MIKE NEFF Crew Chief Takes the Wheel Mike Neff, who won his first NHRA Funny Car championship from outside the cockpit, hopes to win his next one from the inside as a member of John Force Racing's Next Generation of ...
Crew Chief Takes the Wheel
Mike Neff, who won his first NHRA Funny Car championship from outside the cockpit, hopes to win his next one from the inside as a member of John Force Racing's Next Generation of professional drivers.
A native of Hemet, Calif., where he grew up racing dirt bikes and off-road trucks, Neff will contest the 2008 NHRA POWERade Championship in a brand new John Medlen-tuned Ford Mustang Funny Car.
"I have high expectations," Neff said. "I know John Medlen is capable of winning a championship because he's already done that (with Tony Pedregon in 2003). The performance of the car will be there (and) if I do my job, I think we should have a legitimate chance (to win the title) this year.
"I'm not gonna say that if we win a couple of races, I'll be happy, because we're here to try and win a championship."
If he is able to achieve that goal, he would become only the second racer in history to win NHRA World Championships -- in any category -- as both driver and crew chief. The first to do so was Dick LaHaie, who won as a driver in 1987 and later as crew chief to Scott Kalitta in 1994 and 1995.
In addition, the 41-year-old Neff will be racing to become the third JFR driver in four years to win the Automobile Club of Southern California's Road to the Future Award that identifies the Rookie-of-the-Year on the POWERade tour. Teammates Robert Hight (2005) and Ashley Force (2007) won the honor before him.
Neff soared to prominence in 2005 when he tuned veteran Gary Scelzi to three victories en route to snapping JFR's 12-year stranglehold on the championship. Now, he'll try to reclaim the title for drag racing's most successful team.
"I'm excited," Neff said. "There's only one Eric (Medlen) and no one's ever going to take his place, but to fill that spot and work and carry on where he left off is a real honor because (Force) could've gotten anybody to drive this car. To pick me to do it with no driving experience whatsoever is really kinda unbelievable."
Neff's route to a ride in one of the JFR Fords was a circuitous one.
He got his first motorcycle at age four and began riding competitively in motocross at 13. He grew up with the sons of former team owner Larry Minor, with whom he raced off-road trucks. When Minor was organizing a team to run a limited Top Fuel schedule in 1991, he hired Neff as a crew member to work with, among others, Dan Olson, currently the Director of Top Fuel and Funny Car Racing for the NHRA.
When Minor landed the McDonald's sponsorship, Neff jumped at the chance to go racing as a full-time mechanic on the Funny Car in which Cruz Pedregon ultimately beat Force for the 1992 championship.
He worked on that car through the 1994 season, but when Joe Gibbs bought the McDonald's team in 1995, he moved over to the Top Fuel dragster then driven by Cory McClenathan. As a Cory Mac crew member, he celebrated 22 victories over the next six years and a sweep of the difficult Western Swing (Denver, Seattle and Sonoma) in 1997.
When Gibbs opted out of the sport in 2001, Neff moved to Don Schumacher Racing as assistant crew chief on a Funny Car driven by Whit Bazemore. He got his own car a year later, serving as crew chief to six-time former IHRA Pro Comp champion Scotty Cannon who subsequently gave up the seat to Scelzi.
"John Medlen's a great guy to work with," Neff said. "I'm really thrilled with that. That's one of the main reasons I came over here, to work with him."
Although he played baseball and football and wrestled in high school, his passion was riding motorcycles and, later, working on off-road vehicles. It was while working on off-road trucks at night at Minor's shop that he learned to weld and fabricate, skills that would serve him well as a crew member and, later, crew chief.
"I would have liked to drive," Neff said, "but it was never an option, you know. It wasn't something you're going to go around talking about or asking about because it just didn't look like anything that would be possible."
Now, though, Neff is fully focused on his latest career change.
"I think I'll be able to do it and I think I'll be good at it," he said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be (out here). It's gonna take a little bit of time but I'm confident that I can do it. I'm prepared to do whatever I've got to do to be good at it. Failing is not an option."
Neff got a head start on 2008 when he qualified a Medlen-tuned Ford for the final two races of 2007 (Las Vegas and Pomona).
That not only enhanced his bid for Rookie of the Year honors, it also laid the foundation for him to earn a berth in the eight-car Skoal Showdown to be contested in conjunction with the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ind. Points for the Showdown are accumulated in 23 events beginning with the previous season's U.S. Nationals.
Neff was raised in an outdoors culture.
"I was always the outdoors type -- camping, water skiing, all that stuff," he said. "I was always competitive. The cool thing for me, growing up, was we had a high school motocross team and we competed every Friday night against other schools (at a track) in Corona.
"We'd race against Riverside, Corona, Norco. There were probably six or seven different schools (and) our team did good. I think we won the championship about every year. I raced two classes and my twin brother (Mark) raced two. Four motos a night."
Although Neff now lives in Fishers, Ind., with his wife and daughters, his brother still lives in Hemet where he owns a construction business and does ministry work.
"He goes to the Chino prison and tries to help those guys out, tries to find them jobs and teach 'em a trade," Neff said. "He's a really good dude."
Although he came to JFR to drive, Neff already has made some mechanical contributions to the overall effort. Like Hight, he is meticulous about everything, a throwback to his days as a crewman.
"Drivers today fly in and fly out," he said. "A lot of them don't know what it takes to make these things run and how much money it costs. I'd rather lift (get off the throttle) and not hurt anything. I'm gonna be really conscious about not dinging it up. I don't need a glory run.
"I'm taking it as it comes," he said, "but it's an honor to be here. These guys are the best Funny Car racers there have ever been. Their cars run great. They don't really need much at all but hopefully I can add something that makes us just a little bit better -- lighten things up a little bit or make things a little simpler. That's what John Medlen and I have been working on since I've been here."