Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Driver or Crew Chief, Mike Neff Knows Speed

Mike Neff has been in racing since the early 90s. He won a NHRA title with Gary Scelzi before joining John Force racing in 2007 to be a fourth driver. He became the seventh person in history to win a race as a driver and a crew chief. He was the first to actually win as a crew chief first and then a driver. He’s currently the crew chief for Robert Hight.

During the Carolina Nationals he sat down with Frontstretch’s Mike Neff to talk about the more technical side of drag racing, what you can and cannot tweak on a Funny Car and how you become a race car driver in the NHRA. Neff oversees an extremely efficient crew of mechanics who swarm over a race car like ants on a watermelon at a picnic. The choreographed chaos allows them to completely tear down a 10,000 horsepower engine and have the car ready to run down the track in 75 minutes.

Mike Neff: To start with, what has it been like being back to crew chiefing instead of driving the car?

Mike Neff: I was the crew chief when I was driving so it has just freed me up a little bit from not having to do the driving and everything that goes along with that. I like it, it is nice, it is a lot of work out here and it definitely takes its toll doing both. It is hard to keep doing both well at the same time. I like tuning them up. It is the biggest challenge of all of this.

Neff: We see all of the computers and sensors and everything that is involved in this kind of racing now. You can usually tell within a couple of hundredths what you’re going to run when you head out barring a failure. Is there any feel left that the crew chief can tweak based on knowledge or gut or is it all based on numbers anymore?

Neff: It is mainly numbers. We’re pretty much recording everything that really means something. But, when it comes down to racing it is still that gut instinct of what you need to do. Conditions change from run to run. It is easy to look at the run after the fact to see what you did and what you should have done. There isn’t anything to tell you what to do for the next run, you still use your gut instinct. You’re taking your best educated guess at what you think it will be or what you need to do. That is what is exciting is seeing the outcome?

Neff: Are the bodies on these cars predominantly carbon fiber?

Neff: Yes, carbon fiber and kevlar.

Neff: We’re dealing with 10,000 horsepower in a 2,575 pound vehicle with the driver. With that kind of power-to-weight ratio do you have to worry about center of gravity on these things?

Neff: Sure, there is a balance of where the weight is at. It all factors in. You look at that 10,000 horsepower, big motor and that big piece of equipment and what is shocking is what fine tuned changes you make that will have such a huge impact. Three grams of weight on the clutch can be the difference between smoking the tires and hooking it up. That is how fine tuned it really is. One degree of timing can be enough to tip it over the edge. When you get down to it they are very sensitive to any type of change you input.

Neff: That is very interesting because it seems like it is just brute force muscle.

Neff: It does but, when you have them right on the edge of running as well as they can for track conditions, especially when the track gets hot, it is an extremely fine line between smoking the tires and getting it down the track with a good run.

Neff: They do so much track prep before the Nitro cars go out. Is there part of you that would like to see them just go out and run what you brung or do you have to have that prep to be able to harness these machines?

Neff: You have to have that track prep. The track will get dried out during the day and they have to spray it in order to get traction, otherwise it gets more difficult. The less amount of traction the more difficult it becomes, the more traction and the cooler the track temp the better chance you have of making it down the track. It is important that NHRA is consistent to give you a consistent routine with their track prep so you know what to expect. That gets us in trouble sometimes when the NHRA doesn’t do the same thing or stick to the routine. You go up there expecting it to be one way and they didn’t do it that way. It happens but you’d like to see them be consistent.

Neff: NASCAR is in a pretty tight box as far as innovation goes. Not sure of what the technical inspection side of things is in NHRA. How much creativity are you allowed when it comes to putting one of these cars on the track?

Neff: It’s getting tighter, it is pretty much the same thing. You can’t change the blowers. The cylinder head has been capped there isn’t anything you can do there. Injectors are off limits too. It is getting narrowed up. There isn’t a whole lot more powerwise you can do. These things make plenty of power, we can adjust that from run to run with compression and blower speed. They are trying to get a grip on it to control costs.

