This Week in Ford Racing caught up with the five Ford Mustang Funny Car drivers as they prepare to for the “NHRA Countdown to One,” Mike Neff, Robert Hight, John Force, Bob Tasca and Tim Wilkerson. Neff leads the pack as the points leader in the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship and is also one of three John Force Racing drivers in the top 10 this year.
MIKE NEFF, CASTROL GTX FORD MUSTANG FUNNY CAR CURRENTLY LEADING POINTS
WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE WEATHER CONDITIONS FOR THIS WEEKEND WITH HIGH OF 70’S AND LOW OF 50’S, WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?
“Looking at what the weather is going to be like in Charlotte, being such cool conditions will be very good and we’ll be very fast. It gives you a mindset and that’s what you go in there thinking about. You go in there knowing you’re going to have to run low to mid 4.00’s to be in the front of the pack the first couple of days for sure anyway.”
YOU HAVE AN INCREDIBLE BREAK OUT HERE AS A DRIVER AND A CREW CHIEF. HOW DO YOU FOCUS ON THE PLAYOFF OR DOES ANYTHING CHANGE WHEN GOING INTO THE FIRST RACE OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP?
“Well you know you just can’t afford to make any mistakes here. You treat it really no differently than any other race. We go to every race doing everything we can to try to win. But knowing in the back of your mind now that there are only six races, it makes it a lot more critical that you really have to perform well in these next six races and not fall behind. Where in the early part of the season you’re not worried about the points really because they’re enough races you can make up for a bad race, you’ve got enough of them. But now with only six to go and them restructuring the points—it’s going to be the guy who can get hot and win two or three of these races and go to four or five of the finals that is going to be the champ. You just hope you peak at the right time. Unfortunately, with the Countdown it goes in cycles. People run good at times and it’s like a rollercoaster seems like everybody kind of goes through, and it’s whoever peaks in here in the last six races is going to have the best chance.”
HOW DO YOU FIGHT FATIGUE AND STAY ON TOP OF YOUR GAME WHEN THERE ISN’T MUCH TIME BETWEEN RACES WITH THREE ON, ONE OFF AND THEN THE FINAL THREE?
“You just try to rest up. That’s what I’ve been doing today and over the weekend. You just try to get all your work done and affairs in order, all your personal stuff, take of your bills and personal stuff so you can afford to go at it for the next three weeks without anything interrupting you because it will be nonstop. You are liable to see all kind of circumstances like this weekend it looks like it’ll be really cool in Charlotte, but then the way Dallas has been lately it can be in the 100’s there next week when we get there. So that’s what takes its toll on you when you’re going from one extreme to the next.”
WE HAVE FIVE FORDS IN THE COUNTDOWN, THREE FROM JOHN FORCE RACING. DOES IT HELP KNOWING? DO YOU LEAN ON THAT FOR MOMENTUM?
“It’s not something I think about. I do believe the Ford Mustang has an advantage on the other cars. Then again you just really have to have your A game going here for the next six races in order to pull this off. Last year for example, it was sort of the same scenario. We went into the countdown number one with John. We had two bad races. We lost the first round in Charlotte and we lost first round in Reading. We went to the other four finals and won two of them, which two finals in six races is pretty good. Not bad. And that was just barely enough to win the championship. That’s what I’m kind of looking at. That’s what I’m expecting to do in order to win. I’m counting on having to be in four of the next six final rounds to be able to do it.”
ROBERT HIGHT, AUTO CLUB FORD MUSTANG FUNNY CAR CURRENTLY THIRD IN POINTS
YOU’VE HAD SOME SUCCESS AT zMAX DRAGWAY. YOU WON THE FALL RACE THERE IN 2009. WE EXPECT TO SEE SIMILAR CONDITIONS THAT WE SAW THERE IN THE SPRING THIS WEEKEND. WHAT DO YOU EXPECT OUT OF THE WEEKEND, AND WHAT ARE YOU FOCUSED ON NOW HEADING INTO THE PLAYOFFS?
