Points leader Neff driven to succeed
LAS VEGAS, Nevada – For Funny Car points leader Mike Neff, the 2011 season is all about maximizing an unanticipated opportunity.
Thrust back into the cockpit of a 300 mile-an-hour fuel Funny Car when two-time reigning Mac Tools U.S. Nationals champion Ashley Force Hood unexpectedly announced her pregnancy, Neff knows it’s just a short term gig, one that asks him to both drive and tune the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.
Nevertheless, the man who made the mechanical decisions that last year returned drag racing icon John Force to prominence in the NHRA Full Throttle Series is determined to make the most of the situation.
Winner of the most recent tour event at Gainesville, Fla., Neff this week rolls onto The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the 37th different Funny Car points leader in the NHRA’s modern era, the sixth to set the pace in one of John Force Racing’s Team Castrol Ford Mustangs.
“I was probably more shocked than anyone when I first found out that Ashley was pregnant and that I was going to be going back (into the cockpit),” Neff said. “We had talked about it before and we knew it was a possibility at some point, but it still was kinda unexpected.
“After tuning last year, I kind of knew that this would be probably the best way to do it – to have Bernie (Fedderly) help me and everybody else just pitch in. That was probably the easiest way (for JFR to address Ashley’s absence).”
Nevertheless, few expected Neff to enjoy so much immediate success.
“That was, without a doubt, the best day of racing I've ever had in my life,” he said of his Gainesville victory which included low ET of eliminations. “It was a lot of stress and a lot of nerves, but to end up winning the way we did was just very gratifying and just a great experience; a great feeling.”
Now, the 44-year-old tries to duplicate that feeling in the 12th SummitRacing.com Nationals, a race in which he was the crew chief winner a year ago.
Despite his new responsibilities and his early emergence as a championship threat, Neff makes no secret of the fact that his future at JFR is as a crew chief.
“Maybe at the end of the year I might want to go back to being just a crew chief,” said the man who tuned Gary Scelzi to the 2005 NHRA Funny Car title, “but I want to give (driving) a run all year. I love tuning and that is what I will be doing for a long time. This driving deal might be a one year deal for me (and) I’m trying to make the most of it.
“I am just thankful to John Force and to Castrol for giving me this opportunity,” said the man who developed his mechanical skills in off-road racing. Everybody was bummed to not see Ashley out here. She has a ton of fans and that was kind of a downer because she is great for the sport.
“When she comes back,” Neff said, “I’ll go back to doing what I was doing before. (In the meantime), this is a chance of a lifetime for me (and) I want to make sure I give it everything I have all year.”
The 2008 winner of the Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award that identifies the NHRA’s Rookie of the Year, Neff won the 2009 Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., in what he thought was his last race as a professional driver.
He spent last season as Force’s crew chief, working with veterans Fedderly and Austin Coil. The payoff for that move was a six-victory season that lifted Force to his 15th championship and the team to its 17th in 21 seasons.
“It’s a long season,” Neff said. “There’s no reason for anyone to be talking championship right now with just two races but, yeah, we think we could be one of those teams in the running, honestly. Why wouldn’t we be. This is the car that won last year with Force. If the driver can just keep up, we should be okay.”
Right now, the driver appears to be doing just fine, thank you.
Force defends title at summitracing.com race
LAS VEGAS, Nevada – Austin Coil’s fingerprints are on every one of John Force’s record 132 NHRA tour victories.
Moreover, you can find the legendary crew chief’s DNA on each of the 15 individual championships earned by the man who, in 2008, was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, one of the few active drivers afforded that honor.
So, since Coil departed John Force Racing, Inc., at the end of a championship-winning 2010 season, are we now expected to discount the 61-year-old Force as a contender for this and future Full Throttle Funny Car Championships?
Not hardly. In fact, the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in one of motor racing’s most remarkable careers sends Force into this week’s 12th annual SummitRacing.com Nationals with the enthusiasm of someone half his age.
Driving the same Castrol-backed Ford Mustang that took daughter Ashley Force Hood to consecutive victories in the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, for the same crew that sent her to consecutive Top 3 finishes in Funny Car points, Force sets out this week to win his third straight race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a track on which he once couldn’t win at all.
Despite a slow start to the season that included consecutive second and first round losses to teammate and son-in-law Robert “Top Gun” Hight, Force is optimistic about his chances this week and for the rest of the season.
Moreover, while he is quick to acknowledge Coil’s role in helping to create the JFR dynasty, he is committed to moving ahead without the Hall of Fame tuner.
“I’m really comfortable working with ‘Guido’ (Dean Antonelli) and Ron Douglas,” said the 15-time Auto Racing All-America selection. “‘Guido’ was taught by Austin Coil. He worked on my car (with Coil and Fedderly) for 10 years before he went with Ashley, so I had no problem moving over here (after winning the 2010 championship in the car now driven by Mike Neff).”
Until last year, when he swept the two events at LVMS, Force’s Vegas luck had gone from bad to worse. Outside of a lone victory in October, 2002, he was only 16-17 in head-to-head racing during the track’s first 10 competitive seasons.
Moreover, at the fall race in 2001, Force was DQed in the first round when he left the starting line in pursuit of rival Bob Bode, who had accelerated before the Christmas Tree starting system was activated. By rule, since both drivers left the starting line prematurely, both were disqualified.
Finally, it was at the 2007 SummitRacing.com Nationals that Force’s unparalleled qualifying streak came to an unceremonious and abrupt end.
When the former truck driver failed to make the 16-car starting lineup in his first race following the death of team driver Eric Medlen in a Florida testing accident, it ended a 20-year streak during which he qualified for 395 consecutive events. A year later, he failed to qualify again for the same race.
But that was then. Last year, he won in the spring despite a No. 11 start and he earned a dramatic, season-extending fall victory by beating the points leader at the time, Matt Hagan, in the final round of the Las Vegas Nationals.
Now, he is poised to create even more history.
If he makes it to the winners’ circle this week, it will be his first tour victory without Coil in a supporting role.
“He’s my friend,” Force said, “and I wish him the best. He had some things he wanted to do and I guess he thought it was just time to go. We were together 26 years. These days, that’s longer than most marriages. But I’m okay with it. I’m with these young guys; I’m driving my daughter Ashley’s car and I’m ready to chase another championship. We’ll be fine. You’ll see.”