NEFF RELISHES RETURN OF AAA MIDWEST NATIONALS
The fact that Gateway’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals makes its return this week as a key element of the NHRA playoffs could be a bonus for the soft-spoken former motocross rider considering his history at the track.
Although the Midwest Nationals has been contested just 14 times, Neff has taken four different race cars to the Funny Car final – three as a crew chief and one as a driver. He can add to that resume this week as the driver AND crew chief on a Castrol GTX Ford Mustang in which he has won the sport’s biggest event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, each of the last two years.
The 46-year-old native Californian, who once was an off-road truck mechanic, trails Capps by 96 points entering this, the third of six races in the shootout that is the Countdown. Trying to become the first in 38 years to win the NHRA Funny Car title in the dual role of driver/crew chief, he knows he needs to make up ground this week.
Doing one drag racing job is demanding enough, but doing two is, well, maybe kind of crazy. At the very least its old school, a throwback to the days of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits when specialization was just a long word with no relevance in a sport where many racers tuned, drove and even built their own cars.
Nevertheless, Neff always has enjoyed the multi-tasking aspects of the sport, although not the current extent.
He first demonstrated those skills at the 2005 Midwest Nationals in which he was the crew chief of record for both Gary Scelzi, with whom he would win the championship that year, and Capps, with whom he would win the race.
Then employed by Don Schumacher Racing, Neff was pressed into double duty because Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, Capps’ crew chief at the time, was sidelined by health issues. No problem. With Neff turning the wrenches, Scelzi qualified No. 1 and Capps No. 2 and the latter went on to beat Tim Wilkerson in the final round.
The year before, Neff and Scelzi won the race (from the No. 1 qualifying position) and two years before that, Neff guided Scotty Cannon to the final round (as the No. 1 qualifier) before he was guilty of a foul start against Neff’s current boss, 15-time series champion John Force.
After leaving DSR in 2007 when Force offered him a chance to move from one side of the cockpit to the other, Neff took the Old Spice Ford to the final round at Gateway in 2008 before losing to Wilkerson by the narrowest of margins, 4.874 to 4.886. It was his first final round as a driver.
Now, he is poised to go one step further.
“It’s not an exact science,” Neff said of preparing an 8,000 horsepower race car for a trip down a 1,000 foot racetrack. “Whether the track is 100 degrees or 140, there are challenges you have to deal with. Anything can happen.”
“That’s what’s so exciting about NHRA drag racing,” acknowledged the nine-time tour winner. “You can’t make it up in the next turn. You get one shot at it. You either get it right, you catch a break or it’s over with – and you have to do that four times in one day.”
For Neff, the most critical time is the few moments before an actual run during which he tends to second guess himself as a tuner.
“You can’t go up there thinking about the tuning part because you won’t drive as well as you should,” he said, “and, in the end, if you don’t perform as a driver, it doesn’t really matter what you did as a tuner.”
HIGHT WANTS ST LOUIS TO BE GATEWAY TO CHAMPIONSHIP
ST LOUIS, MO (September 24, 2012) --- A tough start to the 2012 Countdown to the Championship has not dampen the drive and focus in the AAA Insurance Ford Mustang pits. Driver Robert Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock spent all day Monday at Texas Motorplex fine tuning a tune-up combination they hope will carry them to another Full Throttle Funny Car championship.
“We are not out of this championship by a long shot. We aren’t looking at points so much as we are looking at rounds. There are sixteen rounds of racing left. We want to be competitive in as many of those rounds as possible,” said Hight.
Last weekend at the 27th annual AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals two non-Countdown cars battled it out in the final round with Ford-backed Bob Tasca III outrunning 2011 Funny Car champion Matt Hagan for the Wally. Points leader Ron Capps fell in the semi-finals and many of the contending drivers breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the win light flash in the opposite lane from one of the hottest drivers in the Countdown.
“You never want to wish anyone bad luck but I think everyone from (Mike) Neff to (Jack) Beckman to Courtney (Force) and me were happy to see Hagan get that win light. Cruz (Pedregon) had a chance to make a move and I have to thank Bob Tasca III for stopping him,” added Hight.