“If you look at the weather forecast, it’s going to be killer conditions. I have the track record there (for elapsed time) at 4.024 (March 2010), so I honestly believe if we get these cool temperatures like they’re calling for, that track record could be in jeopardy and you might even be pushing the envelope on a three-second Funny Car run (the first in NHRA history). To me, that’s exciting. I have the quickest run in history at 4-flat and Jimmy Prock and all of our team, they understand how to make horsepower with that BOSS 500 engine we run. This is playing right into our hands, especially to start the Countdown out. You’ve got to go there with the attitude, from here on out, every race we go to, every run is very important, because you could gobble up two, three points, even one point a run in qualifying if you’re in the top three and if you did that every run, that’s a couple rounds that somebody else has to go to beat you in the end. That just cuts down on having to win races if you can be consistent and be in the top three every qualifying run. That’s our goal – no mistakes. This is the big time. You watch baseball on T.V. and football, this is the playoffs. What we do the next six races is going to determine who is the champ, and we definitely want to keep it in-house. We’ve won it the last two years and we’re not ready to give it up. What we’ve got to do is show our guys, at JFR, we’ve won 10 of 16 races. That ratio, if we do that in the next six, that championship’s ours. There’s no room for error. There’s no testing. We all have a good combination and we’ve just got to go out there and race smart and we’re going to have to be aggressive, because these other teams are running well, but having half the field in Ford Mustangs, that’s quite an accomplishment for Ford.”
HOW DO YOU STAY FOCUSED IN THE PLAYOFFS?
“As a driver, I really won’t do anything different. I try to be focused every time I go to the starting line. Even if it’s a test run. If you look at how many runs we actually get to make a year, there’s not a lot of practice, not a lot of testing, so I go up there with the same focus every run. We don’t have a single run during the year, in my opinion, to lose. We’re going to learn something every run we make. If I go up there and screw up as a driver, that messes everything up. I take the approach that every run is important and try not to put any more pressure on myself than I already do at the other races. To me, Charlotte is going to be very, very important, to get off on the right foot and build some momentum. You have three in a row here, Charlotte, Dallas and Reading. If you could get out of Charlotte with a win and build on that momentum and go right into Dallas the following weekend at the AAA of Texas Nationals, which is my sponsor, and carry that momentum into there…I’ve won that race as well, twice. That’s how you’re going to win this championship. The next three races are really going to separate things. Some guys will be totally out of it, and I hope it’s not the five Ford Mustangs.”
JOHN FORCE, CASTROL GTX FORD MUSTANG FUNNY CAR CURRENTLY SEVENTH IN POINTS
YOU’VE WON AT CHARLOTTE LAST YEAR AND YOUR FUNNY CAR HAS SET RECORDS THERE. WHAT DO YOU EXPECT AND WHAT ARE YOU FOCUSING ON HEADING INTO THE KICK OFF TO THE COUNTDOWN?
“Our motor program that we built, The Boss 500, is really evolved. We believe we have a motor that makes tons of horsepower. We think we’ve evolved this motor to be one of the best. The problem is on some of these race tracks, they don’t have a race track. Not because of the track, but because of the conditions. But going into Charlotte with Bruton’s race track facility, the race surface, and then you add cool air to that, we’re going to be able to flex our muscles here at Charlotte, I truly believe. That doesn’t mean you’re going to win a race, but we know big horsepower, great conditions, good race track surface – we always do well there. I won the four-lane the first year it was open. Robert has set records and Ashley too. And Mike Neff leading into the Countdown—I’m really excited.”
“We’re calling a meeting on Friday for a video. When you look at the season, we’re going to show a video to the team. It’s kind of getting them /all together, getting everybody’s minds right when the countdown begins. This is how I run a race team. Robert and I sat down and talked about it. In fact, Robert brought it up, ‘Let’s not forget what we do every year’. So I’m a little bit on overload. What you do is you show the team what we’ve done up to now. We’ve run 16 so far and we’ve won most of them. You show your employees we’ve already won 60% of the races. The season is two-thirds over, we’re on the final stretch of the Countdown. If we can do the same job we’ve already done, one of these Fords will win this championship. You got us here guys, let’s finish it off. But it’s going to be tough. There’s a lot of good competition out there and it can jump. There’s five Fords in this Countdown (Force, Hight, Neff, Tasca and Wilkerson). There’s some good race teams out there, the list goes on and on with the Schumacher team. I think we’re ready. We don’t want to be over confident. We just have to look at what we’ve done and what we have to do. We’re going in what I call guns a’ blazing.”
MOST OF THE FOCUS WILL BE ON YOU BECAUSE YOU ARE THE DEFENDING CHAMPION. DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT THAT OR AT THIS POINT IS IT JUST SECOND NATURE GOING INTO THE COUNTDOWN BECAUSE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO?
