Undeterred by an upset loss to teammate Robert Top Gun Hight in the very first round of the 27th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway, Mike Neff remained upbeat Sunday after falling behind both Matt Hagan and Fast Jack Beckman in an increasingly tense duel for the Full Throttle Championship.
“We came from behind to win last year,” Neff said of his work as crew chief on the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang in which his boss, John Force, claimed the 2010 championship, “and now we’re pretty much in the same deal as then. We have done pretty well at Las Vegas and Pomona, so we’ll see what happens.
“I had to lift at the top end [against Hight] because it spun the tires,” said the driver and crew chief on the Castrol GTX Mustang. “It put two cylinders out on the right side [and] when it does that you have your hands full. When it puts one cylinder out, it doesn’t move the car too bad, but when it puts two cylinders out on the same side [of the motor], the car makes such a violent move that it is uncontrollable.”
Neff will move on to the Oct. 30 Big O Tires Nationals just 17 points behind Hagan and 22 behind Beckman, roughly the equivalent of one racing round, far less than the margin by which Force trailed a year ago when he rolled into The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway 64 points down only to overcome the deficit by winning the final two races of the campaign.
While Neff is in the better position to claim an 18th championship (in the last 22 seasons) for John Force Racing, Inc., Hight also has a legitimate shot with the tour now moving to tracks on which he and the Auto Club Ford Mustang have been to the winners’ circle seven times in the last six years.
Beaten in the second round by Beckman when he was guilty of the first foul start of his pro career, first in 153 career starts, the 2009 series champion moves to the final two events trailing Hagan by 53 points and Beckman by 58. After the loss, the 42-year-old still was trying to figure out what happened.
“I didn’t do anything different before that run as far as my routine [was concerned],” he said. “I don’t think I put any more pressure on myself. I know I wasn’t thinking, ‘I have to try extra hard for this run.’
“I wish I knew what triggered my foot to leave,” said the 23-time tour winner. “It was like it had a mind of its own. There’s no excuse. I didn’t have any more pressure [than usual]. You have to win every round all the time, that’s what I tell myself. There is no perfect time for something like that [to happen], but I can tell you there are worse times than others.
“John won the first Pomona and the first Vegas [races] last year and he won the championship [by winning the last two races at those tracks, too]. I won the first Pomona and the first Vegas this year [so] that’s what I have to do, the same thing John did.”
Overall, it was pretty much a throwaway day for the Ford Mustangs, all of which had problems adapting to 100 degree weather and track temperatures that soared about 130 degrees. That heat certainly was reflected, across the board, in the performance numbers.
Quick time of the weekend for the Funny Cars was the 4.215 thrown down by No. 1 qualifier Cruz Pedregon on Friday night. That’s the slowest No. 1 qualifying time of the season, by a lot.
Nor did the slow down end on Sunday, eventual runner-up Johnny Gray posted the quickest race day time of 4.231 seconds. Only at mile-high Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., was there a slower best time during eliminations (4.286 by Hight).
As a result, there were five Mustangs on the sidelines after just two rounds of racing, a rarity in a season in which Ford Mustangs have won 12 of the 20 events. Tim Wilkerson’s day ended in a round one upset loss to Paul Lee and Bob Tasca III was ousted in a second round upset by No. 16 qualifier Jeff Arend.
As for Force, whose Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford has been very Jekyll-and-Hyde-like this year, it was another disappointing performance. After bumping into the field on his final attempt, the 62-year-old icon again failed to advance out of the first round, losing to Beckman, 4.385 at 283.31 mph to the winner’s 4.295 at 288.77 mph.
“I am just getting spanked,” Force said. “What bothers me the most is two things: one is I can’t run for the championship and, two, I can’t help [Neff and Hight]. I needed to get Beckman [in the first round] and I didn’t. Then, [crew chief] Jimmy Prock and Robert’s car beat my lead car, but that’s just racing.
“I told my guys at the team meeting this morning, ‘there are two things I want today, No. 1, I want to win this race but, No. 2, and most important, I want you guys to love each other and still be a team, no matter what happens.’”
Force described watching Hight and Neff race in round one as “like having two grandbabies; you don’t know which one to hug. I love race cars and people. I stood in the middle of the starting line with [NHRA starter] Rick Stewart. I wanted them to know that I was not taking any sides.
“It hurt because [Neff] had such a lead [at the end of the regular season]. Now they are going to have to fight it out with Cruz and the Schumacher guys. I never pray against another team to go down. I just pray for them to be safe.”
Neff, who had split 10 previous meetings with Hight, appeared in control of the all-Ford showdown until the tires began to spin.
“It got sideways so fast the next thing I knew I saw the wall and I had to lift [slowing to 255.82 miles per hour, 35 mph slower than Hight's Auto Club Ford],” he said. “It was on a good run. It was probably going to run a 4.20-something.; a mid-to-high 4.20.
“Had it not put the two cylinders out, I would have been able to drive it to the end and keep it going straight,” Neff explained, “[but] I saw the wall [and] the last thing I want to do is drive it into the wall. I don’t think I could have stayed with it any longer. I just barely missed hitting it as it was.
“I never saw Robert,” said the erstwhile points leader, “but after I lifted, he went by so I knew it had to be close. It’s not what we were hoping for in the first round.
We just keep fighting. We went through this last year. I have to go win the next two races. It’s as simple as that.”
Source: Ford Racing