Few racers were happier to see Gateway Motorsports Park back on the NHRA schedule this season than Mike Neff who, in the first two races of the 2012 Countdown to the Championship, has emerged as the biggest threat to the title hopes of points leader Ron Capps.
The fact that Gateway’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals makes its return this week as a key element of the NHRA playoffs could be a bonus for the soft-spoken former motocross rider considering his history at the track.
Although the Midwest Nationals has been contested just 14 times, Neff has taken four different race cars to the Funny Car final – three as a crew chief and one as a driver. He can add to that resume this week as the driver AND crew chief on a Castrol GTX Ford Mustang in which he has won the sport’s biggest event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, each of the last two years.
The 46-year-old native Californian, who once was an off-road truck mechanic, trails Capps by 96 points entering this, the third of six races in the shootout that is the Countdown. Trying to become the first in 38 years to win the NHRA Funny Car title in the dual role of driver/crew chief, he knows he needs to make up ground this week.
Doing one drag racing job is demanding enough, but doing two is, well, maybe kind of crazy. At the very least its old school, a throwback to the days of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits when specialization was just a long word with no relevance in a sport where many racers tuned, drove and even built their own cars.
Nevertheless, Neff always has enjoyed the multi-tasking aspects of the sport, although not the current extent.
He first demonstrated those skills at the 2005 Midwest Nationals in which he was the crew chief of record for both Gary Scelzi, with whom he would win the championship that year, and Capps, with whom he would win the race.
Then employed by Don Schumacher Racing, Neff was pressed into double duty because Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, Capps’ crew chief at the time, was sidelined by health issues. No problem. With Neff turning the wrenches, Scelzi qualified No. 1 and Capps No. 2 and the latter went on to beat Tim Wilkerson in the final round.
The year before, Neff and Scelzi won the race (from the No. 1 qualifying position) and two years before that, Neff guided Scotty Cannon to the final round (as the No. 1 qualifier) before he was guilty of a foul start against Neff’s current boss, 15-time series champion John Force.
After leaving DSR in 2007 when Force offered him a chance to move from one side of the cockpit to the other, Neff took the Old Spice Ford to the final round at Gateway in 2008 before losing to Wilkerson by the narrowest of margins, 4.874 to 4.886. It was his first final round as a driver.
Now, he is poised to go one step further.
“It’s not an exact science,” Neff said of preparing an 8,000 horsepower race car for a trip down a 1,000 foot racetrack. “Whether the track is 100 degrees or 140, there are challenges you have to deal with. Anything can happen.”
“That’s what’s so exciting about NHRA drag racing,” acknowledged the nine-time tour winner. “You can’t make it up in the next turn. You get one shot at it. You either get it right, you catch a break or it’s over with – and you have to do that four times in one day.”
For Neff, the most critical time is the few moments before an actual run during which he tends to second guess himself as a tuner.
“You can’t go up there thinking about the tuning part because you won’t drive as well as you should,” he said, “and, in the end, if you don’t perform as a driver, it doesn’t really matter what you did as a tuner.”
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