HOUSTON, Texas – Endurance typically is not a term applied to drag races that take as few as four seconds to complete.
However, it was lack of endurance, pure and simple, that cost Mike Neff and the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang a victory last year at Royal Purple Raceway.
After a long day serving as driver AND crew chief on one of the world’s most powerful race cars, working in the heat and humidity without proper nutrition, Neff made a rookie mistake and, as a result, fouled away his chances in an event in which he had been dominant in the first three rounds.
With a year of double-duty experience behind him, the 45-year-old with the Hollywood good looks returns this week prepared to make amends in the 25th renewal of the O’Reilly Spring Nationals.
“It was so humid out there,” remembered the man who this season is trying to become the first in 38 years to win an NHRA Funny Car title as both driver and crew chief. “I just didn’t take care of my physical self. I got to the final and my brain was just not all there. I just wore down and made a mistake. That’s the long and short of it.
“I asked myself, ‘why did I do that?’” he recalled, “(and) I realized I hadn’t eaten anything and then I got dehydrated and chugged some water. Then I popped some aspirin.”
It was formula for disaster but one that became a learning experience for the man who won NHRA World Championships as crew chief to Gary Scelzi (2005) and current boss and teammate John Force (2010).
The former surfer, motocross racer and off-road truck mechanic returns to Royal Purple confident that this time he can manage both of jobs without any adverse effects.
He also returns at the wheel of the most consistent race car in the category, a Mustang that has made just one non-representative trip down the 1,000 foot course in 12 competitive tries this year. His average for those 12 runs, even with a 4.959 two weeks ago at the 4Wide Nationals at Charlotte, N.C., is 4.176 seconds.
No one else is close, not even teammate and points leader Robert Hight who, although he has won the last four races in the Full Throttle Series, has averaged “only” 4.369 seconds on 16 race day runs.
“My guys have given me a great car every race,” Neff said. “Our second round (at the 4Wide), it just seemed like when the car left, it kind of pulled me over towards the centerline. I got out of the groove and it spun the tires. It was a little disappointing to go down that way because we actually did feel pretty good (going in).”
In fact, Neff is a tour victory just looking for a place to happen. He’s had one of the top two or three cars at every race this season and twice has reached the final round. As a result, he is second only to Hight in Full Throttle points.
While he learned last year that “win” isn’t as important in the NHRA playoff era as “when,” Neff would like to get at least one victory on his 2012 resume before the start of the Countdown. If he could do so this weekend, it would earn him a berth in the inaugural Traxxas Nitro Shootout to be contested Sept. 2 in conjunction with the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
At present, the only two qualifiers to race for the $100,000 top prize in that bonus race are Hight and Force. Neff would love to keep it “all-John Force Racing, all-Castrol, all-Ford, all the time.”
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