GAINESVILLE | John Force’s son-in-law was the only thing keeping him from another historic performance in the finals Sunday of the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals.
Robert Hight wasn’t swayed by his boss and teammate, who was trying to become just the fifth Funny Car driver in 46 years to win a national event as a 16th qualifier.
His blue Ford Mustang was straight and true on the left lane of the Auto Plus Raceway at Gainesville, and Force’s car wiggled with tire shake in the fickle right side of the 1,000-foot strip.
“Luckily we got lane choice,” Hight said. “That could have been the difference. There was a big difference in the lanes. We didn’t have to run in the right lane [Sunday].”
Allen Johnson won in Pro Stocks, and Doug Kalitta won in Top Fuel Dragsters, and both used the left lane.
The only professional class winner from the right side was Steve Johnson in Pro Stock Motorcycles.
Force was the last driver in Funny Cars to make the cut Saturday afternoon. But his first-round win over top-seed Cruz Pedregon extended his record to 5-0 as a 16th seed in the first round of eliminations.
Victories over Del Worsham and his daughter, Courtney Force, set up the opportunity for Force to win as a 16th seed for the first time in his 37-year career.
Hight said he never considered backing down to Force. In fact, the 63-year-old driver demands maximum effort on every run — even against a teammate.
“Not a chance,” Hight said of favoring Force. “Nor would he let me win. That ain’t going to happen. He knows I’m after him; I know he’s after me.”
Force was the first person to congratulate Hight after the race.
The trophy still belongs to John Force Racing. But unlike 139 other ones back home in Yorba Linda, Calif., this one won’t have Force’s name on it.
Hight, whose 2009 Funny Car championship puts him 15 behind his record-setting father-in-law, now has 30 national wins.
The Gatornationals is considered one of the crown jewel events on the NHRA Mello Yello Series, and it is steeped in history. That might explain while the four professional winners had combined for 74 years and 1,341 starts in the NHRA.
For 53-year-old Steve Johnson, it was a victory that will define his 28-year career.
“This is hard to beat,” Johnson said. “It’s experience that allows us to get down the track.”
One challenge was a 30-mph crosswind that clearly affected some of the passes.
Johnson beat Katie Sullivan, top-seed Matt Smith, Hector Arana Jr. and Scotty Pollacheck for his first victory since 2008 – a stretch of 86 races.
Allen Johnson made the debut of the Dodge Dart a memorable one with wins over Jonathan Gray, Shane Gray, top-seed Dave Connolly and second-seed Erica Enders-Stevens.