Neff ups the degree of difficulty at pomona
POMONA, Calif. - Over the last four NHRA seasons, no one has won more often at Auto Club Raceway, site of this week's season-opening, 51st annual Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals, than Mike Neff.
The versatile Californian has won with a Ford Mustang and with a Dodge Charger. He's won for John Force Racing and Don Schumacher Racing. He's won the February Winternationals and the November Auto Club Finals. He's won at the standard quarter mile distance and at 1,000 feet. He's won from outside the cockpit (as crew chief) as well as from inside (as driver).
This week, though, the 44-year-old former motocross racer is in position to add one more element to his Pomona resume when he makes his first official appearance as both driver AND crew chief of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.
That's right. After tuning Gary Scelzi and John Force to Winternationals' wins in 2007 and 2010, respectively, after winning the 2009 Auto Club Finals as driver and after directing Force to an Auto Club Finals victory last November, Neff is going old school.
As driver/crew chief, he joins a small fraternity of racers, one that presently includes, well, himself and Tim Wilkerson.
In an age of specialization, Neff and Wilkerson are throwbacks to an era when racers like "Big Daddy" Don Garlits built their own cars, tuned them and drove them.
Wilkerson has proved that it's possible to win while wearing two hats; Neff hopes to take it one step further by becoming the first crew chief/driver to win the Funny Car championship since the late Shirl Greer did it in 1974. It's a challenge that provides loads of motivation.
"Obviously, we need to get the driver up to speed as quick as possible," he joked as he prepared his car for the opener. "At the Winternationals, that obviously is going to be the weak link. We're starting out with the same car and the same crew that we had when John won last November. The only thing different is the driver." Not that Neff lacks driving credentials. In a brief two-year stint in the Drive One Mustang, he started from the front of the pack four times, appeared in six finals, earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors (2008) and twice finished in the Top 10. The problem, simply enough, is experience, what racers call "seat time." Neff has made fewer than 300 qualifying and competition laps. By way of comparison, Force has logged more than 3,500 in the NHRA series alone.
One of only a handful of drag racers to have won as both driver and crew chief, Neff is the only one of the group to have accomplished the feat in reverse order - winning first as crew chief; then as driver. He also is one of only two Funny Car crew chiefs, along with Austin Coil, to have taken two different drivers to the title.
This year he hopes to make it three.