Neff Has Developed A Flair For The Dramatic
In only 56 appearances as a professional race car driver, Mike Neff has established two truths.
One is that he and his Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang can compete with the NHRA elite on any track, at any time, under any conditions. The other is that, unlike golf, a sport he indulges as a recreation, there are no gimmes in the straight-line acceleration sport in which he makes his living.
The 44-year-old Neff, a sensation this season as both driver and crew chief on the car that sits atop the NHRA Full Throttle standings, rolls into Bristol Dragway for this week’s 11th annual Ford Thunder Valley Nationals having reached the final round in four consecutive events and in five of eight this season.
The fact that he’s won just two of those final rounds and only three of 11 in his brief career is central to what has become one of the most compelling stories in the Full Throttle Series.
A former motocross racer who worked his way up the mechanical ladder to become one of the drag racing’s most successful crew chiefs, Neff’s career path took an abrupt turn late in 2007 when Hall of Fame driver and team owner John Force hired him away from Don Schumacher Racing, not as a crew chief, but as a driver.
The native Californian, who had directed Gary Scelzi to the NHRA championship in 2005, thus ending 12 years of John Force Racing domination, made an almost seamless transition from one side of the cockpit to the other.
Nevertheless, a series of final round misadventures that can only be described as bizarre began with his first appearance in the Thunder Valley Nationals in 2008.
After qualifying No. 1, Neff blazed through the Funny Car field at Bristol Dragway to earn lane choice against No. 11 qualifier Melanie Troxel, whose car had coasted across the finish line in the semifinals after both she and rival Jim Head had experienced traction problems.
However, after the final round burnouts had been completed, John Medlen was unable to disengage the latch on the carbon fiber body that would have allowed access to the engine in Neff’s Ford. As a result, Neff’s then crew chief was unable to make final adjustments leading, predictably, to a mid-track engine engine failure.
At Phoenix in 2009, after he and Ron Capps clearly had established themselves as the class of the field, Neff was victimized by broken clutch linkage on the final round burnout and watched Capps single for the money. Later the same year at Reading, Pa., after ringing up the quickest time of eliminations at 4.189 in the semifinals, Neff was distracted in the final by a drop of sweat in his eye. The result was a totally uncharacteristic .235 of a second reaction time and a loss to Bob Tasca III.
Even his first win was anything but textbook. In the final round of the 2009 Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., his last driving gig before taking over as the mechanical lead on Force’s Ford, Neff won in 5.130 seconds after final round opponent Ashley Force Hood, his JFR teammate, lost traction and brushed the wall.
Returning to his mechanical roots, Neff last year put Force back in the winner’s circle in his very first race as tuner of the Castrol GTX High Mileage™ Ford. At season’s end, he celebrated a championship with Force, Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, in the process becoming just the second crew chief ever to direct two different drivers to an NHRA Funny Car title.
It’s better just to focus on doing what’s right.
That brings us to the current campaign, one in which Neff found himself back in the cockpit following Force Hood’s announcement that she and husband Dan were expecting their first child. He has responded spectacularly – although not without his usual flair for the dramatic.
At Houston, after reaching the finals by beating two of the top contenders for this year’s championship (Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan) in back-to-back rounds, an exhausted Neff, reeling from the effects of dehydration, doing two jobs and improper eating habits, was guilty of a foul start that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
He has since adopted a new physical regimen to help him better cope with the rigors of double duty.
“You’ll make yourself crazy if you think about everything that can go wrong,” Neff said. “It’s better just to focus on doing what’s right.”
And let the drama take care of itself.