While Brittany Force vies for rookie honors in Top Fuel (see separate story), her father, John; brother-in-law Robert Hight; and younger sister Courtney will compete for the first Mello Yello Funny Car championship in hybrid Mustangs sponsored by Castrol GTX, the Auto Club of Southern California, and Traxxas, respectively.
John, a 134-time tour winner believes reducing his Funny Car inventory from four to three – Mike Neff, a two-time championship-winning crew chief will return solely to tuning – will make his team better overall.
“With four cars, you're always running into each other,” said the 134-time tour winner. “I think we'll be better with three cars. Courtney and Neff ran great last year, and we've worked really hard to make sure we have three Fords that can run for the Mello Yello championship this year.”
The move reunites John Force and Neff (ABOVE), who will be back calling the shots on his Castrol GTX Mustang, just as he did when John won his last championship in 2010. Neff, who never has made a secret of the fact that he prefers the challenges that fall to the crew chief rather than the driver, emphasized Thursday that the decision was his and his alone.
“It was just such a long weekend [doing both jobs],” he said. “Not only were you focusing on tuning, but you had to do the driving part and the media and you had to run here and there for sponsor appearances. There was no downtime. After a while, it got to be too much. It just wore me down. You could never seem to take five and focus. I just got pulled in a lot of different directions.
“Force was really good about it,” Neff said. “When I first brought it up [in the middle of last season], he wanted me to really think about it. He didn't want me to make any quick decisions. He basically said I could drive as long as I wanted to. He left it up to me, [and] I just felt that it was time.
“I never planned on driving for very long,” said the man who won the first of his crew chief championships with driver Gary Scelzi in 2005. “The first couple of years I drove [2008 and 2009], I felt unsatisfied. I didn't win like I wanted to, and I just didn't feel like it was a success.
“Getting the opportunity to drive again [after Force Hood stepped out of the cockpit to start a family] was totally different,” acknowledged the former off-road truck mechanic. “I'm proud of what we accomplished. We won Indy twice [2011 and 2012] and led the points for most of the season. It was just a great experience.”
Neff led the points after 15 of 23 races in 2011, claiming the regular-season championship before stumbling in the playoffs and finishing fifth. In 2012, he again led the points, won the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis for the second straight year, and finished third as the highest ranked of the Ford drivers.
Neff is anxious to focus on getting John back into the hunt for the championship, and he believes that the team that already is in place, the one he has directed since 2008, is capable of delivering another title to the sport's all-time winner.
“I attribute our success over the last few years to this team of guys working on the car,” Neff said. “Everyone says they have the best team, blah, blah, blah, but, seriously, this team is as good as they get. They are world champions. They have proved it, and they make my life a lot easier.
“That's the thing. It's a team effort. John Shaffer does a great job as the leader of my team. I get a lot of the credit for tuning, but really, what these guys do is more important [to our overall success].
“In a nutshell, I'm just very thankful to [have had] the opportunity to drive. Thanks to John, along with Castrol and Ford Racing. That is something I will remember forever. It is something very few people get to do. To tune it and drive it and be able to win, I couldn't ask for anything else.
“Now, I'm looking forward to racing with John Force again. He is the most exciting guy out there. I enjoy being around him. He's a fun guy to be around. He is funny and intense. He is a legend, and to be a part of that and be the guy running his car is an honor. There are only a couple people that will ever be able to say they tuned John Force's Funny Car.
“You have high expectations [in that position],” Neff acknowledged. “You look at what Austin Coil did for him [in a 25-year collaboration]; all their success. John Force is a winner. He has 15 championships. He deserves to go out on top. I am hoping we can give him a good car and get him back into contention and win some races.”