Hight’s AAA Insurance Funny Car made four solid runs down the all-concrete race track outside of Dallas following their first round exit. Hight had struggled with the heat and some tricky track conditions all weekend qualifying No. 15 and having to race veteran Tim Wilkerson in the first round. Hight’s Mustang smoked the tires just past half-track and he and crew chief Jimmy Prock went into immediate strategy mode to get ready for a full day of testing.
“I have never lost confidence in Jimmy, not for one second. These Funny Cars are tough to tune and we have been trying to get back to the kind of performance we had when we won four races in a row. There are four races left and I am not saying are going to win all four but we are going to give 100% to be in a position to win all four,” said Hight.
“We had our PR people look up some stats to show our guys. We have the most wins over the last five years of any Funny Car team out here. We have the most No. 1 qualifiers, we have won the most rounds and we have been in the points lead more than any of the team we are racing against for the Funny Car championship. I was trying to show my guys we have a legacy here and one that they can all be proud of. John Force has high standards for all the team but for this AAA Insurance team we want to be on to be on top again. We have slipped back a little but in St. Louis we are planning on making a move for ourselves and to help our teammates.”
While Hight’s AAA Insurance team has slipped back a couple of spots in the Full Throttle Funny Car standings his teammates Mike Neff and Courtney Force are also right in the thick of the points battle. Even more threatening is the fact that 15-time Funny Car champion John Force has “the eye of the tiger” after his Traxxas Shootout win at Texas Motorplex.
“Seeing John win the $100,000 top prize for the Traxxas Nitro Shootout was a big boost for him and for our whole team. Outrunning Capps in the final have us all a big boost. When John is on and winning he is unstoppable and I would not want to pull up beside him with all the pressure on one run. No one is better than him. He has been in every sort of high pressure situation and he comes out on top almost every time. That is the attitude I want my team to have. We have won a championship. We came back from No. 10 in the points to win in 2009. We are not out of it,” said the 2009 Funny Car champion.
This weekend the tour will return to Gateway Motor Sports Park across the river from downtown St. Louis. It is a track and event that Hight has had some success winning the last event contested there, 2010 win over jack Beckman, before there was an ownership change. Hight’s primary sponsor will once again be the event sponsor and Hight is looking forward to mixing sand mingling with the thousands of fans in attendance.
“I really don’t feel any extra pressure being the AAA Insurance team at the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals. In fact it makes you feel comfortable because you know you have all these fans pulling for you. Everywhere you go at the track people are cheering you on because they are AAA members. When we won in 2010 it was cool because we got to give our sponsors even more exposure,” said Hight.
COURTNEY FORCE LOOKS FORWARD TO RETURN OF ST. LOUIS
ST. LOUIS (September 25, 2012) – Following a one-year hiatus from the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing series tour, Gateway Motorsports Park has returned, bringing with it the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals.
“I'm excited to have the St. Louis race back on the circuit. This is one of the few races that I have never been to, so I'm thrilled to see the race track and hopefully warm up to it quickly. Dad has always told me stories about Gateway Motorsports Park and competing there, so I'm excited to be racing with him on it,” said Force.
With just four events left on the tour, Force is concentrated on becoming the fourth different driver from John Force Racing to win at St. Louis. Only John Force, Robert Hight and Tony Pedregon have won at this track while driving for the Brownsburg, Ind. –based team.
“No matter what the race track, there is always pressure going into it knowing that it is one of the last races during the Countdown to the Championship. Being that only a few of my teammates have ever won here just makes me even more eager to get a win and pick up more points, to bring us closer to that #1 spot,” said Force.
Force is also looking to make track history at Gateway Motorsports Park by becoming the first female winner in the Funny Car class. Melanie Troxel won in Top Fuel in 2007 and Angelle Sampey won in Pro Stock Motorcycle three times in past years.
“Obviously the last four races are the most important ones, because every round is critical if you want to gain points and move into a higher position over the other competitors. This will definitely be an important race to win, so we're really going to fight for it this weekend,” said Force.
The driver of the Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car made a quarterfinals appearance last week before bowing out of eliminations in the 27th annual AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals.
Force topped the field in qualifying, snagging the pole position, her second of the season, and took on the No. 16 qualifier in the field, Todd Lesenko, in the opening round of eliminations. Force lit up the scoreboards, but then suffered a loss to the eventual race winner, Bob Tasca III, in the quarterfinals.
