Think of Mike Neff as the Clint Eastwood of high performance. Like the iconic Eastwood, Neff is daring, determined and diverse, characteristics that have transformed him from surfer to off-road truck mechanic to one of the hottest properties in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
Whereas Eastwood’s versatility manifested itself in his success as movie producer, director and actor, Neff’s showcase is the flat, straight concrete-and-asphalt drag racing “launch pad” on which he has excelled as both a crew chief and a driver.
After winning two NHRA Funny Car championships from his computer console, the first with Gary Scelzi in 2005 and the second with motorsports icon John Force in 2010, the quiet over-achiever got a second chance at the wheel of JFR Ford Mustang when Ashley Force Hood opted to climb out of the cockpit last year to start a family.
He responded by coming agonizingly close to re-writing straight-line racing history at the controls of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang.
After running away with the regular season championship, Neff fell just 100 points shy of becoming the first in 37 years to win an NHRA Funny Car championship in the dual role of driver/crew chief. That’s the bad news. The good news is that his performance earned him another chance. This year, he again will see double duty and, once more, he plans to make the most of the opportunity.
“We had a great season,” Neff said. “It was disappointing not to win after leading (the points for most of the year), but there are a lot of great cars and drivers out there. We had our chances and I’m excited about getting a chance to do it again.”
That said, Neff has no illusions. He knows that no matter how much success he enjoys as a driver, his racing future lies in his skills as a crew chief. As it turns out, it’s the job he prefers, anyway.
After winning for the first time as a driver at the final event of the 2009 season, in the process becoming the first to win with the BOSS 500 Ford engine he helped develop at JFR, Neff hung up his helmet and accepted the task of returning Force to the dominance he enjoyed prior to his 2007 crash in Dallas, Texas.
He responded in 2010 by sending his Hall of Fame boss to 11 final rounds and, ultimately, his 15th individual championship.
Those results exceeded the expectations of everyone at John Force Racing, Inc., and now, with Force having moved over one pit stall to re-unite with crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli, one of the key players in his run to 10 consecutive championships in the 1990s and early 2000s, Neff again will wear both a hat and a helmet this season in his bid to secure the team’s 18th championship in the last 23 seasons.
Ironically, Neff first came to prominence as a professional crew chief in 2005 while working for JFR’s principal rival in the Funny Car division, Don Schumacher Racing. That was the year he guided Gary Scelzi to a championship that ended 12 years of Funny Car dominance for Team Force. Two years later, he was enticed to JFR with the promise of a chance to drive.
Paired with crew chief John Medlen, he responded by earning the Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie of the Year in 2008. One season later, he became the seventh different Funny Car driver to win in a JFR Ford Mustang.
Although he is one of seven Funny Car racers to win as both driver and crew chief, he was the first to do so in reverse order, prevailing FIRST as a crew chief, then as a driver.
A native of Hemet, Calif., he grew up racing dirt bikes and off-road trucks. He got his first motorcycle at age four and began riding competitively in motocross at 13. Significantly, he grew up with the sons of 1983 world championship team owner Larry Minor, with whom he raced in the off-road series.
That relationship would prove pivotal to his career because, when Minor decided to run a limited Top Fuel schedule in 1991, he hired Neff as a crew member.
After securing national sponsorship from McDonald’s, Minor offered Neff the opportunity to go racing as a full-time mechanic on the Funny Car in which Cruz Pedregon ultimately beat Force for the 1992 NHRA championship.
He worked on that car through 1994 when Joe Gibbs bought the team and assigned him to the Top Fuel dragster of Cory McClenathan. When Gibbs opted out in 2001, Neff moved to DSR as assistant crew chief to Whit Bazemore. A year later, he got his own car, serving first as crew chief to Scotty Cannon; then to Scelzi. Together, he and Scelzi went to 18 final rounds with 11 wins.
Although he played baseball and football and wrestled in high school, Neff’s passion was riding motorcycles and, later, working on off-road vehicles. It was while working on off-road trucks at night at Minor’s shop that he learned to weld and fabricate, skills that would serve him well as a mechanic and, later, crew chief.
“I was always the outdoors type – camping, water skiing, all that stuff,” he said of his childhood. “I was always competitive. The cool thing for me, growing up, was we had a high school motocross team and we competed every Friday night.
“There were probably six or seven different schools (and) I think we won the championship about every year. I raced two classes and my twin brother (Mark) raced two. That was four motos a night.”
Neff’s children now are old enough to share in much of his on-track success. Son Chase and daughter Chloe attend as many races as their busy school schedules allow. In fact, both were on hand for their dad’s win at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
“I had never won the US Nationals as a tuner or a driver so just getting that win was huge, but to have my kids there made it that much more special,” Neff beamed. “I don’t get to see them as much as I would like, but memories like – standing in the winner’s circle at the biggest race of the year with your kids, that’s awesome.”
While Neff now lives in Fishers, Ind., his twin brother still lives in Hemet where he owns a construction business and manages a prison ministry.
“He goes to the Chino prison and tries to help those guys out, tries to find them jobs and teach ‘em a trade,” Neff said. “He’s a really good dude.”
Although he came to JFR to drive, Neff made an immediate impact mechanically, helping to create simplified procedures and improved components. Working with Medlen, he helped develop the JFR in-house chassis as well as the Ford BOSS 500.
“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.”
Obviously, he was wrong. Force offered him a chance to drive as part of the Next Generation initiative that produced drivers Eric Medlen, Robert “Top Gun” Hight and Ashley Force Hood and the rest, pardon the cliche, is history.