Why NHRA Funny Car Greats Ron Capps, Robert Hight Is Series' Best Rivalry
Revenge-seeking rival Robert Hight and Matt Hagan are, like Capps, gunning for a fourth NHRA Funny Car championship.
Hight driven by reclaiming “the one that got away" in 2022.
Capps and Hight are the second and third winningest drivers in NHRA Funny Car history.
Another Funny Car rivalry brewing as Gatornationals gets opens season in Florida.
Ron Capps saw it and heard it.
He tuned into the offseason interviews that featured his NHRA Funny Car rival and fellow three-time champion Robert Hight. Capps saw that stubbornly set jaw and heard that tenacious tone of voice that signaled Hight means business when the Camping World Drag Racing Series opens this weekend at Gainesville, Fla.
Capps knows Hight is coming after him. But he said he’s tired of the John Force Racing driver’s complaints about the Countdown to the Championship structure.
Hight’s 2022 dream season gave him eight victories in 12 final rounds, 58 victories in 72 elimination rounds, and the lead in the standings for virtually all season. But in the final weekend of the season, the final day of the season, the second round of the Finals at Pomona Calif., it turned into a nightmare. Hight lost to Bob Tasca III, and Capps advanced to the final round to claim the championship by three points.
“It was a tough one to get over,” Hight said. “Since 1996, when John Force won 13 of 18 races, I think this is the best Funny Car season anybody has ever had. I’m not sure you can top that. After a year like last year and how it ended, we definitely have something to prove. Can’t wait to get back in [the car]. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
And according to Capps, he has been talking about it a lot—too much, actually.
“Well, let me tell you,” Capps said on a recent WFO Radio podcast, “who’s the person who’s lost the most championships on the last day of the season . . . by less than a handful of points?” The answer is himself: “I guarantee you. But have you ever heard me in all these years, after losing by five points or four points or three points to (Jack) Beckman or (Gary) Scelzi or Force, complain about the Countdown? Ever once? No. It is what it is. We all know it going in.
“To leave Pomona and wake up Monday morning after you’ve lost the championship, you think back about so many places during that season and that Countdown and if you would’ve just done something a little bit different and gained an extra four or five points, you would be a world champion. It’s that little a difference,” Capps said. “I’ve been listening to it all winter long, and I’m tired of it now. Now it’s starting to irritate me. I never complained about it. I laughed about it. So get over it! Get over it! It’s a championship. It’s a Countdown. We all know it.”
Just before the Countdown that starts in September, the sanctioning body erases any advantage a driver has, resets the points, and groups drivers in 10-point increments to manufacture drama – because it can. That was Hight’s complaint, just like it has been for all the drivers who have been hurt by it.
Hight, who also has benefited from the system in the past, said, “I’m more hungry than ever” and lamented that the championship system is what it is: “You take 300 points away, then you lose by three. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Everything you earn, it’s tough to see it go out the window. And I know I’ve been on the other side of it, OK – and I get that. The guy or the gal that can do the best job in all the different conditions and all the different racetracks, that should be your champion.”
Many racers have said the same.
“You’ve got teams that are very upset—like Hight and (last year’s third-place finisher Matt) Hagan and teams that really had a chance and for whatever reason (didn’t perform spectacularly). And I've been in that position many times,” Capps said.
He also recognizes that the criticism of the Countdown hasn’t pressured the NHRA to change or eliminate the playoff and return to the traditional system. And it doesn’t look like any serious discussion about doing that is on the NHRA decision-makers’ radar screen. So he isn’t on a mission to change that.
For his part, Capps has accepted both the challenge to maneuver the points minefield as well as the unfairness of it all. He might agree with Hight, but he just doesn’t want to hear griping about something they all were aware of at the start of every season – or perhaps pot-shots at the way he earned his third title.
Capps said he ran into John Force recently and that “Force made a joke, but it certainly wasn’t.” He didn’t provide any details about Force’s remark or the context of it, but evidently it had to do with Countdown policy.
Before last November, both Capps and Hight had known that same shattering feeling. In 2012, Capps lost to Jack Beckman by two points, the narrowest margin of victory in Funny Car class history. And in 2005, Gary Scelzi aced him out by just eight points. Although Hight used an eight-point advantage in 2019 to deny Beckman a second championship, he had been on the wrong end of another close one. Hight lost to Tony Pedregon by 19 points in 2007. So Capps knows Hight’s disappointment all too well.
And Capps, who’s racing this season for a third consecutive title and fourth overall, understands Hight’s feelings, from personal experience: “You’ve been just stewing for the whole offseason on what happened and watching videos and seeing posts of us with a championship trophy . . . and it's what used to drive me even harder when we didn't win it. So there's a lot to wake up and be motivated about. It's not hard for me to get motivated.”
He also knows that this resoluteness of Hight’s goes beyond the average desire to win a championship—because he’s in that same boat. The two of them, along with Matt Hagan, know a fourth championship would tie them with legends Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme. A fourth also would match Top Fuel’s Steve Torrence, dual nitro-class king Gary Scelzi, Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Eddie Krawiec, and the late Pro Stock great Lee Shepherd.
Claiming he won’t be racing when he’s 73 years old like his boss Force, Hight said his place in drag-racing history is important. He said he’s thinking of the day “when you hang your helmet up and you want to be No. 2 all-time.”
Capps, with 72 Funny Car victories to Hight’s 61, are second and third, respectively, to Force’s 155. Force has 16 championships, and they are feeling that pressure that Force has folded into his entire approach to drag racing. Capps said competition is burdensome enough “having the No. 1 on the car. You got a little bit more of a bullseye than anybody else.”