BRISTOL — Out of the top three divisions of NHRA racing, only Robert Hight can claim a comfortable points lead.
After a run of four consecutive wins earlier in the season, the John Force Racing AAA Funny Car driver has positioned himself as the driver to beat as the teams roll into the region next weekend for the Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway.
Win number five could be right around the corner at a track where he emerged victorious one year ago.
“When you’re a driver and you’re on a roll like that, you want nothing more than for it to not go away,” Hight said during a press conference Wednesday. “You want to jump back in that car the next weekend and keep it going. … It’s a long time since anybody in the Funny Car class has won four in a row. I believe it is tougher to win in this class today than it has ever been. To win four in a row, this day, is pretty impressive.”
Hight, the 2009 NHRA Funny Car champion, returns to Bristol with a 157-point lead over former champ Ron Capps looking for more consistency as the circuit kicks into high gear. Using a new outlook on statistics, inspired by the movie “Moneyball,” the Force drivers are working to become smarter on the track.
“We didn’t get the championship last year and everybody in JFR were totally motivated to get that back because in ‘09 I won it, in ‘10 John won it, then Matt (Hagan) won it last year,” said Hight. “We want to get that back in our camp and you only get that by hard work and everybody is dedicated. We’re trying to take a new approach and look at statistics.
“We went to the movie Moneyball over the winter. John took us. He’s a big movie guy and there was something to be learned from that. Look at statistics and figure out ways of how you’re losing. It’s not just about spending more money, it’s about being smarter. We’ve done that and it’s really paid off.”
The coming race weekend is especially important for Hight and team owner Force as they bring special Elvis Presley-inspired paint schemes to the Bristol weekend, honoring the 35th anniversary of the rock-and-roll icon’s passing with special events around the track.
Said Hight: “(John’s) Castrol GTX is going to have four or five different images of Elvis and my AAA car is going to have the same thing, but it will be totally different images on both cars. I think some of the people from Graceland will be here. It’s a Ford race. I won last year and I think John won the year before.
“We’ve had a lot of success here. We love it here. There’s nothing like Thunder Valley, to hear that roar and that echo, the fans hear that and it’s unbelievable the sound here. It’s totally different than anywhere we go.”
Champ searching for results
Matt Hagan finished last season with a blazing fury. The same cannot be said about the initial eight races of the 2012 schedule.
After driving to the NHRA Funny Car championship in the Countdown last fall, Hagan’s Don Schumacher Racing Aaron’s Funny Car hasn’t quite lived up to the standard set by its driver.
“We had a phenomenal year last year and to come out and struggle like we have, it’s been as humbling as it gets,” Hagan said. “This Aaron’s Funny Car just has not performed the way we want it to or it should. We’re really looking to turn the corner here at Bristol.”
Hagan currently sits 46 points out of the pivotal 10th spot needed to qualify for NHRA’s postseason. The good news is, the driver is inching closer to a rebound.
“Last weekend we had our fastest lap of the year,” said Hagan. “We laid down a decent number and put a couple of runs together, and we’ve been struggling to do that as a team. I’m looking to see if we can build on that here at Bristol. I want to put on a good show for the fans and my family and have fun doing it.”
Hagan, from Christiansburg, Virginia, is seeking his first FC victory at his home track and a good run at Bristol would go a long way in helping turn the season around.
“We’ve got to focus on this year and make sure we’re doing everything right and not letting our sponsors down or our fans down,” he said. “I’m just as disappointed as anybody when things are not going right. For us, we’ve got to keep our heads high and make the Chase. Robert won it a couple of years getting in on the 10th spot in the Chase. Our goal right now is to get in the countdown. Right now, it’s anybody’s ballgame.
“We know what we’re capable of doing. The car is there and the parts are there. I feel like if we can put it all together, I can drive the wheels off of it.”
Bernstein making strides
A new team and a new attitude is driving Brandon Bernstein.
After his father, Kenny Bernstein, closed shop on his racing operation last year, the second-generation driver joined forces with good friend Morgan Lucas and has continued his strong runs in Top Fuel.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a win but our Mav TV car is really close,” Bernstein said. “The last three races, two semifinals and a runner-up. We’re really close. We’ve just got to get over that hump and get a win and hopefully more will follow after that.”
Going from a one car operation to having a teammate has been a different situation for the driver, but one that has paid off.
“It’s different,” said Bernstein, who was the top qualifier in Top Fuel at last year’s Bristol event. “It’s just a different feeling for me. I miss having my dad out here and having our team, but I’m very, very fortunate to be able to drive for Morgan Lucas Racing.
“It’s been fun and we’ve been having a really good time this year just because we’re best buddies and now I’ve got the dynamic of having a teammate. It’s just a totally different feel for me and I’ve enjoyed it a lot and I think he has too.”