Sourced from www.nhra.com
Force confirms crew chief Neff as driver of his team's fourth Mustang
A reluctant John Force confirmed Saturday what Internet message boards have been reporting for days and that is that Mike “Zippy” Neff, crew chief to 2005 NHRA Funny Car Champion Gary Scelzi, will drive a fourth John Force Racing Ford Mustang next season in pursuit of the 2008 POWERade Funny Car championship.
“We didn't plan to say anything because (Neff) and Scelzi are still racing for a title (this year), just like us,” Force said, “But Don Schumacher (who owns the Neff-tuned Oakley Dodge) kind of announced it to the world.
"Our game plan was to wait until after the season (to make an announcement) so there wouldn't be any distractions because he has a job to do for Scelzi and Schumacher, just like I have a job to do for my team and my sponsors. Bottom line, Mike Neff will drive my fourth car next year and John Medlen will be the crew chief.”
Force then briefly outlined the chronology of the negotiations that landed Neff a ride in one of the most powerful race cars on the planet.
“After Eric's accident (a testing crash last March that claimed the life of driver Eric Medlen), Mike Neff told me that if we were going to keep developing Next Generation drivers like Eric and Robert (Hight), that he might be interested,” Force said. “The next time we talked was Memorial Day weekend when he told me he had discussed with Schumacher the opportunity to drive for us in one of our Fords. I immediately called Schumacher and Scelzi to let them know that I was interested in him as a driver.
“Finally, at Seattle, he came by to ask if the job was still available. I told him it was and we shook hands on a deal for 2008. Some of the rumors out there act like we stalked him, but we tried to be up front about everything from the very start.”
Although Neff was not one of the names most prominently mentioned in speculation about a driver for the fourth JFR Mustang, his background is similar to that of both Hight and Medlen.
Neither Hight, who drives the Auto Club of Southern California Ford, nor Medlen, who won six races in the Castrol Syntec Ford including the 2006 FRAM/Autolite Nationals, had competitive driving experience before first climbing behind the wheel of a JFR Mustang.
Even though both later admitted that they secretly had harbored dreams of driving, both became race car mechanics because that job offered the best chance for long-term employment in drag racing.
Neff, too, became a mechanic because he saw little chance that he would be able to drive at the top levels. Starting with Bernie Fedderly at Larry Minor Racing, he later worked on the car in which Cruz Pedregon beat Force for the 1992 NHRA championship. He moved from Larry Minor to Joe Gibbs Racing and, finally, in 2001, to Schumacher Racing where he became Scelzi's crew chief in 2003.
He and Scelzi won the championship for Oakley in 2005, ending JFR's streak of 12 consecutive championships.
“He gets along with John Medlen, that's one of the biggest things,” Force said, “plus he has a history with Bernie. He used to race motorcycles and he went to work for Larry Minor when Bernie was still there. Bottom line, he just fits our system. He can stay with the car, test on Mondays, do all the appearances and, mainly, work with John Medlen.
“Bottom line, since Tony (Pedregon) left, our deal has kinda been to develop our own drivers and I think we've been pretty successful.
“But I do want to thank all the other drivers I talked to and I plan to talk to each one individually (about the Neff hiring). They had a lot to offer but, bottom line, John Medlen made the final call. He said that I had given Eric a chance and I should do the same for another kid with a dream.”
“John Force has a history of developing drivers who already understand the mechanical hardware in these vehicles,” said Dan Davis, director of Ford Motor Sports. “Since they already understand the vehicle, once they begin to drive they're in position to actually put input back into the team to make the vehicles better. I talked with Mike and I got from him what I was looking for and that is the burning desire to win. He did it with Scelzi and I expect him to do it again with John Force Racing.”
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