Defending series champion Robert Hight started the 2010 NHRA drag racing season Thursday night in Pomona, Calif., with a decidedly different view of the world, although his results on the race track looked remarkably the same.
Hight led all Funny Car qualifiers at the 50th annual Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals, running a near-record 4.059 seconds at 313.86 mph in his Auto Club Ford Mustang. Pro Stock reigning champ Mike Edwards and Top Fuel veteran Cory McClenathan also went quickest in the first of three days of professional-class qualifying, but Hight was the one who created the buzz.
"I feel like I have a huge target on my back now," said Hight, the son-in-law of 14-time NHRA champion John Force. "When I didn't have the No. 1 on my car I was always gunning for the guy that did, so now I know they're all gunning for us. A lot of people say it's harder to defend a championship than [it is to win] the first one. I don't know if that's true but I'm definitely looking forward to defending it."
Celebrating his 40th birthday, Del Worsham clicked off an impressive 4.062 seconds at 312.35 mph, good enough to place the Al Anabi Toyota racer second overall. Ashley Force Hood was third with a 4.093 seconds at 310.70 mph in her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.
Despite a tumultuous offseason spent chasing down sponsors so he could continue racing, Edwards was up to task on the track, posting an efficient 6.580 seconds at 210.47 mph in his Interstate Batteries Pontiac GXP to pace the Pro Stock class.
"We started off good today, that's for sure," Edwards said. "Man, it feels good to come out here and get to race again and see where we stack up."
The much-hyped debut of the new Ford Mustang driven by veteran Larry Morgan was a bit of a disappointment. The car crept through the beams at the starting line, limiting him to a 6.707 seconds at 207.72 mph.
McClenathan's 3.809 seconds at 320.05 mph was the fourth-fastest Top Fuel speed in the 1,000-foot era that started in the summer of 2008 after Eric Medlen's fatal crash in Gainesville, Fla., led the NHRA to shorten its traditional quarter-mile race distance. Lucas Oil/Speedco rail pilot Shawn Langdon was second, but his 3.847 seconds at 309.98 mph gave McClenathan a substantial cushion.
"Me and the guys made a commitment to come in here with a better power package than we had when we left here in November," McClenathan said. "I think it shows, because that wasn't all of it, I guarantee it. The FRAM car is flying.
"We plan on making some noise early this year and make our presence known. I like listening to all the hype, but it's one of those deals where I'm tired of waiting to see. We're going to go toe to toe with these guys starting from day one."