John Force Racing press release
Neff trying ‘to keep it going’ in countdown
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mike Neff is on track to become the first in 37 years to win the NHRA Funny Car championship as BOTH driver and crew chief. Nevertheless, if had to choose between the two, the 44-year-old with the Hollywood good looks would hang up the helmet and keep the wrench.
“If I had to do just one, I think what I do better is the crew chief part of it,” said this year’s only five-time Funny Car winner. “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.”
Neff, who has led the Full Throttle points for all but three races this season, enters this week’s fourth annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMax Dragway with a 30-point lead on the field. It could have been 215, the margin by which he led second place Jack Beckman before points were adjusted for the playoffs.
“It’s a bummer to lose those points, but it is what it is,” Neff said. “I’d still rather be in our position than anybody else’s. The worst thing would be to do this well and then bomb out. Now, the pressure comes from ourselves, just wanting to keep it going to the end.”
Despite his affinity for the mechanical side, Neff loves driving the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang in which he won the 57th MAC Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis just two weeks ago.
“It's probably the greatest thrill I could imagine,” Neff said of strapping into the cockpit of an 8,000 horsepower, 315 mile-an-hour missile. “I definitely love doing it, but if I could only do one, it would be crew chief. That’s what I’ll be doing in the future.”
How long into the future, though, he’s not sure. Pressed into double duty this year when two-time U.S. Nationals champ Ashley Force Hood stepped out of the cockpit to start a family, he has delivered beyond car owner John Force’s expectations.
“As good as he’s done, I don’t see how I could justify taking him out of the car next year,” Force said. “I may have to run four cars because he’s the real deal.”
Neff thought his driving career was over in 2009 when, after earning a breakthrough victory in the season-ending Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., he was excluded from the 2010 driver roster due to lack of sponsorship for the fourth car.
Nevertheless, after guiding Force to the title last year as crew chief on his Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Mustang, Neff got an unexpected second chance when Force Hood took maternity leave.
He won in just his third time out and now is poised to become just the seventh driver in Funny Car history to win as many as six races in a single season, joining Force, the Pedregon brothers, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme and Bruce Larson, all of them former series champions.
“John, isn’t one of those guys that second guesses you,” Neff said of his boss and teammate. “He's our biggest cheerleader, even when we're not doing good. There's never been any pressure or second guessing on his part. He’s always real supportive.”
"It's just a matter of time for Neff," Force said. "He has the magic as a driver. A championship is out there for him and it might be this year. He’s got a shot"
Although there were some stamina issues early in the season, Neff for the most part has managed two full time jobs with unexpected ease.
The secret, he says, are the people around him including Bernie Fedderly, the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee who has been involved in winning more competitive rounds than anyone else in fuel racing history (1,131).
“The secret is to hire good people and then trust them to do their jobs,” Neff said. “My right hand man, John Schaffer, makes sure the maintenance is done, Danny Hood has taken on some of the things that (Austin) Coil did a year ago and Bernie is the glue that holds it all together.”