By Anthony Caruso III | Publisher
Mike Neff, a driver and crew chief of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang with John Force Racing and the 2011 NHRA SuperNationals Funny Car winner, recently took time to do a Q&A session with The Capital Sports Report at the 2011 NHRA SuperNationals. His interview is about his racing career and views.
TCSR: You were a long-time tuner before you became a crew chief. Could you talk about that?
MN: “I started as an Assistant Crew Chief in 2000 and 2001 on Whit Bazemore’s team at Don Schumacher Racing. Then, we added another Funny Car, so that was my first time controlling a car. I was a crew chief from 2003 to 2007 with Gary Scelzi. Then, I came to work here at John Force Racing, John gave me the opportunity to drive.”
TCSR: Before going to Don Schumacher Racing, you had worked for Larry Minor and Joe Gibbs Racing. Could you talk about working for them?
MN: “He (Joe Gibbs) does have a NASCAR team, but he did have a Drag Racing team from 1995 to 2000. He had a Funny Car and a Top Fuel dragster. I started with Larry Minor Racing in the early 1990’s, and I started off doing the bottom end. I started changing the oil, before working my way up. Then, I worked with Joe Gibbs from 1995 to 2000, building short blocks and being a mechanic on the car.”
TCSR: You helped Gary Scelzi to the 2005 NHRA Full Throttle Series Funny Car World Championship. What was that like for you to help Gary to that championship?
MN: “Yeah, I won the championship with Gary in 2005. It was very exciting for us. Prior to that, John Force had won like 10 championships in a row. 10 championships in a row is unheard of in any sport. And it came right down to the wire. John Force had a chance to win it, so did Gary and Ron Capps. We ended up pulling it off. That was a big-time win for us. Gary drove for a couple of years after that, then he decided to retire. Now, he’s back home working in his family business.”
TCSR:You became John Force’s fourth driver for John Force Racing in 2007. After working on the mechanical side of things, what made you want to become a driver?
MN: “Well, driving the car was always a dream of mine. But I never took it too seriously, because I never thought it was a possibility. I put a lot of thought into it, and I do enjoy working on the car. John Force called me and asked me if I would be interested in driving it, and that’s where it all started. When I got that offer, it was a dream come true. It was almost like it was too good to be true. I took that opportunity to learn how to drive for them, and it has been an unbelievable experience.”
TCSR: What do you remember the most about your driving debut in 2007 at Las Vegas?
MN: “I remember it a lot. It was a good learning experience. Learning from that race has put me where I am today.”
TCSR: Could you talk about being the third driver, now with John Force and Robert Hight? He replaced Ashley Force-Hood, who is pregnant and could not race this season.
MN: “It was great to drive for those couple of years. But I wasn’t tuning at the time, because I was just driving. I missed the tuning part. When we parked the fourth car last year, I got the opportunity to be John Force’s crew chief. And I was excited to do that, because I was able to get back to the tuning part that I had missed. We had a great year last year. Now with Ashley being pregnant, the opportunity came back up for me to drive again. I’m more excited than ever before, because I’m tuning and I’m driving.”
TCSR: You became the third John Force Racing driver in four years, along with Ashley Force-Hood and Robert Hight, to win the Auto Club Road to the Future Award (Rookie of the Year) in 2008. What did it mean to you to win that?
MN: “That was an honor, because there was some other good drivers competing for that. And if you look at the list of the people, who have won that, it’s pretty remarkable. There’s a lot of great names that have won that award. It actually goes down in the record books, so when I’m very old and can’t race anymore, I can tell my grand kids about it. I’m very proud of winning it. It was a great accomplishment for our team.”
TCSR: You won your first career race at the final race of the season, the Auto Club NHRA Finals, in 2009. What was that like for you?
MN: “We had come close a few times and we could never get it done, so to be able to win that last race in 2009; which we parked my car the following year, I always wanted to get a win when I started driving. I just wanted to win a race. I wanted to experience that moment, and to do it in the final race of the year, it was very special.”
TCSR: After driving for a few years, you went back to being a crew chief with Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, before taking a bigger role on John Force’s car mid-way through last year. Could you talk about learning from and working with Austin and Bernie?
MN: “Yeah, Austin and Bernie are arguably the best tuners in the business. Being able to work with them was really exciting. We worked very well together, so there wasn’t any issues. I respected what they’ve been able to do in this business, and they respected what I was trying to do, so together, we had a really good program going, which is why we had the success that we did.”
TCSR: After last season, Austin Coil decided to step away from John Force Racing. Some speculated, it was because of your bigger role, but we may never know the real reason behind his decision. What were your thoughts on that situation?
MN: “First, I was shocked. I didn’t see it coming, and neither did many of the other members of John Force Racing. We were shocked when we heard that he was going to quit. As far as the reasons why, I’m not really sure. You hear different things, but I think he was at a point in his life, where he wanted to travel and do some other things that he wasn’t able to do the last 30-years that he’s been involved in racing. I really don’t think it had anything to do with me. I think he was excited that we were able to win last year, so I can’t imagine he would quit just to quit after what we were able to accomplish last year.”
TCSR: You are now the driver and the crew chief of your Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. How hard is that? Tim Wilkerson is the only other driver and crew chief in the Funny Car category.
MN: “It has it’s moments. It’s definitely stressful, with the turnovers, especially with four turnovers on Sunday. The four rounds on Sunday takes it’s tool on myself – both mind and body – it’s very draining. I have to push the people around me, but with all the help I have on my car, it’s not impossible. We have so many good people at John Force Racing.”
TCSR: As a crew chief and a driver, you have a lot more pressure on yourself. How do you focus on the important things and not get side tracked?
MN: “There, again, there’s a lot of things that has to be done. But my crew guys pretty much cover everything. They handle so much that needs to be done, so what I have to do, it’s not an overwhelming amount.”
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