Mike Neff unquestionably is a champion. He has the hardware to prove it. However, the cause the 45-year-old former surfer is championing this week means more to him than a repeat victory in Sunday’s 43rd annual Toyota SuperNationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.
The native Californian, driver AND crew chief on the Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang, will take a little time from his pursuit of the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Championship to play host, along with his principal sponsor, to a group of kids from Brooklyn-based Metro Ministries.
The charity, which supports at-risk children in the inner city and elsewhere, has become one of Neff’s passions since first he met the group’s founder, Pastor Bill Wilson. “Pastor Bill’s” ministry and message resonated with the two-time world championship-winning crew chief.
Ever since the first meeting, Neff and his former crew chief, John Medlen, have been trying to raise public awareness of Metro Ministries and its work with homeless and abandoned children not just in the United States, but internationally.
Ironically “Pastor Bill,” himself abandoned by his mother as a child, won’t be able to watch Neff defend his title this week because he is dealing with ministry work outside the country. Instead, he has sent a group of 10 Metro Ministry kids to cheer Neff’s pursuit from the comfort of the Castrol suite.
“Obviously, since I have two kids of my own (Chase, 13, and Chloe, nine on June 15), I know how big a deal it is for these kids to have someone like Bill Wilson to be an advocate for them,” Neff said. “I’m just trying to help them out any way I can and the kids that come out this weekend, we’ll be doing our best to get them in the winners’ circle with us.”
If Neff can repeat as Funny Car champion, it would constitute a milestone in his brief driving career. Four round wins in Sunday’s eliminations would give him 100 round wins in just three-and-a-half seasons behind the wheel.
Last year’s regular season champion, Neff has endured an up-and-down 2012 campaign although much of the roller coaster ride has been self-induced, the result of a change in his racing philosophy.
In addition to a victory at Houston, Texas, and runner-up finishes at Pomona, Calif., and Phoenix, Ariz., Neff failed to make the 16-car starting lineup at Atlanta, his first such failure since 2008, and almost missed the field at Houston.
“My attitude changed some after how we finished last year,” Neff said,” a reference to the fact that he led the points for 13 of 16 regular season races but ultimately finished fifth.
“These early races are worth nothing at the end of the season,” he continued, “because they’re going to reshuffle the points after Indy (the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals) anyway. We’re trying some different stuff and some of it is working and some of it isn’t.”
Last year, Neff led by 215 points at the end of the regular season but, with a single computer keystroke, the NHRA reduced that margin to 30 points entering the Countdown to 1 playoffs where everything that went right for the seven-time winner in the first eight months, went terribly wrong.
Now, he’s just trying to learn as much as he can to give him the best chance of having the best car for the six-race showdown that determines the champion.