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Neff Tunes, Drives His Way To Top In NHRA

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 21 2011

Mike Neff likes working in a helmet, but he also likes working with a wrench in his hand. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Topeka, Kan. – The economic times were frightening a couple years back. Nobody went unaffected and virtually nobody’s lives were stable. In auto racing, sponsorship money was flowing out of the sport like tides out of the Bay of Fundy.

And there, standing in the middle of it, was NHRA driver Mike Neff. And he was smiling. Smiling like crazy even though he lost his funding and seat in a John Force Racing Funny Car.

Because of the horrible economy, Neff would be moving from his second favorite job in racing to his most favorite. Neff was heading back to the pits – as a crew chief at JFR.

“I would rather tune than drive any time,” Neff says. “I like tuning more than anything.”

But that doesn’t mean Neff was angry about being put back in a JFR Funny Car this year. Because this year, he is doing his No. 1 favorite job and No. 2 at the same time both. Mike Neff is a tuner/driver in the NHRA once again.

And the points-leading tuner/driver at that. Imagine his smile now.

Like all kids, Neff started his racing life wanting to be a driver. Kids lover glamour.

But, “It wasn’t realistic,” he said. “It was like wanting to go to the moon. It was pretty much not going to happen.”

So he picked up the wrenches. Well, oil rags, first.

“I started on the very bottom level,” the 44-year-old Neff said. “I started by cleaning the

Mike Neff's crew helps stage its driver/crew chief. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Tami Pope)

oil pan and working my way up.”

Up led to the NHRA where he’s tuned cars for the teams of Larry Minor, Joe Gibbs and Don Schumacher.

Loved it, he said. Loved watching the machines he had built with his own hands blow down the track at 300 mph.

“It’s a performance sport,” Neff said. “There’s that thrill of always trying to make things better and quicker. The technology is intriguing to me.

“And there’s no satisfaction like standing on that starting line after you’ve tuned one of these things and put new parts on and it’s just really exciting. And you lose that thrill as a driver. You don’t see the scoreboard light up, you’re by yourself and you don’t get that instant joy with everybody on the starting line when you win a race.”

In 2008, Neff was approached about driving a Force car and tuning it at the same time.

Bernie Fedderly, long time crew chief for Force cars, remembers how it went down.

“It was kind of funny,” Fedderly said, “because at the time, his enthusiasm for driver, well, he was just OK with it.”

Neff just shrugs and says, “It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I was grateful for the opportunity and I took it.”

Neff was rookie of the year in 2008 and in 2009, he won his first event.

But in 2010, he lost his ride when his sponsorship for his car was lost. Neff was moved over to tune for Force. Together, they won the 2010 Funny Car championship. It was No. 15 for Force. For Neff, it was heaven.

But over the offseason, Ashley Force Hood announced she would leave her seat in order to start a family.

And Neff was put back into service as a driver.

Neff did not take Force Hood’s seat, however. He took Force’s and Force moved over to his daughter’s car.

“John wanted to keep Ashley’s seat open for her,” Fedderly said. “The hope is, she will be back.”

If/when she does come back, it might be a little bit tougher for Force to get Neff out of the cockpit of his car.

“I think this time around,” Fedderly said, “he’s enjoying it more.”

Neff is certainly doing better as a driver this time around. He won the Gatornationals in his second race. Two events ago, he made it to the finals in Baytown and moved to the points lead.

Last weekend in Atlanta, he again made it to the finals before losing to Jack Beckman.

This weekend, he’s at Heartland Park in Topeka for the Summer Nationals, still in P1 in the points.

“I’m not surprised were doing well,” Neff said. “I’m didn’t think we’d be points leader but I expected us to be contenders just because of the way the cars have been running the last year, year and a half.”

He’s also not surprised that a tuner/driver is doing well.

“I have a total understanding of how the car works and that’s a big thing for the driver,” Neff said. “It makes me a lot more comfortable in the car. I could not imagine climbing in that thing and not knowing anything about it.

“As far as tuning it, it helps to drive it and get a feel and kind of relate. It’s kind of like the last piece of the puzzle. It gives you the full understanding of it.”

Neff’s teammate, Robert Hight, who won the 2009 Funny Car championship, also got his start as a wrencher. Like 16 years ago.

Fedderly was asked if he would advise young people wanting to become NHRA drivers to first start by working on the cars.

“I think I would,” Fedderly said. “I see both sides complimenting the other.”

Sure seems to be working for Neff.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 21 2011
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