Over the weekend Force struggled with memories of the past at the Texas track, recalling the day in 2007 that her father, 15-time Champion John Force, endured a horrible crash.
“Although I was in full focus, I couldn’t help but think back to the time my dad had crashed his Funny Car at the Motorplex in 2007. This was a nearly fatal crash, and really could have taken his life. He was fortunate enough to have just broken his arms and legs and was taken to the Baylor Hospital to be reconstructed and recover over the next few months.
“Overall, it was a great weekend, even though at times it was tough blocking out the bad memories there. Luckily, this past weekend, Dad and I officially made new, great memories at the Texas Motorplex to replace the old.
“It’s nice to have that closure with an event like that. It was a good weekend for John Force Racing since my dad won the Traxxas Nitro Shootout and took home the $100,000 prize in the Funny Car category. Now, we get to look forward to St. Louis and all the excitement surrounding the end of the season and the Countdown to the Championship,” said Force.
You can read more about Force and her journey through the NHRA Countdown to the championship through her most-recent ESPNw.com blog here
FORCE SEEKS 'MAGIC' AT AAA MIDWEST NATIONALS
MADISON, Ill. – John Force believes in magic and because of that remarkable things sometimes occur.
The 63-year-old drag racing icon took time out last week from what has been a down season, at least for him, to win the $100,000 top prize in the inaugural Traxxas Nitro Shootout at Dallas, Texas.
He had no business winning a Funny Car all-star race in a Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford Mustang that has struggled since winning the season-opening Kragen O’‘Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. Had no business doing it, but he did it anyway.
Now, the sport’s biggest winner returns to Gateway Motorsports Park for this week’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals needing another miracle to keep himself in contention for a 16th Full Throttle Championship. Even though he has a losing record for the season, the 2012 inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame is conceding nothing.
“Whoever gets the hot hand, can win it all,” Force said of the six-race Countdown to the Championship. “There are a lot of great race cars out there right now, but we’re pretty good, too. My ol’ hot rod is starting to show some consistency. If we can improve a little on what we did in the Traxxas Shootout, we can still go after this championship.”
It would be ludicrous to doubt the 134-time tour winner although, realistically, it’s an awfully long way from the No. 9 position he currently occupies to No. 1.
“Yeah,” he said, “we have to make a move, but we’ve done pretty well at St. Louie (five finals in 14 years with wins in 1999 and 2002). We’ll see. It’s all about putting a good number on the board in that first (qualifying) session. You gotta be top half (No. 1 through No. 8) to get lane choice. That’s our goal.”
Force’s optimism is fueled by the fact that the last time the pro tour assembled at Gateway, his was the baddest hot rod on the grounds, setting track records for 1,000 foot time and speed (4.103 seconds, 307.23 miles per hour) which still stand.
While his car has been problematic this year, the result of a changeover in the engine/clutch combination, as a driver, Force has been as good as ever. In the Shootout, in fact, he left the line first in every round. He did the same thing the previous week when he upset youngest daughter Courtney in the first round of the O’Reilly Nationals at Charlotte, N.C.
“You have to get up (emotionally) to race these kids,” said the first drag racer ever recognized as Driver of the Year (1996). “Young people like Courtney and Alexis (DeJoria, rookie driver of the Tequila Patron Toyota) bring your energy up. I try and feed off of their energy, but I love it!”
Already assured of his 28th consecutive Top 10 finish, Force is aiming high.
“If we could put a couple wins together, who knows?” he said. “I never say never. I always think we have a chance.”
It’s not just wishful thinking, either. Force recalls the 2002 Midwest Nationals in which his Castrol GTX Ford lost traction in the final round but still won the race because No. 1 qualifier Scotty Cannon was guilty of a foul start.
Of course, there’s a more recent example of the Force magic. At this year’s race at Brainerd, Minn., Force was guilty of a foul start in round one. Nevertheless, he wound up in the final, the result of DeJoria’s disqualification for crossing the centerline which triggered his reinstatement.
That says it all although Force’s description is a little more to the point: “it ain’t over till we say it’s over.” Apparently, it ain’t over.
Source: John Force Racing