Although he might publicly agree that Bandimere Speedway’s approach to managing track temperatures is innovative, Mike Neff is not a big fan of the cooling system that this week will circulate 24,000 gallons of water beneath the first 200 feet of the racecourse for the 33rd annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals.
Installed during a 2008 makeover that converted the track from concrete-and-asphalt composition to all-concrete, the subterranean “cooler” can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 10 degrees. For Neff, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
As driver and crew chief on the best hot weather hot rod on the planet, the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang, the 45-year-old native Californian has thrived on his ability to adapt to conditions, particularly when track temperatures soar above 120 degrees, as they typically do during the three races comprising the Western Swing.
A case in point was the most recent stop on the NHRA Full Throttle tour. Two weeks ago at Norwalk, Ohio, on a hot, slippery 140-degree track that proved unmanageable for most, Neff dominated and, for the second straight year, won the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.
The last time it was that hot at Bandimere (2006), the former motocross rider enjoyed the same level of success while serving as crew chief to Gary Scelzi, with whom he won a Funny Car championship in 2005.
On a Bandimere track whose temperature fluctuated between 133 and 142 race day degrees, Neff sent Scelzi to the quickest elapsed time in every racing round, culminating in a final round conquest of Cruz Pedregon.
But that was then. In the Bandimere present, since the makeover, Neff’s cars have gone just 5-4 with no race wins. Still, the former off-road truck mechanic is loathe to blame that reversal solely on the “cooler.”
“It’s not an exact science,” said the eight-time tour winner. “Whether the track is 100 degrees or 140, there are challenges you have to deal with. Sometimes, it’s just your day and sometimes it’s not. Anything can happen. That’s what’s exciting about NHRA drag racing. 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.”
“I feel good about our race car,” he said, “but we’ll just have to go out there and see what happens.”
Neff not only is encouraged by his car’s recent success but also by the fact that, two years ago, he was able to put boss and teammate John Force in the Denver final on a cooler race track (98 degrees to a high of 118) as crew chief on the Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford.
Significantly, Neff seems to be peaking at just the right time – with the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs on the horizon.
After a strong start, he struggled through a stretch that included one qualifying failure and three first round losses that dropped him from first place in points to fifth. His Norwalk win moved him back up to third behind teammate Robert Hight and veteran Ron Capps.
“Last year, for whatever reason, we just lost the handle in the playoffs,” Neff said, explaining his free fall from first place to fifth in the final order. “Last year, we led the points the whole way (into the playoffs). But we learned some things and, this year, we’ve kinda racing under the radar a little getting reading for those last six races.”