John Force Racing press release
Neff brings ‘double trouble’ to AAA Texas race
DALLAS, Texas – Mike Neff grew up in the great outdoors. The Funny Car points leader raced motocross bikes and off-road trucks; rode ATVs and dirt bikes. He was into camping, water skiing, boating and golfing. And, as a native Californian, he loved surfing.
These days, though, the only surfing for which he has time is on the internet. Considering his on-track success, rivals might want to consider buying the 44-year-old a ticket to Oahu’s North Shore, Australia’s Gold Coast or some other locale famous for its gnarly waves. They might want to make the trip one way.
Neff rolls his Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang onto the all-concrete track at the Texas Motorplex this week hoping to just “keep it going” in the 26th renewal of the AAA Texas Fall Nationals, second race in the Countdown to 1 playoffs.
“The worst thing would be to do this well and then bomb out,” said the man who is trying to become the first driver/crew chief to win the Funny Car championship since the late Shirl Greer did so in 1974. “Now, all the pressure comes from ourselves, just wanting to keep it going to the end.
“The way it worked out this year with me getting thrown back in (the cockpit) at the last minute (when Ashley Force Hood took maternity leave), there really wasn't any pressure,” said the man who’s won six times as a driver, 22 times as a crew chief.
“It was just ‘fill in for the year and do the best you can,’” he said. “But now that we've done as well as we have (nine final rounds in 17 races), I'm starting to feel the pressure, because you don't want to let it slip away now.”
Neff, who won his first NHRA Funny Car championship as crew chief to Gary Scelzi in 2005 and his most recent as crew chief to racing icon John Force in 2010, is on pace to become just 26th driver in the modern era (since the schedule was expanded in 1970) to reach the final round of at least half the races in the series.
That isn’t what motivates him, though. The championship is his focus as both driver and crew chief. Still, given the choice, Neff would eschew the glamour of driving for the challenge of tuning.
“If I had to do just one, I think what I do better is the crew chief part of it,” he said. “I like that a lot more. It's a lot more of a challenge than just driving. I like working with the team and being part of all that and (determining) the car's setup and the new technology and racing the racetrack, that part of the game. There's just so much more that goes into it.”
Although he won a race as a driver in 2009, Neff returned to the computer monitor last year after being assigned the task of restoring Force to contention following a 2009 season in which the Hall of Fame driver failed to reach a single final round for the first time in 25 years.
He responded by sending his boss to 11 final rounds and, ultimately, to his 15th individual championship. He would have had no problem returning in that capacity this season, but when Ashley made her announcement, Force gave Neff the assignment of both tuning and driving his championship-winning Ford while he moved next door to drive for Ashley’s crew chiefs, Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas.
“I always wanted to drive,” Neff said of his various career turns, “but it never seemed like an option. It wasn’t something you’re going to go around talking about or asking about because it just didn’t look like anything like that would be possible.”
Now the possibilities appear to be endless.