What's harder – driving a Funny Car or tuning one? Most drivers couldn't tune and most tuners would never think about trying to drive, but for Mike Neff, it's not a matter of which one is harder: He does both.
Thrust back into the limelight when John Force Racing teammate Ashley Force Hood announced she was pregnant and wouldn't be driving this year, Neff is proving that, as difficult as simultaneously driving and tuning can be, it's not impossible. He has led the NHRA standings from the outset and nearly became the first Funny Car driver in 15 years to reach five finals in a row. Just two other Funny Car drivers – Tim Wilkerson and Jim Head – currently tune their own cars.
“If we don't win, whose fault is it?” Neff asks. “I'm the driver and the tuner, so you know who's to blame: me. Doing both can help you, because you know how the car's set up, so you're confident that it's going to make it down the track. But the downside is that you're flat-out all the time. There's absolutely no down time. After we warm up the car, I have to look at the computer, make whatever changes are needed, then hop on the scooter and haul ass up to the start line to look at the track, then make any last-minute changes in the lanes, then throw my stuff on and get in the car. Keeping focused is the hardest part. You can't be wondering, ‘Should I have closed that last flow? Maybe I should have…' when they're about to start the car.”
Force (near left, RIGHT)knew it was asking a lot, but…“I wasn't worried,” he says. “I knew he could do both. And who's got more things going on at the same time than me? Every morning when I get to the track, I've got 10 new issues to deal with, but you have to learn to turn that switch off when you get in the car. Mike has a cool head. He drove and tuned before – and won.”
Once. It was the 46th and last race of the first phase of Neff's driving career, the 2009 NHRA Finals. “Thank God I won that one,” says Neff, who suffered through numerous close final-round losses in 2008 and '09 – the only two years he drove before this year. “I'd already been tortured enough. But when it was over, I still didn't feel satisfied, didn't feel that I'd done that great a job. Ninth place [in the championship]? That's pretty mediocre.”
It looked as if those two seasons would comprise Neff's entire career as a driver. Corporate cutbacks led Force, like the heads of companies the world over, to downsize going into the 2010 season. Driver Robert Hight wasn't losing his ride – he was the new Funny Car champ. Force Hood, John's daughter and one of the most popular drivers in the sport, sure wasn't going to be out of a job, either. It was Neff, who felt lucky that he ever got to drive in the first place, who changed positions, moving to Force's team to take over for Austin Coil, whom both he and Force consider the greatest crew chief of all time, for the 2010 season. With Neff calling the shots last year, Force went from a winless '09 – his first such season in nearly 25 years – to victory at their first race together, the 2010 Winternationals and, ultimately, to the FC title. Everything was set – then Ashley made her announcement.
“Let's face it, nobody wanted to see Ashley quit driving,” Neff says. “I'm sure people said, ‘What? Mike Neff? Oh…great.' It doesn't hurt my feelings – she's a big draw. Then we won Gainesville, just our second time out, so maybe people thought, ‘He might not be so bad after all.'”
Then Neff evolved into the most consistent performer in nitro racing, reaching consecutive finals in Houston, Atlanta, Topeka and Englishtown, winning one and losing three. Then he won again at Norwalk in June.
“We should have won three and lost one,” he says of the streak. He dominated in Englishtown and again at Houston until a final-round foul against Jeff Arend.
“I thought, ‘We've got these guys covered; let's just get it over with,'” Neff says. “If I'd been racing someone who was running as good as we were, it probably wouldn't even have happened. Going up there trying to not red-light takes you out of your rhythm, I lost concentration for just a second, and it cost me. It was devastating; it really derailed me. I'd have flashbacks. I kept trying to get over it, but everybody kept telling me, ‘Just put that red-light out of your mind.' And I'm like, ‘Well, quit asking me about it and I will.'”
Now he has, and he's one of the favorites to win the title, along with teammate Hight. And Neff's still learning.
“The only experience I have is '08 and '09,” he says. “For most of these guys, driving's all they've done. I never raced in a slower car, never raced locally, never learned these lessons while nobody was looking. It gets a little easier the more you do it, and it's always a thrill. I could never explain what the acceleration is like.
“But I still like tuning better. Coming up with something that gives you an advantage is much more rewarding than just driving. And you can still be a crew chief at 60. Sponsors don't want a 60-year-old driver unless it's John Force, and they're not making any more of him. Force always calls me ‘Kid,' like I'm in my 20s, but I'm not: I'm 44, middle-aged, and it's great to get a second chance.”
Neff never considered driving until the day four summers ago when Force called him about replacing the late Eric Medlen. “I guess I always wanted to drive, but it's not something I thought much about,” he says. “I'd never driven anything, so why would anybody want me?”
Most people wouldn't, of course, but John Force isn't most people. “The driver gets all the glory and attention,” Neff says. “But the driver is the one who has to deal with all that pressure. It's way more intense. Any little blip is magnified. You're the one who's going to look like a horse's ass if you do anything wrong. I didn't have to be the greatest driver of all time, but I did want people to think, ‘Yeah, he can drive.'”
Clearly, he can. But for how long? “I don't know,” Neff says. “I knew from day one I wouldn't drive for long. This year is probably going to be it. I won't know what I'll be doing next year until January – just like this year. Maybe Ashley will come back. Maybe [Ashley's sister] Courtney will be in this car. Maybe Force will put something together and there'll be four cars again. I don't know.”
Neither does Force. “If you ask me, Ashley will want to come back,” he says. “Who wouldn't? She says she does. But her mother says, ‘You just wait till she has that baby. You'll see.' So I don't know. I've never had a baby – that's one thing I've never done. We'll just have to wait and see.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the August 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.