An Interview With Mike Neff, Crew Chief on The Hemi-Powered Oakley Dodge Stratus Funny Car Driven by Gary Scelzi Mike Neff, 38, is in his fourth year with Don Schumacher Racing and his third as a crew chief. This is his 13th season as a crew ...
An Interview With Mike Neff, Crew Chief on The Hemi-Powered Oakley Dodge Stratus Funny Car Driven by Gary Scelzi
Mike Neff, 38, is in his fourth year with Don Schumacher Racing and his third as a crew chief. This is his 13th season as a crew member on the NHRA circuit and he is one of the youngest crew chiefs in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
In 2001, Neff was assistant crew chief on the Matco Tools Iron Eagle Funny Car, driven by Whit Bazemore. He was elevated in 2002 to crew chief for the Oakley Time Bomb Funny Car, driven by Scotty Cannon.
In 2003 he was assigned as crew chief on the Oakley Dodge Stratus driven by newcomer to the team Gary Scelzi. The pair dominated the speed charts that year, setting a national speed record of 329.18 mph, as well as posting the five top Funny Car speeds in NHRA history in one season.
The power pair continued its dominance in 2004 in the HEMI-powered Oakley Dodge Stratus by becoming the first driver/team to break the 330-mph mark, establishing a new national speed record of 330.55 mph at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill.
Neff's career started with Larry Minor Motorsports in 1992 as a mechanic on Cruz Pedregon's Funny Car. He was part of Joe Gibbs Racing from 1995-2000 with Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan.
The teams he worked for from 1992-2004 have so far captured 40 NHRA national-event wins, including five wins at the prestigious U.S. Nationals.
A native of Hemet, Calif., Neff resides in Indianapolis with wife Michelle, son Chase, 5, and daughter Chloe, 1. Michelle is a lawyer in the Indianapolis area.
Currently, Scelzi stands second in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Funny Car points, 206 behind John Force and 21 ahead of his teammate, Whit Bazemore, with five races remaining, including this weekend's O'Reilly NHRA Nationals at the Texas Motorplex outside of Dallas.
1. HOW DID YOU GET THE NICKNAME ZIPPY? DID IT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH GARY SCELZI'S FRIENDSHIP WITH TONY STEWART, WHOSE CREW CHIEF GREG ZIPADELLI IS ALSO CALLED ZIPPY?
A. No, I had my nickname since I was a kid, for as long as I can remember. The coincidental thing was when I worked for Joe Gibbs on the McDonald's Dragster from 1995 through 2001, they hired Greg Zipadelli, and his nickname was Zippy also. So, there were two Zippys at Gibbs Racing. That was kind of funny. I met Greg during that period and had seen him at a couple of the Gibbs' Christmas parties and when I'd be at the shop in North Carolina.
2. YOU WERE PUT INTO THE CREW CHIEF ROLE, AFTER BEING AN ASSISTANT ON WHIT BAZEMORE'S FUNNY CAR, FIRST ON SCOTTY CANNON'S CAR AND FINALLY ON GARY SCELZI'S CAR. WERE YOU READY FOR THAT?
A. When Don Schumacher decided to add Scotty Cannon to the team in 2002 with the Oakley sponsorship to run another car I had been working as the assistant crew chief on Bazemore's car. We intended to run the cars the same. Schumacher and Whit's crew chief Lee Beard had confidence in me and gave me the opportunity to be crew chief on Cannon's car. We felt that would be the best way to go because we wanted the cars to be tuned the same rather than hire somebody else to run Cannon's car who might want to run it a different way.
In 2003 Cannon got out of the car I was tuning and Gary Scelzi got in. Cannon then ran his own car under Schumacher Racing that year. Basically, Cannon wanted to do his own thing and try to tune the car himself. Putting Scelzi into the Oakley and HEMI-sponsored car was the only change we made.
I was ready to be crew chief because I had been in the assistant position for the two prior years, first on Cory Mac's car in 2000 and then Bazemore's car in 2001. I felt I had a pretty good understanding of what it was going to take to be able to do it.
There was a big benefit to having (co-crew chief) Dan Olson and Lee Beard around to help me with their experience. If I were to get into any trouble it was comforting to know that they were there to possibly give me a hand.
The other benefit was being with a team like Schumacher where you were able to buy anything that you needed and test as much as you wanted. That was a big thing because I didn't have to worry about having the best parts or not being able to run the car when I needed to test it.
