As it turns out, driving an 8,000 horsepower Funny Car is just like riding a bicycle for NHRA driver Mike Neff. After a season out of the seat, Neff is back behind the wheel and at the top of his game as he prepares for the June 17-19 Ford Thunder Valley Nationals presented by the Tri-Cities Area Ford Dealers.

After a successful career as a crew chief, John Force Racing hired Neff to drive one of its Funny Cars in late 2007. Following two full-time seasons behind the wheel in 2008 and 2009, a loss of sponsorship forced Neff to pick up the wrenches once again, but this time, as crew chief for Force in 2010.

Neff and Force clicked immediately, and Neff's tune-ups helped guide the 61-year-old superstar to his unprecedented 15th career NHRA Drag Racing Series Funny Car World championship. Along the way, the pair racked up six wins, including one in Bristol, in 11 final round appearances.

Prior to the 2011 season, Neff was prepared to tune his boss to another championship when he received word that Force’s daughter, Ashley Force-Hood, was pregnant and had removed herself from the driver’s seat.  Neff was put back in to the cockpit and currently serves, not only as driver, but as chief tuner on his Ford Mustang.

"It is exciting to drive again," Neff explained. “It is always a thrill to get in and make a run. My team is the biggest key. They do most of the work with all the hands-on stuff, and with Bernie’s (Fedderly) help, we have most of the bases covered. So, I don’t have an overwhelming amount of stuff to do as far as the crew chief stuff. It is more or less making calls, so it hasn’t been too bad.”

While some might view his double-role as a distraction, Neff says it actually provides him with extra confidence in the car.

“I think being crew chief and driver has its pros and cons,” he said. “One benefit is that it is nice to get in the car and know everything you are trying to do on a run. It is nice to have an idea about what to expect. You never know what is going to happen any time you hit the gas, but I feel more comfortable with me tuning it and then driving.

“Whether it smokes the tires or makes it down the track, I think it is going to make it in my head. It gives me some confidence, or peace of mind, thinking everything is going to be okay, whether it really is or not.”

One of the major players at John Force Racing is Ford Motor Company, title sponsor of the Bristol race. Neff says his team owes a lot to Ford.

“Ford is such a big part of our entire program,” he said. “From the cars, the chassis and their BOSS 500 engine, a lot of their engineers have helped us with a lot of the things we have going on. The Ford Mustang body was designed by them. The safety stuff we’ve added, they have been a huge part of it. Being able to do all that research and analysis, stress tests, and just having them tell us what is good and what is not, Ford has been a huge part.”

Neff made it to the final round of Funny Car at Bristol in 2008, but an issue with the car prevented the body from being lifted. The crew was unable to rearm the clutch, causing the engine to detonate during the run. Melanie Troxel raced past Neff to victory. He hopes to avenge the loss this season.

“Our car has been good lately,” he explained. “I always like Bristol. We’ve usually done well there. I like our chances. As long as everything goes as planned and I do my job driving we should have a good chance. 

“Bristol is a great facility,” he continued. “It is on the side of the mountain and Thunder Valley is just a great atmosphere. To be there and see this event, it is one of the keys of NHRA drag racing. The fans are able to walk in to the pits and see their favorite drivers and stand, literally, five feet behind the race car. They can listen to the crews fire the cars up and watch the guys work. They can get autographs from the drivers; there really are no other sports like it.”

Neff will try to add a Bristol win to his stellar resume during the Father’s Day weekend Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.

Gates open at 9 a.m. on Friday, June 17 with the first round of Pro Qualifying slated for 5 p.m.  The pro cars will return at 7:30 p.m. for the exciting night qualifying round. Gates open at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 18 with Pro Qualifying set for 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. The Fan Fest autograph session takes place following the final round of qualifying Saturday. Sunday’s action kicks off when gates open at 8:30 a.m. A special track walk, open to fans and led by NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein, begins at 10:30 a.m. All Professional drivers have been invited to take part. Final Eliminations begin at 12:00 noon. 

Ticket prices are as follows: Friday -- Sections A - D $30 Adult / $10 Junior; Sections E - U $35 Adult / $10 Junior; Thunder Terrace $35 Adult / $10 Junior, Saturday -- Sections A - D $45 Adult / $15 Junior; Sections E - U $55 Adult / $25 Junior; Thunder Terrace $55 Adult / $25 Junior, Sunday -- Sections A- B $20 Adult / $10 Junior, Sections C - D $45 Adult / $15 Junior, Section E - P $55 Adult/ $25 Junior, Section Q – U $20 Adult/$10 Junior, Thunder Terrace $55 Adult / $25 Junior. Weekend combos are: Sections A - B $79 Adult / $30 Junior, Section C – D $95 Adult/$30 Junior, Sections E - P $120 Adult / $50 Junior, Sections Q – U $95 Adult/$30 Junior and Thunder Terrace $120 Adult / $50 Junior. Thunder Valley Club admission for three days is $300 for adults and $100 for juniors. Three-day Bruton’s Suite admission is $450 for both adults and juniors.

To purchase tickets, please call the Bristol ticket office at 423-BRISTOL or visit www.thundervalleytix.com.