Commerce: Mike Neff preview

NEFF LOOKING TO SOAK UP SUCCESS IN ATLANTA (ATLANTA) --- Over the past two and a half months rookie Mike Neff has been the biggest sponge at John Force Racing. No, he isn't mooching free hats, t-shirts and Old Spice samples. The 41...


(ATLANTA) --- Over the past two and a half months rookie Mike Neff has been the biggest sponge at John Force Racing.

No, he isn't mooching free hats, t-shirts and Old Spice samples. The 41 year-old rookie from Hemet, Calif., is absorbing information about how to rein in the power of his Old Spice Ford Mustang as well as learning the ropes as the person behind the 8,000 hp engine. He is picking up tips from teammates, John and Ashley Force and Robert Hight, after every run and he knows that having drivers with experience just a few feet away is a huge advantage.

"It is helpful especially for me because I don't really know what to expect. I am more likely to think it is just me but we'll get back in the pits and I'll hear Robert talking about (a similar problem) or Ashley or John (Force) will say something I can relate to," said Neff. "I'll think maybe it is not just me. It helps me to bounce things off of them. They will verify some of the things that I think I'm feeling or that are going on in the car."

For most of his career the former moto-cross and off-road truck racer was turning the wrenches in front of the engine. Last year team owner and 14-time champion John Force asked the world champion crew chief of Gary Scelzi if he would be interested in switching sides and getting behind the steering wheel.

In the past two weeks he qualified for his fifth consecutive race of the season -- a singular achievement in the JFR camp - and drove high performance Mustang GTs at Miller Motorsports Park outside Salt Lake City. Neff was joined at the Ford High Performance Driving School by teammates Ashley Force and Robert Hight. The three young John Force Racing drivers spent two days twisting and turning on one of the best road courses in the country.

"The driving school just taught me a better feel for driving a car, really any car with four wheels. Our Mustangs normally go in a straight line. It's not like we are hanging it out or getting it sideways a lot," said the eager student. "When you are smoking the tires and the thing is getting a little sideways and loose what we learned in Miller Motorsports Park we'll be able to apply at that point."

While qualifying consistency has been Neff's calling card this season, success on Sunday has been elusive. He has suffered through the learning curve of powering his Mustang through tricky tire shake but the easy-going rookie keeps a level head and a positive attitude.

"As far my inexperience as a driver goes the more runs that I can make I just get a little tiny bit more comfortable. For me I am still experiencing something new quite often. One run something will happen that I haven't experienced before. I still have a lot to learn as far as the driving goes. I feel pretty good. There are no problems," said Neff. "When it comes to trying to pedal my Old Spice Ford Mustang and it is smoking the tires on race day which I have experienced twice that is a handful. That is hard to practice. That is one area that it is just going to take me some runs to get better at."

In addition to his driving duties Neff has been working with world champion crew chief John Medlen on the Ford BOSS 500 engine program. Charged with testing the strength, durability and power generating capabilities of the BOSS 500 Neff adds passes and information to this successful program at every NHRA event and test session.

"The BOSS engine development is coming along really well. We feel real good about it. It makes good power and it has been holding up really well. What we are looking for now is just getting more runs on it to know that everything is fine. We are confident that we are good to go as far as the project goes. We have enough runs on it and we feel that if something would have been wrong with it we'd have known that by now. We are real encouraged by the whole Ford engine program."

As Neff heads to Atlanta Dragway he is hoping that qualifying success will carry over to race day giving the rookie driver a chance to compare notes with teammates on winner's circle etiquette.

Did you know...

With Mike turning the wrenches, Gary Scelzi was the Funny Car runner-up in the Summit Southern Nationals in 2004 and was the No. 1 qualifier in 2005.

Crew chief John Medlen earned the first of his 33 victories at JFR when he put Tony Pedregon in the winners circle in 1996 in only his fifth race with the team. Pedregon beat team owner John Force in the final. Medlen and Pedregon also won at Atlanta in 2003, the year they won the POWERade championship together.

With a win at the Southern Nationals Neff would be the fourth different JFR driver to win there after John Force, Tony Pedregon, and Robert Hight.

Neff is trying to become just the second racer to win pro championships as both crew chief and driver. The only person to have accomplished that feat is Dick LaHaie, who won a Top Fuel title as a driver in 1987 and as crew chief to Scott Kalitta in 1994 and 1995.

When Neff does capture his first win for John Force Racing he will become the sixth different drivers to have won Funny Car races on the NHRA tour -- John Force, Tony Pedregon, Gary Densham, Robert Hight and Eric Medlen.

A strong season for Neff would also continue another John Force Racing tradition as he is trying to become the third John Force Racing, Inc., driver in four years to win the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie of the Year following Robert Hight (2005) and Ashley Force (2007).

-credit: jfr

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Gary Densham , Scott Kalitta , Dick LaHaie , Ashley Force , Eric Medlen , Robert Hight , John Medlen , Mike Neff