Mike Neff has the enviable ability to keep his cool in a sport where chaos reigns. The two-time Funny Car championship crew chief works with the unflappable concentration of a chess master while the building sometimes appears to be on fire around him.
Neff was paired with Hight midway through the 2013 season as John Force Racing team owner John Force decided to make a preemptive move and realign his crew chiefs breaking up the long-standing Hight and Jimmy Prock partnership and swapping his championship crew chiefs. The move worked out well for both parties as Hight/Neff won the U.S. Nationals and the opening race of the Countdown while Force/Prock went on to win the Mello Yello Funny Car championship.
This season with a full off-season and pre-season to work together the Hight/Neff combination looks to be one of the most potent driver crew chief combinations in the modern era.
Whereas Eastwood’s versatility manifested itself in his success as producer, director and actor in motion pictures, Neff’s showcase is the flat, straight concrete-and-asphalt drag racing “launch pad” on which he has excelled as both a crew chief and a driver.
After winning two NHRA Funny Car championships from his computer console, the first with Gary Scelzi in 2005 and the second with motorsports icon John Force in 2010, the quiet over-achiever got a second chance at the wheel of JFR Ford Mustang when Ashley Force Hood opted to climb out of the cockpit in 2011 to start a family.
He responded by coming agonizingly close to re-writing straight-line racing history at the controls of the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang.
“We had a great season,” Neff said of his 2011 success. “It was disappointing not to win the championship after leading (the points for most of the year), but there are a lot of great cars and drivers out there. We had our chances and I’m excited about getting a chance to do it again.”
That said Neff has no illusions. He knows that no matter how much success he enjoys as a driver, his racing future lies in his skills as a crew chief. As it turns out, it’s the job he prefers, anyway.
After winning for the first time as a driver at the final event of the 2009 season, in the process becoming the first to win with the BOSS 500 Ford engine he helped develop at JFR, Neff hung up his helmet and accepted the task of returning Force to the dominance he enjoyed prior to his 2007 crash in Dallas, Texas.
He responded in 2010 by sending his Hall of Fame boss to 11 final rounds and, ultimately, his 15th individual championship.
Ironically, Neff first came to prominence as a professional crew chief in 2005 while working for JFR’s principal rival in the Funny Car division, Don Schumacher Racing. That was the year he guided Gary Scelzi to a championship that ended 12 years of Funny Car dominance for Team Force. Two years later, he was enticed to JFR with the promise of a chance to drive.
Paired with crew chief John Medlen, he responded by earning the Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie of the Year in 2008. One season later, he became the seventh different Funny Car driver to win in a JFR Ford Mustang.
Although he is one of seven to win Funny Car races as both driver and crew chief – joining Leonard Hughes, Ed McCulloch, Mark Oswald, Leroy Goldstein, Jim Dunn and Dale Emery, he was the first to do so in reverse order, prevailing FIRST as a crew chief, then as a driver.
Significantly, he grew up with the sons of 1983 world championship team owner Larry Minor, with whom he raced in the off-road series.
That relationship would prove pivotal to his career because, when Minor decided to run a limited Top Fuel schedule in 1991, he hired Neff as a crew member.
After securing national sponsorship from McDonald’s, Minor offered Neff the opportunity to go racing as a full-time mechanic on the Funny Car in which Cruz Pedregon ultimately beat Force for the 1992 NHRA championship.
He worked on that car through 1994 when Joe Gibbs bought the team and assigned him to the Top Fuel dragster of Cory McClenathan who, in six seasons, won 22 races and swept the 1997 Western Swing.
When Gibbs opted out in 2001, Neff moved to DSR as assistant crew chief to Whit Bazemore. A year later, he got his own car, serving first as crew chief to Scotty Cannon; then to Scelzi. Together, he and Scelzi went to 18 final rounds with 11 wins.
Although he played baseball and football and wrestled in high school, Neff’s passion was riding motorcycles and, later, working on off-road vehicles. It was while working on off-road trucks at night at Minor’s shop that he learned to weld and fabricate, skills that would serve him well as a mechanic and, later, crew chief.
“I was always the outdoors type – camping, water skiing, all that stuff,” he said of his childhood. “I was always competitive. The cool thing for me, growing up, was we had a high school motocross team and we competed every Friday night against other schools (at a track) in Corona.
“There were probably six or seven different schools (and) I think we won the championship about every year. I raced two classes and my twin brother (Mark) raced two. That was four motos a night.”
Neff is sharing his driving and tuning success with his family every chance he gets. His son, Chase, and daughter, Chloe, are on hand at as many races as their school schedules will allow. They were both on hand for Neff’s win at the Mac Tools US Nationals and Neff was thrilled to share the moment with them.
“I had never won the US Nationals as a tuner or a driver so just getting that win was huge but to have my kids there made it that much more special,” said the active father. “I don’t get to see them as much as I would like, but memories like that when you are standing in the winner’s circle of the biggest race of the year with your kids are awesome.”
While Neff now lives in Fishers, Ind., his brother still lives in Hemet where he owns a construction business and manages a prison ministry.
“He goes to the Chino prison and tries to help those guys out, tries to find them jobs and teach ‘em a trade,” Neff said. “He’s a really good dude.”
Although he came to JFR to drive, Neff made an immediate impact mechanically, helping to create simplified procedures and improved components. Working with Medlen, he helped develop the JFR in-house chassis as well as the Ford BOSS 500.
“I always wanted to drive,” Neff said of his various career turns, “but it never seemed like an option. It wasn’t something you’re going to go around talking about or asking about because it just didn’t look like anything like that would be possible.”
For more information about the Auto Club of Southern California, visit: www.aaa-calif.com