Think of Mike Neff as the Clint Eastwood of high performance. Like the iconic Eastwood, Neff is daring, determined and diverse, characteristics that have transformed him from off-road truck mechanic to one of the hottest properties in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
Whereas Eastwood’s versatility is evident in his success as producer, director and actor in motion pictures such as “The Unforgiven,” “Gran Torino” and “Million Dollar Baby”, the 44-year-old Neff’s showcase is the flat, narrow ribbon of concrete and asphalt on which he has excelled as both driver and drag racing crew chief.
This year, he is applying his wide-ranging talents to a new and very special challenge.
After winning the 2010 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship as crew chief on the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang driven by his boss, John Force, Neff this year is driving and tuning the 8,000 horsepower Ford in which Force won a category-best six races last year.
His goal? To become the first in the modern era to win the Funny Car championship as both driver and crew chief. The last to do so was the late Shirl Greer in 1974 although his title was earned through points earned in a mix of both NHRA national and regional races. It wasn’t until 1984 that the current format was adopted.
“It’s good to have a chance to drive again,” Neff said. “I think everything just started coming together there (in 2009) and then we had to park the car.”
After winning for the first time as a driver in the final event of the 2009 season, Neff hung up his helmet and returned to the computer monitor last year after being assigned the task of returning Force to the dominance he enjoyed prior to his 2007 crash in Dallas, Texas.
He responded by sending his Hall of Fame boss to 11 final rounds and, ultimately, to his 15th individual championship.
Those results exceeded the expectations of everyone at John Force Racing,Inc., and now, with Force moving over to the Castrol GTX Mustang to work with crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Ron Douglas, Neff will wear both a hat and a helmet in his bid to secure the team’s 18th championship in the last 22 seasons.
Ironically, Neff first came to prominence as a professional crew chief in 2005 while working for the rival team of Don Schumacher. That 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 also is the seventh to win Funny Car races as both driver and crew chief – joining Leonard Hughes, Ed “the Ace” 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.
A native of Hemet, Calif., he grew up racing dirt bikes and off-road trucks. He got his first motorcycle at age four and began riding competitively in motocross at 13. 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 the 1994 season. When Joe Gibbs bought the McDonald’s team from Minor in 1995, Neff moved over to the Top Fuel dragster then driven by Cory McClenathan. As a Cory Mac crew member, he celebrated 22 victories over six years and a 1997 sweep of the Western Swing.
When Gibbs opted out of the sport in 2001, Neff moved to DSR as assistant crew chief on a Funny Car driven by Whit Bazemore. He got his own car a year later, serving as crew chief to six-time former IHRA Pro Comp champion Scotty Cannon, who ultimately gave up the seat to Scelzi. In four-and-a-half years, he and Scelzi went to 18 final rounds together and won 11 times
Although he played baseball and football and wrestled while a high school student, 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.
“We’d race against Riverside, Corona, Norco. There were probably six or seven different schools (and) our team did good. 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.”
While Neff now lives in Fishers, Ind., near the JFR Midwest shop facility in Brownsburg, 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 thus far has made a bigger 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 engine.
Fittingly, at the 2009 Auto Club Finals, he became the first driver in more than 40 years to win an NHRA tour event in a pure Ford Funny Car (Ford engine, Ford chassis, Ford body). The last to do so was Danny Ongais, who won the 1969 U.S. Nationals in a Ford Mustang Funny Car that utilized the SOHC Ford 427 for power.
“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.”
Obviously, he was wrong. Force offered him a chance to drive as part of the Next Generation initiative that produced drivers Eric Medlen, Robert “Top Gun” Hight and Ashley Force Hood and the rest, pardon the cliche, is history.