ROOKIE OF THE YEAR BATTLE FOCUSES ON TWO FORD FUNNY CARS AS MIKE NEFF RETAINS EARLY EDGE AS FAVORITE INDIANAPOLIS - Last year Ashley Force earned the Auto Club Road to the Future rookie of the year award easily after proving her mettle on...
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR BATTLE FOCUSES ON TWO FORD FUNNY CARS AS MIKE NEFF RETAINS EARLY EDGE AS FAVORITE
INDIANAPOLIS - Last year Ashley Force earned the Auto Club Road to the Future rookie of the year award easily after proving her mettle on and off the track in a tumultuous season. This season the voters are likely focused once again on the Funny Car category as Force's teammate Mike Neff and another Ford entry, that driven by Bob Tasca, battle to make the best impression and earn the best results during their first season as NHRA POWERade Series drivers.
In all, five drivers are eligible for this year's Auto Club Road to the Future award, including Neff and Tasca (Funny Car), Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Rickie Jones (Pro Stock) and Junior Pippen (Pro Stock Motorcycle). Drivers from all categories compete for the same award for overall best rookie performance, which will be presented at the end-of-the-year awards banquet in Southern California in November following the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona.
Neff has been the most impressive through the first 17 races this season and he'll be the only rookie to earn an invitation to the 10-car Countdown to the Championship playoffs, slightly edging out Tasca.
The regular season of the NHRA POWERade Series concludes at the 54th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis Aug. 27-Sept. 1.
Neff believes the award, should he earn it, is the mark of a good team - a badge of excellence in the deep pool of talent that fights at every race to make the field.
"A good car can make anyone look good and a bad car can make a good driver look bad," said Neff, who crossed over from crew chief to driver this year. "It really goes with the team. In my opinion, it shouldn't be focused on me, but on the whole team."
Two of Neff's teammates, Ashley Force and Robert Hight, have won the award in the past, Hight's coming in 2005.
"I have gotten a lot of support from Robert and Ashley all season," Neff said. "Winning this award would be a great honor and carry on a nice John Force Racing tradition."
Tasca will remember the start of his first season as a professional driver as a series of landmarks reached while building a team from the ground up, piece by piece. The result has been a strong effort on the track coupled with a massive marketing arm and presence on Nitro Alley. He and his team also raised more than $80,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation by fielding a contest for child designers.
"A lot of people ask what our expectation levels are," Tasca said. "We had very high expectation levels when we started this program. Getting into the Top 10 was our goal...When we step back and look where we came from, we had nothing on November 1. When they ask 'how would you characterize your season,' I would say from scrap."
Tasca, Neff and the rest of the rookies certainly haven't had easy entries into the world's fastest motorsport. They joined just in time to run head-long into some of the most talented drivers' fields in NHRA history.
All 10 invitations to the playoffs have been issued in Funny Car entering the final event in the 18-race regular season. Drivers who will compete for the NHRA POWERade Series world championship title are Tim Wilkerson; Tony Pedregon; Hight; Cruz Pedregon; Ashley Force; John Force; Gary Densham; Ron Capps; Jack Beckman; and Neff.
However, plenty of talent - including Tasca - remain in the role of spoiler.
SCHEDULE: The first of five pro qualifying sessions is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 29. Qualifying continues at Noon and 5:05 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30 and concludes at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31. Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle eliminations are at 1:15 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7:10 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30. U.S. Smokeless Showdown eliminations are at 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 1.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 54th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Call (800) 884-NHRA (6472) for ticket information, or check online at ticketmaster.com, nhra.com and oreillyracewaypark.com.
ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise more than 10 hours of coverage of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals beginning with a one-hour qualifying show on Sunday, Aug. 31 at 12:30 a.m. (ET). A two-hour and 30 minute qualifying show will be telecast by ESPN2HD at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 31, along with a two-hour qualifying show at 5 p.m. (ET). On Monday, Sept. 1, ESPN2 will telecast two shows, with two hours of early eliminations coverage at noon (ET) followed by a three-hour final eliminations show starting at 7 p.m. (ET). NHRA Race Day, ESPN2's popular pre-race show, will feature one show live from ORP during the event at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 31.