3. DID YOU WANT TO BE A CREW CHIEF?
A. I wanted to eventually get there and then the opportunity came at the right time, right place, and the right circumstances for it all to work out. It was the ideal situation to jump in there and give it a shot.
I am thankful to Don Schumacher for giving me the opportunity.
4. NEARLY TWO YEARS LATER, HOW DO YOU JUDGE YOUR OWN PERFORMANCE?
A. I think our performance is good and I feel that we've steadily made progress and we continue to get a little bit better all the time. And as I learn more and get more familiar with things and get more experience I'm not so prone to make the same mistake twice. I'm pretty satisfied with where we are in our second year with Gary, in particular because he is a new driver in Funny Car more or less, and I'm a relatively new crew chief. I'm definitely satisfied with our performance.
5. WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR BEST ACCOMPLISHMENT?
A. Our best accomplishment is probably setting the speed record three times in a row. That was definitely a pure performance factor and being able to do that was definitely a highlight and something we were all proud of. Being the first ones to run 330 mph - after setting the record at 328, 329, then at 330 - was very rewarding. Winning our first race (Sonoma 2003) was a huge accomplishment as well.
6. YOU ARE ONE OF THE YOUNGEST, IF NOT THE YOUNGEST, CREW CHIEFS ON THE NHRA PRO CIRCUIT. WHAT DO YOU THINK IT TAKES FOR A CREW MEMBER TO MOVE INTO THAT POSITION?
A. A crew member needs to be in the right position where he is able to learn and see all the moves that are being made and be in the discussions of what to do for whatever situation. He needs to see everything that's going on and start thinking about it, like what he would do if he were going to have to make the calls. He has to put himself in that role in his own mind. It's kind of what I did. I'd like pretend, OK, I would do this, I would do that and see what the crew chief would do, what move he would make, and just kind of get a feel for it.
7. IT TAKES A UNIQUE PERSONALITY TO WANT TO HAVE THAT RESPONSIBILITY. DO YOU FIND THAT NOT ALL CREW GUYS WANT TO MOVE INTO THAT POSITION?
A. That's the tricky part. It's hard to get the opportunity with a team with a big sponsor because of the pressure that would exist to perform at a top level immediately. A lot of people would like the opportunity to see if they could do it, but some guys wouldn't want to have all the responsibility that goes with it. That was the hard part for me. I'd be laying in bed at night when the car wasn't running well, worrying about it all the time. You get yourself caught up in it so much that you start worrying about, if I don't get this thing turned around I could lose my job, or the team owner will get somebody else. Failure wasn't really an option for me. I was going to have to make it work, no matter what, when I took that position. I was going to work as hard as I could and do whatever I had to do to make sure that I could succeed at it, because failing would have turned my life upside down.
8. YOU HAVE TUNED SCELZI'S HEMI-POWERED OAKLEY DODGE STRATUS TO RECORD SPEED RUNS. WHAT IS YOUR SECRET?
A. In order to run fast I think it comes down to horsepower. You have to make a lot of horsepower and in a Funny Car you have to have a good aerodynamics package that doesn't have too much drag. And your engine has to run really, really clean. It can't be hurting pistons or putting out cylinders. It has to be really efficient and keep pulling all the way up the track until the driver shuts it off, in order for the thing to keep carrying and picking up speed.
9. DOES THE DODGE STRATUS BODY HELP?
A. I believe we have a great aerodynamics package. (Dodge Motorsports Aero-Thermal Development Engineer) Terry DeKoninck and the Dodge engineers continue to work really hard on the aerodynamics and we have spent a lot of time in the DaimlerChrysler wind tunnel to try to improve the aerodynamics. We learn something every time we're in the wind tunnel.
10. YOU'RE NOT TAKING CREDIT FOR PRODUCING THE POWER. IS IT JUST THE EQUIPMENT YOU HAVE?
A. Well, no, because I'm the one who has to make sure the engine is running properly, that it's got just the right amount of fuel volume, etc. That's my responsibility. There is a combination of many things that make the power and one of my main priorities is making sure that we don't hurt parts and that the engine runs clean. I guess I have to take the credit for making it run fast, because that's my job.
