GLENDORA, Calif. -- All season long, the media has portrayed Robert Hight as the front-runner in the race for the Automobile Club of Southern California's 2005 Road to the Future Award which identifies the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year.
Now it's official.
Hight, 36, a two-time POWERade tour winner this season at the wheel of the Auto Club Ford Mustang, was one of four Rookie-of-the-Year finalists, one from each pro category, identified last week by the NHRA. The winner will be revealed at a Monday banquet following the season-ending Auto Club Finals in Pomona, Calif.
In addition to Hight, the finalists are Jack Beckman, 39, of North Hills, Calif., in Top Fuel; Erica Enders, 21, of Houston, Texas, in Pro Stock; and Chip Ellis, 35, of Americus, Ga., in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
"It's an honor just to be nominated," Hight said, "especially because it's an Auto Club award and we're an Auto Club team. But the truth is, I'm only (a finalist) because of my team. They gave me a great race car and all the support you could ask for. John (car owner and father-in-law John Force) gave me a chance and (crew chief) Jimmy Prock gave me the tools. I've just tried to do my job, while I'm learning my job."
Nevertheless, in an nhra.com on-line poll, Hight was named by 72.16 per cent of respondents as the favorite to win the award. The resident of Anaheim Hills, Calif., was favored by 4,514 of 6,247 voters. Enders was second with 21 per cent of the vote.
A former crewman on Force's Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, Hight never had driven competitively in any category in any racing discipline before he climbed into the Auto Club Funny Car at last February's CARQUEST Winternationals at Pomona Raceway.
He qualified the blue-and-white Ford No. 1 in only his third race (the Mac Tools Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.) and won in just his fourth start (the O'Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston, Texas). He later added a victory in the Mopar Mile-High Nationals Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.) and won in just his fourth start (the O'Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston, Texas). He later added a victory in the Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Denver, Colo., was the No. 1 qualifier a category-leading six times and, in mid-season, led the POWERade point standings for five races.
He remains mathematically in contention for the $400,000 championship, 104 points off Force's lead.
"For more than 100 years (the Auto Club) has represented integrity, commitment and professionalism to our millions of members," said Thomas V. McKernan, president and CEO of the Automobile Club of Southern California. "The Road to the Future Award has come to symbolize these same attributes in (drag racing).
"To be nominated recognizes not only that a rookie driver had a noteworthy first season," McKernan said, "but also that (the driver) demonstrated exceptional potential for the future. We congratulate all four of the nominees for this year's award and look forward to enjoying their achievements both on and off the track for years to come."
The winner will be selected by a panel of 100 national motorsports journalists through a voting system based on the following criteria: number of events, performance on and off the race track, participation in NHRA promotions and relationships with fans, sponsors and media.
Ellis, latest protege of George Bryce at G-Squared Racing, is the only other finalist with a 2005 victory, having won last June at Joliet, Ill. Enders, driver of the Slammers Ultimate Milk Chevrolet, was runner-up at last month's Ameriquest Nationals at Joliet, in the process becoming the first woman ever to reach a Pro Stock final.
Beckman, who continues to battle back from cancer, is a former NHRA series champion in Super Comp and an instructor at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School.
In 2002, the Road to the Future Award and the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year Award were combined to create a single program recognizing the future stars of the sport. First winner of the combined award was Pro Stock driver Gene Wilson in 2002. Second generation driver Brandon Bernstein was the 2003 winner and Pro Stock driver Jason Line the 2004 honoree.
Eric Medlen, Hight's former crewmate, was the Funny Car finalist for the award a year ago after earning a breakthrough victory at Brainerd, Minn., and finishing fifth in POWERade points at the wheel of the Castrol SYNTEC Mustang.
Past winners of the Road to the Future Award, before it was combined with the NHRA rookie award, were Tony Pedregon (1996), Ron Capps (1997), Doug Kalitta (1998), Antrod Brown (1999), Melanie Troxel (2000) and G.T. Tonglet (2001). NHRA first recognized a Rookie-of-the-Year in 1996 when Mike Edwards and Matt Hines were co-winners of the award. Other honorees were Gary Scelzi (1997), Jeg Coughlin (1998), Scotty Cannon (1999), Don Lampus (2000) and Darrell Russell (2001).