Mike Neff pulling double duty in NHRA
BAYTOWN, Texas -- Imagine if Jimmie Johnson had to take over the crew chief duties of his championship car, along with handling the driving chores.
Or his crew chief, Chad Knaus, was asked to wheel the Sprint Cup car while also continuing to call the shots before, during and after the race.
Sounds ridiculous, impossible, really, working as a crew chief for one of the best teams in racing while also sitting in the cockpit every race.
For Mike Neff, that dual assignment is part of a normal race weekend. Neff drives an NHRA Funny Car for John Force Racing and makes the calls as the crew chief.
"It's really not that bad with all the help I have," Neff said Saturday at the O'Reilly Nationals. "The hardest part is when you're tuning the car, you're always thinking about it and somewhat second-guessing what you're doing.
"So when it's time to drive, you need to focus on the driving. You can't afford to have your mind wondering or thinking about something else because you will make a mistake that can cost you."
Neff's team has joked about adding a little sign to one of the switches in his Mustang flopper that reads "Crew Chief" on the bottom and "Driver" on the top to make sure he does the right duty at the right time.
"When I get in the car, I'm just the driver," Neff said. "We've made the calls and it is what it is. It's not going to do any good to worry about it. No matter how good you set the car up, if you screw up driving it doesn't mean anything."
Doing the crew chief/driver double isn't that unusual in the NHRA. Tim Wilkerson is another Funny Car competitor who handles the dual role successfully.
But Neff is unusual in one perspective: He's the only one who does it for another team owner. The others, like Wilkerson, also own their team.
"To actually have somebody let you do this and then give you a paycheck, it's like a bonus," Neff said. "To be hired to drive it and tune it is pretty special."
Neff was the crew chief on this Castrol car last season when Force won his 15th championship. So does he get double pay now for also driving the car?
"I wish," he said.
As the team owner, Wilkerson doesn't get a paycheck for his driving and crew chief duties, a savings of well over $1 million for any competitive team. It's one way he's able to compete with the big-money multicar teams like JFR.
"In my mind, it's better this way," Wilkerson said Saturday. "But that's really the only perspective I have. I have a business at home that affords me a salary, so I don't take anything out of the race car.
"To be honest, I might find it harder to have more guys, more stuff, and more money, but I'd like to find out."
Force was willing to pay Neff whatever it took to get him to take the double assignment this season. Ashley Force Hood (John's daughter and successful Funny Car driver) is expecting her first child this summer, so she's taking this season off.
John moved to Ashley's car and he asked Neff to drive his car while retaining the crew chief role. Any doubts about whether Neff could handle both tasks ended when he won at Gainesville, Fla., in March.
"That was really big," Neff said. "It took a lot of pressure off."
He's proven himself as a crew chief and a driver, showing me he can get the job done under pressure. He doesn't cave. He's able to focus. I get a little lost in the job with trying to run these companies and these teams. Neff is able to get his priorities right.” -- John Force
In some ways, Neff finds this year easier than 2010 when he was trying to help one of the legends of the sport return to championship form.
"I'm probably more comfortable doing it this way than I was last year with John as the driver," Neff said. "You feel that pressure to do well. Everyone wants to see him do well -- the fans, the sponsors, everybody.
"But now, if something goes wrong, I don't have to go explain it to anybody. If it smokes the tires, I don't have to go explain to a driver what happened."
Neff said he also doesn't have to explain it to the team owner.
"John is not the kind of team owner walking in here asking why you didn't run better," Neff said. "He's always positive, even if things aren't going well. He's pumping you up. He tells you he has confidence in you.
"John's real supportive. It's pretty rare, believe me. It's not like that at a lot of these teams. They don't cut you any slack."
Force says he wouldn't have considered asking Neff to fill both roles if he had any doubts about Neff's ability to handle it.
"He's proven himself as a crew chief and a driver, showing me he can get the job done under pressure," Force said. "He doesn't cave. He's able to focus.
"I get a little lost in the job with trying to run these companies and these teams. Neff is able to get his priorities right."
Force didn't just throw Neff to the racing wolves, so to speak. He gave him two assistant crew chiefs in John Schaffer and Danny Hood, Ashley's husband.
"I felt I owed it to him," Force said of adding the two young minds to Neff's team. "In time, one will stay with Neff's car and one will go to my fourth team with my daughter [Courtney Force] as a backup crew chief to Ron Douglas [co-crew chief now on Force's car with Dean Antonelli]."
Neff, 44, has two championships as a crew chief, the first coming with Gary Scelzi in 2005 at Don Schumacher Racing. It was the first time since 1992 that the Funny Car championship went to a team outside of JFR.
The classy way that Neff handled that situation is when Force knew he wanted to hire him.
"It wasn't about ego or showing up anybody," Force said. "I saw a guy that really had his act together. He had the right stuff."
Neff drove for JFR in 2008 and 2009, winning the season finale at Pomona in what was his last start as a driver until this year.
JFR cut back from four cars to three in 2010 and Neff went back to his role as a crew chief.
Now he's both crew chief and driver for the first time, and the man who put him in that position made a prediction.
"It's just a matter of time for Neff," Force said. "He has the magic as a driver. A championship is out there for him."
Maybe as a driver and a crew chief at the same time.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.