11. HOW DIFFICULT HAS THE TRANSITION TO 85 PERCENT NITROMETHANE BEEN FOR YOU AS A TUNER?
A. It's been very difficult. The first time we ran the car in Seattle on 85 percent it ran a 5.40-second ET at 260 mph. I can remember just laughing and thinking, Oh, Man, we're in big trouble. And then we came back, made a bunch of big moves to it and in the next run it ran 4.99. I felt a little bit better about it, but it just required really big changes to try to get the power level back up.
Another challenging factor at the same time was the new tire that NHRA brought out that had less traction than the previous tire.
At this point of the year, I feel we've got the power level close to what we had before. I think the tire is going to limit us from running quicker than we have before, at this point. I think possibly we can overcome the tire, but it's going to take some really good track conditions in order to be able to get back to the low 4.70s.
I think the speeds are going to be down for quite a while because this tire doesn't grow as much as the other tire did, which limits you. You don't get the same gear ratio that you got with the other tire because the current one does not grow as much. There is a couple of inches difference in the roll-out on this tire.
I'm sure eventually we will, but it's going to be a while, I believe, with the tire that we have now, before we run 330 mph again.
12. DID YOU EXPECT TO BE BATTLING FOR THE FUNNY CAR CHAMPIONSHIP THIS YEAR, OR EVEN LAST YEAR?
A. I knew we had all the tools and all the people to do it. Last year I knew it was going to be a big challenge with our being a new team and my still being inexperienced. I know Gary is a champion. I knew he could do it. And I know my crew can do it. I guess it was just up to me to be able to orchestrate everything and not make mistakes and to keep the performance of the car at the top level.
I felt that we underachieved last year and this year I feel good about where we're at and I think we'll be better next year. I got us in trouble early this year with testing stuff and trying different things. Had I just stuck with what I had and worked with that more I think we would have done better at the beginning of the season. I got caught up in wanting to be the first one to run 4.60 and run a 330 and I let the consistency get away because I tried too many different things early on in the year. Once I aborted all that stuff and just started racing what I knew, we started to become more consistent, and that's when we started moving back up in the points.
If I can keep myself from doing that again, we'll be better next year than we were this year.
13. WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GARY SCELZI?
A. It's great. He's a great guy to work with and he's a great driver. I have a lot of respect for him and he's a strong part of our team. We're also good friends when we're not at the track. We talk all the time, we golf together. We have a really good relationship.
14. WHAT IS YOUR GOAL FROM THIS POINT TO THE END OF THE SEASON?
A. Our goal is to be in the next five finals and take whatever we can get out of those. That's what we're shooting for. I'd like to win at least three of them and be in every final. Beating John Force would be great. We can't control what he does but we have to beat him every time we race him, from here on out. We're going to have to win probably at least four of the last five races and he's going to have to go out early a couple of times. He's going to have to go out in the first round at least twice and we have to go on to win for us to have a chance.
15. SCELZI HAS THE WINNING EDGE (7-5) OVER FORCE. IS THAT NERVE-WRACKING FOR YOU?
A. No. Actually it's not. The way I kind of view it, we're the underdog any time we have to race him. So, if we lose to him then I know that, hey, we lost to the best guy out there. It's more nerve-wracking for me to race guys that we should beat and that everybody expects us to beat. When we don't, then it's more of a screw-up. I look at it more like we don't have anything to lose when we race John Force, so we can just race him hard and take a whatever-happens-happens attitude.
16. WHAT ARE THE PLUSES AND MINUSES TO WORKING WITH THE LARGEST NHRA TEAM?
A. The pluses are you've got a lot of resources, a lot of good people to work with and share information with, and other cars to gain data from. The negative is it can get too distracting. There is so much stuff going on, and sometimes there is too much drama.
17. HOW HAS THE RELATIONSHIP WORKED WITH THE OTHER CREW CHIEFS, LEE BEARD, DAN OLSON, ALAN JOHNSON?
A. It's worked well. Dan and I work close together. Lee's car is set up pretty close to our car, but he does his own thing and I do mine. Alan Johnson has been a real big asset to me this year. In my opinion, he's the baddest guy out there, and has been for years. We've got a great relationship. He's been very open with me, showing me how he does things and we talk about things and things to try.
18. IF YOU HAD YOUR DRUTHERS, WHAT DO YOU NEED TO BE PERFECT?
A. To be perfect, I would like to be kept more isolated from the distractions at a race, where I could sit and think by myself.
19. ARE YOU STILL GLAD YOU BECAME A CREW CHIEF?
A. Yeah, very glad. It's been a great experience. It's been very challenging and it's just been a lot of fun.