Neff: When it comes down to it, is the clutch and the tuning of the clutch about the most important thing on a race weekend?

Mike Neff overseas the machine that makes Robert Hight's machine go fast. Credit: Mike Neff
Credit: Mike Neff

Neff: Yeah, that is a big part of it. The clutch and the engine, those are the two key things. The engine is a little easier to keep consistent tune-up wise, with everything we have. The clutch is the bigger variable. How much it will wear, you’re changing it every run with new disks and floaters, something being a little different there you have a lot more of a chance of it being a little more inconsistent than the tune-up of the engine. Those two things work together. It is a centrifugal clutch and the engine makes the clutch. There is a fine balance and once you get it then it is just a matter of keeping everything consistent and getting it to repeat run after run.

Neff: On the clutch side of things it is all about the disks meshing up and transferring the power. Are you allowed to doctor the disks to make the surfaces connect more consistently or slide more as needed?

Neff: Yeah, we cut them and grind them to make sure they are all flat going in. You can change that, cut them a little rougher or make them a little smoother. That is something we’re allowed to do.

Neff: How did you get into this whole racing thing?

Neff: I grew up in Southern California. My friend’s dad was Larry Minor. He used to drive himself. Ed McCullough drove for him. Gary Beck and Shirley Muldowney drove for him. They needed some help in the early 90s and asked if I’d be interested. I went to school with his son. The asked so I did. I was a guy in my early 20s, I didn’t have anything else going so I hit the road and here I am.

Neff: What part of schooling that you went through do you think is most important in being a successful crew chief?

Neff: For me it has just been on the job training. I graduated from high school and tried to go to college but I had to get out of there. I was wasting daylight. I needed to get out and make some money because there was too much I wanted to do. I was always into racing. I raced motocross and off-road trucks. Getting the job here I started off doing the bottom end. Cleaning the oil pan and building short blocks and I worked my way up. It was all hands on training. There was no schooling or anything like that to prepare me for this job.

Neff: When you got the wild hair to get behind the wheel instead of turning wrenches, did you go to a drag racing school or did you just go make some passes and have NHRA come out and approve you?

Neff: I went to Frank Holley’s alcohol school and made some runs. I actually got my alcohol license there prior to these, knowing I was going to run the funny car. It costs a lot of money to run these cars. It is probably $10,000 to make a pass and that is without hurting anything. It is hard to get the opportunity. Plus you have to rent the track and all of that. There is a pretty big cost in running one of these cars. Getting the opportunity is pretty rare to get into one of these. If you’ve got the money you can do it.

Neff: Looking out over this Force complex that you roll into a race track. On a given weekend, how much management is in your hands to get the AAA team together and focused in the right direction with all of the equipment and parts? Is that something you have other people to take care of or are you the manager of this team when it comes down to it?

Neff: These guys have been with me for years. We’re a well oiled machine. Everyone knows their duties and the schedule and what needs to be done. It kind of runs itself anymore at this point. There isn’t a whole lot I have to do on that front. If there is a decision that has to be made I do that. Everybody knows what they need from a part perspective so they take care to make sure they’re well stocked. All of these guys make it all happen.

Neff: When the checkered flag flies on the season at Pomona, what do you do with that free time?

Neff: I take a break. We take some time off and rest a little bit. We live in Indianapolis and by that time the weather is starting to get bad. We go out California for a week or so around the holidays. We spend some time with the family and try to recoup so we can get ready to go again.

Neff: If you couldn’t do any racing at all, what would you do with yourself?

Neff: Without any racing involved that is hard to say. I’d be a professional golfer (laughs). I love golf. It depends, if I had enough money I’d just be on vacation golfing, riding motorcycles and goofing off.

Neff: What is it like working for John Force?

Neff: Never a dull moment, that is for sure. You never quite know what to expect. He keeps everyone on their toes around here.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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