TOPEKA — Sixteen years ago, Robert Hight arrived at Heartland Park Topeka with a wrench in his hand and a dream in his heart — to one day drive a dragster for John Force Racing.
On Sunday afternoon, Hight left with a trophy and a piece of history.
Hight, who rose from crew member to championship driver, won the NHRA Summer Nationals funny car race, giving John Force Racing its 200th victory, the most in professional drag racing.
Hight, with an elapsed time of 4.284 seconds at 264.86 mph, defeated teammate and funny car points leader Mike Neff for his 21st victory for Force, including back-to-back wins at Heartland Park.
Force, the 15-time funny car champion, has won 132 of the 200 races, but he didn't get out of the first round Sunday. It didn't matter. With Hight and Neff blowing away the rest of the field, Force Racing was assured of the milestone win before the starting lights came on for the final.
"John has put together a team that is unbelievable," said Hight, the 2009 funny car champion. "John has won over half of those races himself, and that's amazing. From (crew chiefs ) Austin Coil to Bernie Fedderly to John Medlen... (drivers) Eric Medlen, Gary Densham, Ashley Force... all these people who have come before us... I honestly believe we can keep going.
"John has set this team up to go for 300 wins. We have sponsorship that is long-term; that's what it takes. It's amazing to be part of this. I can't believe it is me."
Hight, 41, gave an assist to Neff, who served as crew chief during Force's 2010 championship season and is driving and tuning the car vacated by Ashley Force Hood during her pregnancy. Hight, who won two of the first three races this season, was eliminated in first round of the last two events.
"Mike Neff has really helped us out," Hight said of cooperation between his crew chief, Jimmy Prock, and Neff. "That's really how my car got turned around this weekend. It's been feast or famine for us... either we do good or we lose first round. "The day wasn't perfect for Hight, who remained third in points after successfully defending a race title for the first time in his career.
Before Hight's second-round win over Matt Hagan, crew member David Karcanes' thumb got caught in the blower belt while he was making an adjustment to the engine, and he required surgery.
"He's going to lose some of his thumb," Hight said. "It's tough when you lose a team member. Luckily, we have other teams who can pitch in and help, but it's still not the same. I want to dedicate this win to Shafty. We can't get to 201 without him."
Hight nearly didn't get to the third round because Karcanes normally sets the wheelie bar — which keeps the car stable — and when it didn't get set, Hight smoked his tires.
"We got lucky," Hight said. "Got the win, pedaled it, and in the final against Neff, I stayed with it, praying this thing would stay together. I never saw Neff in the other lane. It wasn't a pretty win, but we'll definitely take it."
The win was Force Racing's 14th at Heartland Park, which trails only the 22 wins at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., for the most at one track.
"John Force Racing reaching 200 wins is such an incredible accomplishment and a milestone that will stand in NHRA history for many, many years," said Jamie Allison, director of Ford North America Motorsports.