DENVER, Colo. – This year, Mike Neff has demonstrated his mechanical mastery over both hot and cool weather conditions, over bumpy tracks and smooth ones and over slippery surfaces as well as those with traction sufficient to accommodate zero-to-315 mile-an-hour acceleration in 4.0 seconds.
Nevertheless, when the driver/crew chief of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang rolls to the starting line for this week’s 32nd Mopar Mile-High Nationals, he and his Funny Car rivals will have to overcome challenges encountered nowhere else on the NHRA Full Throttle tour.
Bandimere Speedway’s 5,300 foot altitude creates unique problems for tuners like Neff who are charged with trying to wring maximum performance out of hybrid engines like the supercharged Ford BOSS 500 designed and built at John Force Racing’s Brownsburg, Ind., facility.
Basically, the thin air at altitude creates an imbalance in the fuel-air mixture. In the summer, the problem is compounded by air temperatures that can reach into the 90s and track temperatures that, while controlled at the starting line through an under-track cooling system, are not manipulated further down the 1,000 foot racecourse.
As a result, even though Bandimere’s track surface is all-concrete, there still is a transition that must be made at 200 feet to compensate for a 15-20 degree difference in track temperature.
Crew chiefs address the air issue by boosting the supercharger overdrive to generate more “artificial air” and by utilizing high compression “Denver pistons” and other components developed exclusively for racing on “Mt. Bandimere.” The transition issue is a little more dicey, however, since it occurs nearer the starting line than it does at any other facility in the series.
Nevertheless, just because everything’s different doesn’t mean anything’s changed. Even though this week’s conditions aren’t comparable to any others, Neff still will roll to the line as the co-favorite to win the Funny Car title along with teammate Robert “Top Gun” Hight, the defending race champion.
In fact, Neff will be trying to win his third straight race and take his high-profile Ford to the finals for the seventh time in the last eight events.
Although he already had established himself as one of the top mechanical talents on the tour as crew chief to two different NHRA Funny Car Champions (Gary Scelzi in 2005 and boss John Force in 2010), Neff this year has emerged as the hottest driver in the series and the early favorite to claim the $500,000 championship.
It’s an unlikely position in which to find someone who is only driving because of two-time reigning Mac Tools U.S. Nationals champion Ashley Force Hood’s January decision to take maternity leave.
That announcement opened up an opportunity that Neff is determined to maximize.
“I was probably more shocked than anyone when I first found out that Ashley was pregnant (and) I was going to be going back in (the cockpit),” said the 44-year-old points leader. “I knew we had talked about it before; that it would be a possibility at some point (but) I didn't know it would be this year.
“I’m just excited to have the opportunity to do this and, really, this might be it,” said the one time motocross rider. “This might be the last year I drive (so) I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I give it 110 percent.”
His 2011 results not only reflect his own commitment to excellence, but also that of his supporting cast, most of whom were on Force’s championship-winning crew a year ago.
“It comes down to preparation by the team,” Neff said. “All the guys that are changing parts (and) building motors, they are doing everything exactly the same (every time). There are no variables (and) that is a key thing for a tuner. They are so precise in what they do.”
Although his driving record in two previous starts at Bandimere is unimpressive (No. 12 and No. 15 starts coupled with a single round win), Neff has enjoyed previous Mile-High Nationals success as a crew chief, guiding Scelzi to the winners’ circle in 2006 and Force to the final round just a year ago.
It is that success on which he hopes to capitalize this week.
* * * *
PRO POINTS (Current 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Series point standings):
FUNNY CAR – 1. Mike Neff, Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, 1005; 2. Jack Beckman, Valvoline Dodge Charger, 833; 3. Robert Hight, Auto Club Ford Mustang, 786; 4. Cruz Pedregon, Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry, 742; 5. Matt Hagan, Die Hard Batteries Dodge Charger, 642; 6. Jeff Arend, DHL Toyota Camry, 612; 7. Ron Capps, NAPA Dodge Charger, 599; 8. John Force, Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, 564; 9. Bob Tasca III, Quick Lane/Motorcraft Ford Mustang, 548; 10. Johnny Gray, Service Central Dodge Charger, 451.
* * * *
TELEVISION (all on ESPN2, all times Eastern Daylight):
Qualifying – 5-7 pm, Saturday, July 23
Race Highlights – 7-10 pm, Sunday, July 24
* * * *
NEXT EVENTS (2011 NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship):
24th annual FRAM/Autolite Nationals, July 29-31, Sonoma, Calif.
24th annual NHRA Northwest Nationals, Aug. 5-7, Seattle, Wash.
30th annual Lucas Oil Nationals, Aug. 19-21, Brainerd, Minn.
57th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Sept. 1-5, Indianapolis, Ind.
Countdown to 1 playoffs:
4th annual O’Reilly Nationals, Sept. 16-18, Charlotte, N.C.
26th annual AAA-Texas Fall Nationals, Sept. 23-25, Dallas, Texas
27th annual NHRA Keystone Nationals, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, Reading Pa.
27th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals, Oct. 14-16, Phoenix, Ariz.
11th annual NHRA Las Vegas Nationals, Oct. 28-30, Las Vegas, Nevada
47th annual Auto Club Finals, Nov. 10-13, Pomona, Calif.
* * * *