This Week in Ford Racing
MIKE NEFF – UNDERDOG? EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
After reaching more final rounds than any other driver – winning a category-tying five of them, Mike Neff positions himself as comeback kid. That Neff, who drove the charge to put a Ford in the final round at 14-consecutive races to start the year, should be an underdog seems preposterous. But after a stellar start to the Countdown dwindled to first- and second-round finishes as the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Series season reached its final stretch, Neff finds himself in the same position boss John Force found himself in at this race last year. We all know how that turned out. Can a fairytale finish happen again? See our interview with Neff below in “Crew Chief Corner.”
CREW CHIEF CORNER With Mike Neff, fourth in the NHRA Full Throttle Series standings with one race left to go. Neff is crew chief and driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang Funny Car and at 34 points behind leader Matt Hagan, is Ford’s best chance for winning its third-consecutive NHRA Full Throttle Series Funny Car championship (2010: Force; 2009: Hight).
Mike Neff has won an astounding five races of nine final-round appearances this year – more than any other driver - going into the Auto Club Finals at Pomona (Calif.) this weekend, the final battle of the NHRA Full Throttle Series Funny Car championships. It’s shocking to think he’s the underdog.
For most of the year, Neff, the most successful crew chief/driver combo out there, dominated the popular category. He and teammate Robert Hight, who tied Neff for most Funny Car wins going into the Finals, led the ‘One Ford’ charge that landed a Ford Funny Car in the final round for 14 consecutive events to start the year.
In all, Fords have made it to the final round in 17 of the season’s 21 races, an unheard of drive largely powered by Neff. It wasn’t a disastrous playoff performance that landed Neff in the “come from behind” position. He won the first race of the playoffs in Indianapolis, after all – and chased it with a runner-up in Charlotte. Instead, it was a slow burn of first and second-round losses that placed him squarely in the same position his boss John Force was in last year.
We all know how that storyline played out, though. In true fairly-tale fashion, Force, who always seems to spin the most magical wins out of the darkest circumstances…won. He hoisted his 15th career championship at this very race this time last year after coming from behind. It was the first since his devastating accident in Dallas in 2008 and reinforced to fans that John Force Racing was alive and well, and couldn’t be stopped. Just like its patriarch.
This weekend, we’ll see if Neff and the five-car “One Ford” team can write the sequel.
MIKE NEFF, DRIVER/CREW CHIEF OF THE CASTROL GTX FORD MUSTANG FUNNY CAR
HOW HAVE YOU SPENT YOUR TIME BETWEEN LAS VEGAS AND THIS FINAL RACE IN POMONA? “I’ve been at home a lot of the time, but really, our car and everything’s out there. We tested on Monday in Las Vegas, tested some stuff for next year, which went well. You always got to keep moving forward. We had to test some clutch disks and engine parts so we could keep working, keep that stuff moving through the winter. I’ve been in the shop a few days, just trying to keep up with a lot of that stuff and making sure everything’s in order. But mainly, just a little bit of rest and mentally, just trying to gear up this week to go out to Pomona and try to have a good weekend.”
DOES IT HELP TO KNOW YOU HAVE FOUR OTHER FORD FUNNY CARS OUT THERE? “Sure. It does, because I’m counting on those guys as much as myself to be able to take the guys out in front of me. Hopefully my teammates will have to race them or I’ll have to race them. That’s really what it’s down to. All of us have to run good in order for us to pull this off. Get those guys out early and keep them from going to the final round, is what it’s going to take, then I’m going to have to win the race more or less.
“We’re excited. We’re optimistic. I feel good about our chances of being able to still pull this thing off. Like I said, with the help of my teammates and all the other Fords, if we’re all running at our best, even if we’re behind, we still have as good of a chance as any of pulling this thing off. You saw what happened last year. Anything can happen, and it’s definitely going to be one exciting day of racing – that’s for sure.”
FORD FACED THE SAME SITUATION LAST YEAR, WITH JOHN FORCE, AND IT ACTUALLY DID PLAY IN OUR FAVOR. IS IT EASIER FOR YOU TO HANDLE COMING FROM BEHIND THAN IT IS TO BE IN THE LEAD WITH ONE RACE LEFT? “The gut-ache’s going to be there no matter what the circumstances are (whether you’re in the lead or behind), other than the fact of having it all locked up. One thing it does when you’re not in the points lead is it takes some pressure off you, because now I’m in the position where I don’t have anything to lose at this point. I can go try to be more aggressive and just try to make it run as good as I can and just kind of let it hang out and not worry about it. When you’re leading the points, there’s a lot of pressure involved with that because now you’re the one who has something to lose. That can change your strategy. You tend to be more conservative and more cautious when you’re in the points lead as opposed to when you’re not.”
HOW WILL YOU APPROACH AUTO CLUB RACEWAY? GOING TWICE A YEAR MEANS WE HAVE TWICE THE DATA. “Being that we do race there twice a year, early in the year and then later in the year, the conditions are usually pretty similar. Pomona’s a good race track and it’s usually good conditions when we’re there, so that’s all helpful. You kind of go back and look at the beginning of the year when we were there; the set up, or how we approached it then and use some of that now. But there again, a year’s passed, a year of racing’s passed, and a lot of stuff changes throughout the year so it’ll never be exactly…our car set-up will never be exactly what it was when we were there earlier this year. But the more times you race at a place, the more data you get. You kind of know the race track better.”
FORD’S ON TRACK TO WIN ITS FOURTH MANUFACTURERS CUP TITLE AND ITS FIRST SINCE 1982 (also won in 1964-5). YOU EARNED FORD’S 200TH FUNNY CAR WIN IN CHICAGO THIS YEAR. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO MAKE HISTORY? IT SEEMS LIKE RECORDS ARE BROKEN EVERY WEEK WITH THIS ‘ONE FORD’ TEAM. “It’s exciting. Things like that are, your name goes down in the history books which is kind of neat. That’s something that 10-20 years down the road, you’ll always have those certain memories of milestones like that. It is neat to be a part of something like that, especially with the other names that are in there with you, is what’s really neat about it.”