Neff Credits Crew For Making Title Run Possible
In this age of specialization, serving as both driver and crew chief on one of the world’s most powerful race cars is exceedingly challenging, a reality underscored by the fact that it’s been 37 years since the late Shirl Greer became the last to win an NHRA Funny Car championship while pulling double duty.
However, nine races into the 2011 season, Mike Neff has shown that in the electronic age, when Funny Cars are attaining speeds 100 miles-an-hour faster than those reached in Greer’s heyday, such an achievement still might be possible.
In fact, the 44-year-old Neff, twice a World Championship-winning crew chief, once for Gary Scelzi and last year for John Force, will roll his Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang into Summit Motorsports Park this week not just as a contender in the fifth annual Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, but as the Funny Car points leader.
It’s a lofty position for one who has driven just 57 tour events – 35 fewer than Ashley Force Hood, the youthful two-time Mac Tools U.S. Nationals champion whose pregnancy and subsequent hiatus put him back in the cockpit this year, a full season after he thought he had driven his last race.
Although he’s been a finalist in five of nine races this year – and a winner in two, the versatile front-runner is quick to downplay the “ironman” aspect of his situation.
“My crew handles everything during the week,” said the 2008 winner of the Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award that identifies the Rookie-of-the-Year in the NHRA Full Throttle Series. “Jon Schaffer, my right hand man, he pretty much runs the crew. He oversees all the maintenance, day-to-day.
“You get good people and you delegate,” Neff said. “All these guys are efficient. You can’t do everything by yourself and, if you try, you won’t be effective. You have to trust your people.”
It’s a philosophy that, thus far, has worked pretty well.
Although he still makes all the final tuning decisions, just as he did last year for Force, Neff’s supporting cast makes the process a little easier. In addition to Schaffer, he is backed up by veteran Bernie Fedderly and by crew chief-in-training Dan Hood.
Fedderly, one of only four crew chiefs in history to have won NHRA championships in both Top Fuel (with Gary Beck in 1983) and Funny Car, was co-crew chief with Austin Coil for 12 of Force’s record 15 championships. He and Coil, who left the team after last year’s championship, presently share the record for most rounds won in a career with 1,118.
Supporting Fedderly, Schaffer and Hood are crew members Tom Buckingham, Richard Jackson, Phil Conley, Tom Ekstrom, Tim Fabrisi, Chris Lewis and Riley Banks, most of whom were carry-overs from last year’s championship-winning team; some of whom started with Neff when he first drove for JFR in 2007.
“I’m very pleased with the way things have gone so far,” Neff said. “We were in four straight final rounds, the car’s running good and my team is great. That’s what’s making this possible. They’re so good at what they do (that) I don’t even have to worry about the car and the maintenance.”
Still, there are issues.
“Doing both jobs just puts more pressure on you,” said the former motocross racer who grew up in Southern California. “I’m more tired at the end of the day. When I was just the crew chief, I was busy, but I had down time where I could just chill out.
“Well, I can’t do that now,” he emphasized. “I’m running up there looking at the track. I’m trying to figure out the set-up. I’m trying to tell everybody what they need to do and then, at the last minute, I’ve got to throw on my (driving) crap and get in the car.”
It’s a routine that at times has been totally exhausting, forcing the father of two to make some adjustments.
“I’m working on trying to get myself to be able to go the distance all year long, both mentally and physically,” he said. “My goal is to feel as good on the last run on Sunday as I do on the first one.”
If he can do that, then anything is possible.