CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In an age of specialization, it is Mike Neff’s versatility that distinguishes him from the rest of those vying this year for the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Championship.
Winner of a pair of championships as a crew chief (to retired star Gary Scelzi in 2005 and to drag racing icon and boss John Force in 2010), Neff is trying this year to do something no one has done in 26 years and that is win a Funny Car championship as both tuner and driver.
This week, the 44-year-old brings his championship bid to zMax Dragway where he’ll try to keep his record perfect in the tour’s most unique format, the four-lane configuration that will determine champions in the second annual VisitMyrtleBeach.com 4-Wide Nationals.
Winner of a special 4-wide exhibition in 2009 when he was first driving a Ford Mustang for John Force Racing, Inc., Neff claimed a share of the first official 4-Wide title last season as crew chief to Force. Now, he puts both winning streaks on the line as the tuner and driver of the Castrol GTX Ford.
From Neff’s unique perspective, the challenge of 4-wide racing rests squarely on the driver – not the crew chief.
“It definitely is a tough race for the drivers,” Neff said. “It changes everything that they’re used to. You’re watching more bulbs (in the electronic starting system) and there are three other guys instead of one. I think, psychologically, it makes you think about a lot more stuff.
“It’s not that big a deal for the crew chiefs,” he said. “You just figure out which lane you’re going to be in and go from there. It adds more to everybody’s plate because you have two more lanes to worry about but, thankfully, we have Lanny (track specialist Lanny Miglizzi) to handle that for us.”
Despite certain misgivings about driving four-wide for the first time in Full Throttle competition, Neff is feeling more and more comfortable behind the wheel of the green-and-white Castrol GTX Mustang in which he won last month’s Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.
“I think I’m back up to speed (as a driver) and getting that win in Gainesville was big,” he said. “That was, without a doubt, the best day of racing I've ever had in my life. It was a lot of stress and a lot of nerves, but to end up winning the way we did (posting the quickest time during eliminations) was just very gratifying and just a great experience; a great feeling.”
Neff has no illusions about his current position. He knows that his future at John Force Racing, Inc., his future in drag racing, in fact, is as a crew chief. That’s why he’s trying to make the most of an opportunity that presented itself after two-time reigning Mac Tools U.S. Nationals champion Ashley Force Hood announced plans to at least temporarily step away from racing to await the birth of her and husband Dan’s first child, due in August.
“Maybe at the end of the year I might want to go back to being just a crew chief,” Neff said, “but I want to give (driving) a run all year. I love tuning and that is what I will be doing for a long time. This driving deal might be a one year deal for me (and) I’m trying to make the most of it.”
Neff’s quick start this year might have been anticipated. After all, the car he’s driving basically is the same hybrid Ford Mustang in which Force won six races last year en route to the team’s 17th Funny Car championship in the last 21 seasons. The only thing different is the paint – and the passenger.
Of course, wearing two hats has created some other problems for Neff.
“You can go up there thinking about the tuning part and not drive as well as you should,” Neff explained, “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.”
Although he has driven competitively in only 53 NHRA events, Neff has had a surprisingly diverse driving career in Charlotte. In. May, 2008, while zMax Dragway was under construction and before the all-concrete racing surface was installed, he beat Force in a special match race between Volvo dump trucks. Two days later, he made an exhibition burnout before 160,000 fans before the start of a NASCAR Sprint Cup event on the neighboring oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He then beat Force to the finish line in a four-wide exhibition in 2009.
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