“I’m the defending champ, but I’m with a new team, Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas that was Ashley’s team that won Indy the last two years. I couldn’t win Indy this year, but the car’s different, the weight balance is different because of me. We’re learning driver to crew chief. We’re just off, but we’ll get it right.”
“One of the things we are doing is unveiling a 9/11 car tribute. We already unveiled it at Charlotte, but we’re going to run it at Charlotte. It was down there a week ago with the military men. And it’s very important to me, as much as I want to win a championship and I hate changing bodies in the middle of the game. I had the same problem with my 15th championship car, black and yellow striped. I couldn’t get it down the race track. We switched bodies and it went down the race track. Sometimes you just don’t know why. As much as you want to win a championship and fight for the team, this tribute to these policeman and firefighters (I met 12 of them), was very emotional to me to see what they had been through. They don’t talk a lot about it. These guys are real heroes, yet they stand there and talk to me like I’m the hero. I tell them, ‘No, that isn’t the way it works. You’re the ones that have been through so much for the American flag, the American way.’ I really want to do tribute to well in this car. But you fight demons of a new car, new body. And I hate going into the Countdown with that, but I’m going into the Countdown carrying the American flag and the people of 9/11 and try to show them no matter how tough stuff gets whether it’s racing a race car or paying your bills in this economy, no matter how tough it gets, nothing compares to what they went through 9/11. My job is really easy. We’re going to go in there and we’re going to have fun. I have two other great race cars with Mike Neff in the points lead and Robert behind him. If I can’t get the job done, but if I can’t they will so that’s where we’re headed.”
“I called Dean Antonelli and said it’s really important number one to qualify, but sometimes things go wrong. But it’s really important to run this car on Sunday. Unless this car breaks in half I’m going to run it even if I struggle with it. I owe it to these people. It’s just a little bit of something we can do. Money from the Lionel Group bought over a hundred thousand dollars in these cars. The money goes to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. He was a fireman that was golfing with his brothers that morning. He ran back to his station and they were gone to the 9/11 spot. And he put 70 pounds on his back and ran miles through the tunnels to the south tower that fell on him. And he lost his life trying to save lives. Through that foundation, money is being raised and this car is part of that program. We’re part of it with Lionel and myself. We’re giving money that will go to military veterans through the foundation that have lost limbs or come home and need help. The family of Stephen wanted these donations to go there and that’s what we’re doing and that’s what we’re fighting for in our small way just to help. I’m excited about it. I want to win and I want to deliver the 9/11 car and all the sponsors that have invested to win. Everybody’s for the American flag and what took place at 9/11.”
BOB TASCA III, MOTORCRAFT/QUICK LANE FORD MUSTANG FUNNY CAR CURRENTLY EIGHTH IN POINTS
YOU’VE HAD SOME TIME TO DIGEST MAKING IT INTO THE COUNTDOWN, AND ACTUALLY GOING UP TO THE NO. 8 POSITION FROM NO. 10, JUST LIKE YOU SAID YOU WOULD. DID YOU FEEL ANY RELIEF AFTER LOCKING IN YOUR SPOT IN THE COUNTDOWN IN INDIANAPOLIS?
“I’m glad Indy’s behind us. You don’t want to put yourself in that position going into the Countdown, but we had a car that had a lot of inconsistencies throughout the year. So we’ve had shining moments and we’ve had moments where we just overpowered the track, truthfully. More often than we did in 2010. But bottom line is, I really feel Indianapolis was a defining moment for our team. There’s building blocks along the way to winning a championship and certainly become a championship-caliber team, and that’s being able to perform when your back’s against the wall. So hats off to Marc (Denner, Co-Crew Chief) and Chris (Cunningham, Crew Chief) and Tom (Leskovan, team leader) and the guys. They went through a lot of struggles, a lot of weird failures that typically don’t happen, that compounded the pressure of Indy. Clearly we stepped up to the plate and when we needed the car we had one. We were a little bit off there, we certainly won’t deny that, but we haven’t had much luck this season. At the end of the day, we put this thing in the No. 8 spot and the points reset, which leaves it wide open to any team. That’s what makes the Countdown so exciting. If you’re Mike Neff, you’re not real happy about losing that big points lead. But for No. 2 through No. 10, you like the fact the points are tightened up going into the last six races of the year.”
