Gainesville: Mike Neff preview

PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENTS HAVE NEFF GEARING UP FOR FIRST WIN GAINESVILLE (March 7, 2008) --- The 39th annual NHRA Gatornationals, March 13-16, will be an emotional weekend for everyone at John Force Racing. Last year one of the rising stars of...

PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENTS HAVE NEFF GEARING UP FOR FIRST WIN

GAINESVILLE (March 7, 2008) --- The 39th annual NHRA Gatornationals, March 13-16, will be an emotional weekend for everyone at John Force Racing. Last year one of the rising stars of NHRA Drag Racing and the cornerstone driver of John Force's Next Generation, Eric Medlen, lost his life following a testing accident the day after the national event. For most of the season the JFR "quartet" of drivers raced in a symbolic missing man formation.

Since that accident a tremendous amount of time, prayer, resources and money have poured into The Eric Medlen Project, the thrust of which is the design of a safer race car and the creation of a safer competitive environment. Input from nearly every corner of the motor sports community was gathered, analyzed, and implemented in the improvement of the Funny Car chassis and enhanced padding for the cockpit area.

Toward the end of the 2007 NHRA season Mike Neff, Crew Chief for Gary Scelzi's 2005 Funny Car World Championship, was named the latest driver to join JFR filling the seat of the fourth Nitro Ford Mustang Funny Car. Neff would team with respected Crew Chief John Medlen and be ready to roll for the 2008 season. Neff was unexpectedly pressed into service for the last two races of the season -- qualifying for both- following John Force's crash in September at the Texas Motorplex.

Over the off-season Neff worked side-by-side with John Medlen developing improvements on the highly anticipated BOSS 500 Ford engine program and well as many behind the scenes adjustments.

While it was a hectic schedule the young driver kept his head amid the swirling pull of sponsor appearances, testing, new chassis, and most importantly finding seat time. The process of switching from full-time crew chief to full-time driver has moved along with minimal snags and Neff is most encouraged by the continued performance of his Old Spice Ford Mustang as well as his behind the wheel education.

"I felt our performance would be good right out of the gate. I expected the working relationship here with everybody to be what it is; which is great. I didn't know what to expect with how I would progress as a driver. I feel good about that," said Neff. "It is still a lot of pressure even though I am a rookie. I don't have very much experience but, you roll up to the lights on Sunday and everybody wants to win as bad as you do."

While it may seem like the pressure is mounting for the former motocross and off-road truck racer, Neff is heading into his third race of the season on the heels of posting the second quickest qualifying time (4.798 seconds) on a tricky track in Phoenix, Ariz., and continued performance improvement for his Old Spice Ford Mustang during an additional day of testing.

"I wouldn't say we have a handle on performance but we have definitely made some good strides. The performance was a lot better. We still have a few more small changes but I feel like we are real close to being really good. Still getting more runs for me is the main goal. I get a little better every time."

On the lookout for his first professional win, the favorite to win the Auto Club Road to the Future Award - presented annually to the professional rookie of the year -- Neff is growing into his roll as professional Funny Car driver. The quiet Hemet, Calif., native has taken his limited fame in stride.

"We seem to be getting more people by our pits and I am signing more autographs. I wouldn't say I am getting a following or anything like that but I definitely feel like I am getting more attention. I definitely don't think of myself as popular. Most of the people are real nice and have nice things to say. I like seeing the kids. It is neat to think that you can help someone have a better day."

Neff was denied his first round win for the fourth race in a row losing to eventual event winner Jack Beckman in their first meeting at the CSK Nationals. He knows that while he is a rookie by definition, the resources at his disposal raise the level of expectation across the board.

"I believe that the expectations are high right out of the gate no different than when I first started as a crew chief. That first year I was with a good team and we had good parts. You have sponsors and they expect you to win. They want you to win. They might be a little more understanding (about his rookie status) but, still the bottom line is they are paying the bucks to win. The team is working hard and everybody wants to win. You just don't want to let anybody down."

Neff knows he has a lot to race for in Gainesville. Capturing his first win at the Gatornationals would put him in some elite company. Gainesville has seen its share of first wins -- Frank Hawley (Funny Car, 1982), Eddie Hill (Top Fuel, 1988), Dale Pulde (Funny Car, 1978) -- as well as historic moments such as the first 300 mile per hour run by Funny Car and Top Fuel legend Kenny Bernstein in 1988 to world.

As Neff continues to lay down a solid foundation as a driver for the Old Spice team and teammate with John Force Racing he knows that he has the strength to persevere.

"You never want to be that weak link on the team. You don't want to let anybody down. I feel like me being new is not an excuse. I need to be able to do my job so we are competitive and able to win races."

Did you know...

With a win at the Gatornationals Neff would be the fourth different JFR driver to win there after John Force, Tony Pedregon and Gary Densham.

Neff is trying to become just the second racer to win pro championships as both crew chief and driver. The only person to have accomplished that feat is Dick LaHaie, who won a Top Fuel title as a driver in 1987 and as crew chief to Scott Kalitta in 1994 and 1995.

When Neff does capture his first win for John Force Racing he will become the sixth different drivers to have won Funny Car races on the NHRA tour -- John Force, Tony Pedregon, Gary Densham, Robert Hight and Eric Medlen.

A strong season for Neff would also continue another John Force Racing tradition as he is trying to become the third John Force Racing, Inc., driver in four years to win the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie of the Year following Robert Hight (2005) and Ashley Force (2007).

-credit: jfr

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein , Tony Pedregon , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Gary Densham , Scott Kalitta , Dick LaHaie , Jack Beckman , Ashley Force , Eric Medlen , Dale Pulde , Robert Hight , Frank Hawley , John Medlen , Mike Neff