LAS VEGAS, Nevada – With apologies to the race winner in Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, “slow and steady” is a strategy that, when applied to professional drag racing, assures little more than total and complete failure.
Slow isn’t relative to any of the work done before, during or after a typical 1,000 foot sprint, one in which high tech Funny Cars reach speeds of near 320 miles per hour. “Fast and steady” is the goal and this year no one has done that better than Mike Neff.
That’s why, even though he has not yet won a race, the driver and crew chief on the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang will roll onto The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for this week’s 13th SummitRacing.com Nationals as the Full Throttle points leader.
Neff, who won two NHRA championships as a Funny Car crew chief – the first with Gary Scelzi in 2005 and the other with John Force in 2010, came ever so close to winning again last year, claiming the regular season championship before fading in the Countdown to 1 playoffs and finishing fourth overall.
The former surfer, motocross-er and off-road truck mechanic has learned from that experience and is back this year trying to become the first to win an NHRA Funny Car title as driver and crew chief in the same car since the late Shirl Greer did with his Ford Mustang II back in 1974.
Runner-up at the season’s first two races and a semifinalist three weeks ago in the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., Neff’s Ford will be the car to beat again this week even though the native Californian has won only one racing round in seven previous driving appearances at LVMS.
Why all the fuss? Well, consider this. In 11 competitive rounds this season, Neff’s average for the 1,000 foot distance has been 4.109 seconds. The significance is that teammate Robert Hight, winner of the last two events in the series and the man closest to Neff in points, has averaged 4.445 seconds on nine competitive laps.
Quite simply, Neff’s hybrid hot rod has gone down the racetrack – and done so very, very quickly – on each and every competitive run it has made. His slowest thousand-footer was 4.264 in the second round at Phoenix; his quickest 4.039 in losing the final round to Force, his boss and teammate, at the season-opening O’Reilly Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Still, it frustrates him that he hasn’t yet been able to close the deal this season, especially since he feels like he’s squandered three really good opportunities to put himself and his race car in the field for the inaugural Traxxas Nitro Shootout to be contested Sept. 2 in conjunction with the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Ind.
“We’re happy with the consistency,” said the 45-year-old Neff. “That always makes you feel good, but I am a little frustrated with letting three chances slip away. The Traxxas Shootout is definitely something we want to be part of with this team and this Castrol GTX Mustang.
“We want to win every race and we work hard at it,” continued the 2008 winner of the Auto Club’s Road to the Future award that identifies the NHRA’s top rookie, “but, on the positive side, we’ve had two races with John Force Racing Mustangs in the finals and it should have been three, so we’re definitely satisfied with that. We’ll just keep on keepin’ on.”
And the competition will have to keep on wondering how it’s done.
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