Mike Neff Won’t Slow Down – Can’t Slow Down
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Mike Neff’s return to the cockpit of an NHRA Funny Car in 2011 promises to keep his mind working 24/7.
Neff – who helped tune team-owner John Force to his record 15th Funny Car world championship last season – has replaced mother-to-be Ashley Force Hood as driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. In addition to wheeling one of drag racing’s prime rides, Neff also will call the shots as crew chief.
And when time permits, Neff will do laundry.
“It just never ends. It’s always something,” said Neff, who reintroduced himself to the driving side of the equation with an overall-best 4.034-second pass at 312.06 mph during the inaugural PRO Winter Warm-Up last weekend at Palm Beach (Fla.) International Raceway. “As a crew chief you have your down time when you can make decisions and you have a little time to kill. Same as a driver; when you’re a driver you have a lot of time to kill.
“Now doing both, it just seems like you never get that 10 minutes here or there to take it easy or just unwind. It seems like it’s always something. You’re always on the run, but it’s exciting. I’m thrilled to be able to drive it. I think we’ll be able to do OK at it based on all of the help. I still have Bernie Fedderly to help. All I have to do is tell them what I want and they can go out there and execute everything. That’s the key here to make it not too difficult.”
Neff last ran the entire Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule in 2009, posting his first career victory in the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif. Lack of a fulltime sponsor prompted Force to shut down Neff’s Ford Drive One Mustang team prior to the start of the 2010 season. Neff exited with a career-best elapsed time of 4.037-seconds and speed of 309.06 mph for the 1,000-foot distance, both set in 2009 at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Ariz.
Neff joined longtime co-crew chiefs Austin Coil and Fedderly on Force’s tuning braintrust, a move which played a significant role in the owner/driver’s latest championship.
“We had a great year,” said Neff, alluding to Force’s six victories and last-race overhaul of Matt Hagan of Don Schumacher Racing. “I’m fortunate everything worked out our way. John drove great and it was a lot of fun getting him back on-track and being able to win. So far it looks like we got the car running just like we finished off last year. That makes your life a lot easier when you’re not starting off chasing a bunch of problems.”
The 51st annual Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals officially will kick off NHRA’s 60th Anniversary season from Feb. 24-27 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Neff, 44, will be waving the company flag big-time for John Force Racing, running an in-house chassis and Ford Boss 500 engine.
“Absolutely, our whole race car is either John Force Racing or Ford (built/engineered),“ said Neff, who at one point clicked off successive test laps of 4.062, 4.070, 4.075, 4.348 (smoked tires) and 4.064- seconds. “This is our very first chassis that we’ve built in our shop ourselves. The one that I’m driving is the one that John drove last year all year. It’s the one that I actually first drove the year prior just for a couple of races. It’s our chassis, our engine, our blowers, it’s everything.
“With the help of Ford and everything that they’ve done for us, with all of their engineering, this whole car is either JFR or Ford. There’s really nothing else in it that’s not ours. We’ve built the clutch, we’ve done just about everything on this car.”
In addition to Force’s title-winning flopper, Neff was gifted with the championship-winning crew. Force will begin defense of his title in the Mustang driven to a third-place point finish by Force Hood in 2010.
“They were actually my crew when I drove, so we’ve worked together before,” Neff said of his new/old pit team. “I know them, they know the drill and how we do things. That’s the other key thing to help make this work is the fact that this is like a well-oiled machine. Everyone knows what to do. They’re super helpful. They make my life a lot easier so that’s a big part of the reason why we’re able to get off to a good start.
“It’s hard to explain. There’s nothing like that feeling when the thing makes full runs over 300 mph. It’s definitely just an awesome experience.”
JFR’s lineup of Force, Neff and Robert Hight, the 2009 Funny Car world champion, recorded 13 passes of less than 4.10-seconds with another seven passes quicker than 4.15-seconds. The Dean Antonelli-and-Ron Douglas-tuned Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang broke in a few new crew members as well as Force, who rattled off runs of 4.092, 4.037, 4.073 and 4.102-seconds on his last four attempts.
Crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and Eric Lane had Hight’s Auto Club Mustang dialed-in on the first day via a 4.063-second pass, the first 4.0 run of the weekend. Hight added an impressive 4.075-second pass when track temperatures exceeded 100 degrees on Monday. Hight’s team also conducted tire tests for Goodyear during the session.
Meanwhile, Courtney Force took another step forward in her evolution from Top Alcohol Dragster to Funny Car driver. On Monday and Tuesday, she logged a total of eight starting line launches. John Force said the goal is to ensure that Courtney, 22, develops at a comfortable pace in her BrandSource Mustang.
Veteran Nitro driver Del Worsham completed his transition from Funny Car by earning his Top Fuel license during the test at PBIR, ensuring he will join three-time/reigning world champion Larry
Dixon in a second Al-Anabi Racing dragster.
NHRA requires a driver to make one pass to half-track and two full passes in order to secure a license. Worsham’s ET’s of 3.820 and 3.786-seconds, respectively, satisfied the sanctioning body’s requirements. Worsham competed in 22 races as a Top Fuel driver between 1993 and 1995.
“It was unreal. Top Fuel cars have changed a lot since I last drove them,” said Worsham , who finished sixth in Funny Car points last year for Al-Anabi. “It accelerates very hard. The sensation of speed is so great in a Top Fuel car, and I didn’t remember that. You can just really feel the power and how fast you’re going. Dragsters are faster than Funny Cars by nature, but sitting so low, you can see things going by which gives you a reference of how fast you’re actually going. Funny Cars don’t give you that at all. It’s something new, and it’s fun going fast and driving something different.”
Stand 21 Racewear marked the official beginning of its relationship with Al-Anabi Racing during the test. Stand 21 is providing firesuits, helmets, shoes, gloves and undergarments for Dixon and Worsham. The equipment has been designed specifically for use in Top Fuel cars.
“Everything was custom-made for me, so the firesuit fits like a custom-tailored suit,” Dixon said. “But it’s better than a custom-fitted suit because you can catch on fire and still be OK.”
Dixon noted his and Worsham’s helmets are approved by the FIA – Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body for world motorsport and the federation of the world’s leading motoring organizations. “It goes above and beyond the standard NHRA helmet, and I feel it’s the best helmet on the market,” Dixon said. “That’s why we’re wearing it.”
Stand 21 officials first met with Dixon and Worsham more than three years ago, but their work got more serious last summer when company executives attended the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals in Morrison, Colo. Stand 21 personnel attend more than 300 racing events every year in over 25 countries to personally assist its customers, which include the Porsche Motorsport Factory and Corvette Racing.
“This isn’t something that Stand 21 just put together,” Dixon said. “Del and I first met with them in 2008 before the Al-Anabi team had even formed. Our sport has the chance of seeing many more opportunities for fire than any other motorsport, and when we have fires, they’re good ones. As race teams and drivers, it’s our responsibility to ensure we’re as safe as possible, and I don’t know why every other driver wouldn’t want to do the same.”
Additionally, Al-Anabi team manager Alan Johnson announced that Red Line Oil will provide a full platform of synthetic products for Dixon’s and Worsham’s dragsters this season.
Kenny Koretsky’s late-season sponsorship of NHRA rookie Pro Stock Motorcycle rider LE Tonglet has been recognized by the management of Maple Grove Raceway. Officials of the facility located near Reading, Pa., have chosen Koretsky _ nicknamed “Captain Chaos” _ as its Pro Driver of the Year.
The backing of Koretsky’s Nitro Fish apparel line allowed Tonglet and his one-bike, family-operated Suzuki to overtake the factory-backed Harley-Davidson V-Rod of three-time PSM world champion Andrew Hines for the 2010 world championship. Tonglet, 20, finished the season with five wins.
Additionally, Greg Stanfield’s second-place finish in Koretsky’s Pontiac GXP made 2010 his best year in Pro Stock. Koretsky also helped fund former Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon and Top Fueler Clay Millican. Koretsky was presented the award by Lex Dudas, vice president and general manager of Maple Grove Raceway.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.comOne Comment