YOU’LL COMPETE IN THE FIRST THREE RACES OF THE COUNTDOWN PLAYOFFS IN CONSECUTIVE WEEKS, STARTING THIS WEEK. HOW KEY ARE THESE RACES TO TITLE HOPES?
“We had three in a row on the West Coast and now we have three in a row (on the East Coast) that I really think will shape the championship Countdown. You have to do well in these first three races to give yourself a chance in the last three.”
OUT OF THE 10 CARS IN THE PLAYOFFS, FIVE ARE FORDS. THAT MEANS THERE’S 50-50 SHOT THIS YEAR’S CHAMPION WILL BE YOU OR ONE OF YOUR ‘ONE FORD’ TEAMMATES. WHAT MAKES YOU STAND OUT AMONG THE FORD DRIVERS IN THIS FIGHT?
“I think you stand out by performing. By going out there and performing. All five Ford drivers, really all 10 drivers, I have so much respect for, that have to compete for this championship. With five out of the 10 being Ford, we have a pretty good chance of winning a championship for Ford Motor Company. I’m going to do my part to make it be our Motorcraft/Quick Lane car. I think every one of our drivers has our own personality. We’re all very different. You have John Force, the 15-time champ. There isn’t anyone with more experience than John. Tim does it all. Mike Neff does it all. Robert (Hight), obviously, is a champion, and I’m trying to become a champion. I think it’s going to be exciting. Certainly it’s exciting to see every Ford in the field qualify for the championship hunt, and we’ll see where the chips fall.”
HOW MUCH WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU TO WIN YOUR FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP? IS THAT EVEN SOMETHING YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS EARLY IN THE GAME?
“I can think about it. Everyone dreams. We’re out here to win a championship. There’s no other reason why I’m racing. If I don’t believe that I can win a championship, I’d hang up my firesuit and head on back to the dealership.”
TIM WILKERSON, LEVI, RAY & SHOUP FORD MUSTANG FUNNY CAR CURRENTLY 10TH IN POINTS
GO BACK TO INDIANAPOLIS. YOUR SON DAN WAS THE ONE WHO BEAT JOHNNY GRAY – THE ONLY PERSON WHO COULD MATHEMATICALLY KNOCK BOTH YOU AND BOB TASCA III OUT OF THE COUNTDOWN – IN THE FIRST ROUND. DID YOU GIVE HIM A PEP TALK BEFORE THE RACE?
“When it came out that Dan was going to have to race Johnny Gray first round in Indy, he, really, to tell you the truth, was really good with it. He was real excited about it. We had a little conversation about it on Sunday night, and then Monday morning, it was just our normal deal. He’s really a good racer, so he understands the do’s and don’ts and what you need to do. He did go in there and double-bulb. He wasn’t trying to do that. He just dove into the top bulb quicker than he needs to. Really, we just had the conversation that went along the lines of ‘it really went good. We brought you here to help get us in the Countdown or beat somebody else that’s trying to get in behind us and it’s working out that that’s who you’re going to have to race. So, just go up there and do your deal and we’ll make sure the car’s good’ and at the end of the day it all worked out good.”
DID YOU FEEL LIKE YOU CONTROLLED YOUR OWN DESTINY, SINCE YOU TUNE HIS CAR?
“I think so. I wasn’t really in any jeopardy of being bumped out. (Johnny Gray) would’ve had to come out and set a national record in order for me to get bumped out. I was more worried about Bob Tasca III than I was me, and it all worked out really well for him, at the end of the day, that we were able to race Johnny Gray with our second car and actually beat him.”
WE NOW HAVE THREE RACES IN A ROW ON THE FRONT HALF OF THE PLAYOFF SERIES. HOW WILL YOU APPROACH THEM AND WHAT SETS YOU APART FROM THE OTHER FORD DRIVERS?
“I think I probably have a little big bigger of an uphill battle than the rest of the Ford drivers do because I’m basically a solo team. But the one race, Dallas, could actually work into my favor. It’s a race that is traditionally warm and the track isn’t very good. I’ve won that race before during the Countdown, so I’m looking forward to getting to that one. Charlotte and Reading could go either way. I think now the forecast for Charlotte’s going to be relatively cool, so that’s really not something that’ll play into my hands. But Reading could be a warm track and we could do some good there, I think. With any luck, these first three in a row, which I seem to always do well at three in a rows, for some reason, maybe I can do some good at these and come home with a win and get myself set up for the last three.”