working with new driver a challenge for neff
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Over the last six years, Mike Neff has guided two of drag racing’s biggest stars to the NHRA Funny Car championship, winning with Gary Scelzi in 2005 and John Force five years later.
Nevertheless, if the 44-year-old is to add to his already impressive crew chief resume, he’ll have to do so with the least experienced driver with whom he ever has worked – himself.
Neff will try to win for the first time as both driver AND crew chief this week when he sends his John Force Racing Castrol GTX Ford after the Funny Car title at the 42nd annual Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.
Back in a car for the first time in more than a year, Neff rolls into Gainesville in third place in Full Throttle points after reaching the semifinals in the season-opening Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals.
While he fully expects to contend for the championship in his second stint as a pro driver, the versatile Neff understands the challenges he faces.
“I’m kinda handicapped (because) I can’t go out and check the track like I could last year with John,” he said. “That’s where Lanny Miglizzi comes in. He’s our track specialist and he keeps me updated on all the changes in (the) lanes.
“Another thing, when you’re a tuner, you’re always second-guessing yourself,” Neff continued. “So the hardest part for me is making a decision and, when it comes time to drive, living with it.
“You can go up there thinking about the tuning part and not drive as well as you should and, in the end, if you don’t perform as a driver it doesn’t really matter what you did as a tuner. You just have to do one job at a time and not let them affect one another.”
Before the economic downturn compelled Force to park one of his Ford Mustangs, Neff was solidly in the Funny Car driver mix. In fact, in his final race in the Drive One Ford Mustang, he beat teammate Ashley Force Hood to win the 2009 Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif.
After returning to his crew chief roots a year ago and putting Force back on a competitive track after two uncharacteristically mediocre seasons, Neff got a second chance in the cockpit when Force Hood announced she and her husband Dan were expecting their first child.
In response, Force announced he was moving over one pit spot to drive Force Hood’s Mustang for crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Ron Douglas and that Neff would have both drive and tune the car that won the 2010 championship.
While such an arrangement is unusual, it is not without precedent. For instance, Tim Wilkerson has won 15 races as the most accomplished driver/crew chief of the current era. The last to win a Funny Car championship, however, was the late Shirl Greer in 1974.
Neff this year would love to add his name to both lists.