organization. Hight explained nothing outside of first place is acceptable to his team, which is so accustomed to winning.
Hight won the 2009 NHRA Funny Car championship and Force holds the all-time record as a 15-time World Champion.
“We didn’t get the championship last year, and everybody at JFR was totally motivated to get that back,” Hight said. “In ’09, I won it, and in ’10 John won it. So after Matt got it last year, we wanted to get it back in our camp. You only get that by hard work.”
That hard work as well as the “Moneyball” philosophy is paying dividends. After losing in the first round at the season-opening race at Pomona, Hight pedaled his Ford Mustang to four straight victories (Phoenix, Gainesville, Las Vegas and Charlotte).
The 42-year-old California native joined the list of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Cruz Pedregon and Force as the only drivers to win four straight Funny Car events.
He’s not won since then, but after eight races, still holds a 157-point lead over second-place Ron Capps in the NHRA Full Throttle standings.
Not wanting to show disrespect to Force, his father-in-law as well as his team owner, Hight believes what his team accomplished earlier this season stands in a league of its own.
“I’ll be honest I believe it’s tougher to win today in this class than it’s ever been,” he said. “This is like Pro Stock was 10 years ago. Back when John won four in a row, he had a tenth (of a second) on the rest of the field. Anymore, you don’t have that luxury since everyone is so tightly bunched up. So, to win four in a row in this day and age is pretty impressive for my team.”
Hight, who served as a clutch specialist on Force’s crew before getting in the driver’s seat, emphasized a team has to constantly move forward if it wants to stay up front.
“That’s the way drag racing is,” said Hight, a 27-time national event winner. “If you try to keep things the same, you’ll get passed up so fast. What we try to do is get qualified on Friday. Then we spend one run on Saturday, trying something new where we can learn more and get better. If you stay stagnant or with the same combination, you get left behind.”
Racing in Tennessee next week, both Hight and Force will carry special Elvis Presley paint schemes on their race cars. Just like “The King of Rock and Roll” long holds the record for most hit singles, Force is the most successful driver in NHRA history with 135 national-event wins.
However, he may not be considered the man to beat at Bristol.
Besides his status as points leader, Hight is the defending race champion of the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals. Hight was fast throughout the weekend, second in Friday qualifying with a pass of 4.110 seconds (304.53 mph) and going even faster in Sunday’s final round at 4.092 (314.90).
Fast at Bristol since his debut in 2006, Hight posted a top speed of 316.45 mph in last year’s semifinal win over Jeff Arend.
“It’s not luck or that I drive different here,” he said. “It’s once you’ve done well at a track, it’s confidence. You just believe you can win, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Before that first win, you always wonder if you have what it takes to win. Once you do it, it gets easier.
“I love it here. There’s nothing like Thunder Valley, that echo, that sound, it’s so different than anywhere else we go.”