Robert Hight and Mike Neff have been identified in pre-season media polls as the principal Ford threats in the battle for the 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship that begins with this week’s 52nd annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway.
Nevertheless, there will be a total of six hybrid Mustangs vying for the title including the Traxxas Ford of 23-year-old rookie Courtney Force, the Quick Lane/Motorcraft Shelby Mustang of Bob Tasca III, the Levi, Ray and Shoup Shelby of Tim Wilkerson and the Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford of 15-time champion John Force.
Except for Courtney, the youngest of Force’s three racing daughters, all of the Ford contenders have won NHRA tour events over the last two seasons. However, at the Winternationals, none shines more brightly than Hight, who has won the season-opener three of the last six seasons, most recently a year ago.
For the 2009 champion, the challenge is to take up where he left off last year in an Auto Club Mustang that enjoyed moments of dominance down the stretch. Hight shared with Neff the distinction of winning more races (five) than anyone else in the Funny Car class last year. Moreover, he was the only Ford driver to win during the Countdown.
It’s that success on which he and crew chief Jimmy Prock hope to build.
Listen to Neff and Hight preview the coming NHRA season here:
Coming off a Florida test session in which he put up the best performance numbers, Hight expects to do well on his home track.
“(Testing well) gives you a lot of confidence,” said the 23-time tour winner. “It was good to finally get back in the race car after a long winter. What I’m really most pleased about is how consistent we were last year when it was race conditions and we were up against other (contenders). My Mustang went down the track every run, and it was respectable — and quick.
“We really focused on trying to make all four of our (John Force Racing) Funny Cars the same this year,” Hight said. “We’ve staffed up, got more people on board (and) have four really strong teams. That team over there, Courtney’s team with (crew chiefs) Ron Douglas and Scott Wible, that’s a tough team.
“We think with four teams set up alike, we’ll be better able to help each other, work together better and collect data. That’s the goal.”
As for Neff, the crew chief AND driver of the Castrol GTX Mustang, the challenge is to find out where he fell off last year when he plummeted from first to fifth in the six-race shootout that constitutes the NHRA’s Countdown to 1 playoffs.
Between them, Hight and Neff won 10 times in 22 races last year but neither was among the Top 3 at the end of the Countdown. That made for a long off-season, especially for Neff, who dominated the regular season and finished the year with more final round appearances (nine) and more round wins (40) than any other Funny Car driver.
“We started off strong (but) it’s hard to keep it going all year long,” said the two-time former championship-winning crew chief. “Unfortunately, all that matters now is the Countdown. The Countdown has changed everything. Pretty much, it’s how you do in those last six races that determines the outcome of your whole season.
“I don’t have any excuses for what happened in the Countdown last year,” Neff said. “It wasn’t that I got burned out or that I overthought it. I didn’t do anything different than I had done at all the previous races. Things just quit working like they were. The tricky thing about racing is that sometimes (the combination) just goes away and it just doesn’t work they way you want it to.”
Hight and Neff were 1-2 in an informal pre-season poll conducted by Louie Brewster, sports editor for a chain of Southern California newspapers including the San Bernardino Sun and the Ontario Daily Report. Nevertheless, neither is taking anything for granted.
Dodge drivers Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman, who finished 1-2 last year, and their teammates, Ron Capps and Johnny Gray, will pose a formidable challenge along with two-time former champion Cruz Pedregon, who beefed up his Toyota effort by hiring veteran crew chief Lee Beard to run the program.
Ironically, the biggest question mark among the Ford challengers is Force himself, who won just a single event last year, one season removed from his 15th championship. Although he shook things up by bringing in Danny DeGennaro to serve as co-crew chief with Dean “Guido” Antonelli, Force struggled mightily in testing.
If there was a bright spot, it was in Force’s attitude, much improved since off-season surgery to repair a long-damaged ACL in his right knee.
“I’ve told (Courtney) not to do this job for the money,” he said. “You’ve gotta love your team. You’ve gotta love the fans. They’re your lifeline. Without them, you’re nothing. And you gotta love the media. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta love your job because if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s just work. You have to live it seven days a week. I think Courtney still has so much to learn, but I think she’s got a great shot at this.”
As for Force himself, he is cautiously hopeful.
“We’ve struggled,” he said, “but that’s why you have multi-cars. We’ve got a brain trust that works as a team. They’ll figure it out. I’ve just got to do my job. That’s the only part I can control. And I feel good about that because I got my knee rebuilt in the off-season. This is the best I’ve been since the crash (a 2007 wreck in Dallas that almost claimed his life).”
Despite his struggles, Force is just two years removed from winning the Winternationals. Overall, he’s won the opener five times, second only to Ford Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden, who won seven Winternationals titles before his retirement.
Besides, the 62-year-old still has worlds to conquer. Although he lost in the first round in the last eight races of 2011, Force is just four round wins away from becoming the first in any pro category to win competitive 1,100 rounds.
Courtney Force, who has followed a course similar to that of older sister Ashley, who won back-to-back U.S. Nationals titles before taking a break to start a family, is looking forward to a career she anticipated even as a little girl.
The toughest transition for the graduate of Cal State-Fullerton was the difference in driving technique in the car she used to drive (a rear-engine A/Fuel dragster) and the one in which she will bid for Rookie-of-the-Year consideration.
“The biggest difference for me, going from dragster to a Funny Car (was) learning how to steer,” she said. “You have to ‘manhandle’ a Funny Car which wasn’t the case with the dragster. You made just small corrections and it would respond. Not the Funny Car. But every time I make a lap, I’m learning something new and I think that’s probably the biggest thing I can do in order to be a better driver.”
Source: Ford Racing