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Mike Neff and his John Force Racing teammates are testing in Phoenix this week, getting ready for the 2008 NHRA POWERade Funny Car season, which opens in two weeks at Pomona. Neff is preparing for his first full season with JFR after competing in two races in 2007.

MIKE NEFF – John Force Racing Ford Mustang Funny Car – AFTER THE WINTER BREAK, HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE BACK IN A FUNNY CAR? “It feels good. We’re a little behind schedule than what we wanted to be. We got here and weren’t able to run on Friday or Saturday when the sun was out, and then it rained. We were ready for Sunday, but it rained all day long. Monday was our first day of running. My car shook the tires the first run and then smoked the tires the second run. We’re trying some different stuff in the clutch that didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. John Force’s car, he made a really good run. He ran 4.78 [seconds], 327 [mph], which I believe is the quickest run in Funny Car so far this weekend.”

 

ARE YOU TESTING WITH THE NEW FORD BOSS 500 ENGINE? “We’re all running the new chassis, and I’m running the new Ford motor. Just me.”

 

IT’S VERY EARLY, BUT WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE NEW MOTOR? “It might be a little too early to tell the whole story, but we have made a couple runs at half track, and it ran really good. We’re really confident in it that it’s going to be better than what we’ve got right now.”

 

WHAT’S YOUR TESTING SCHEDULE FOR THE REST OF THIS WEEK? “We’re going to, hopefully, make three runs today (Tuesday), three runs tomorrow (Wednesday), and maybe a couple more on Thursday.”

 

YOU RAN TWO RACES FOR JOHN FORCE RACING LAST YEAR AND KNEW YOU WOULD HAVE A RIDE THIS YEAR. HAS IT BEEN A PARTICULARLY LONG WINTER FOR YOU, WAITING TO GET BACK IN THE CAR? “No. I am glad that we’re out at the track now, and able to just start concentrating on the race car. This winter has probably been the busiest winter that I’ve ever had, as far as racing goes. Back in Indy, with the new shop there, the Eric Medlen Project building, that Force built back there. We moved the machine shop into that, and we also, this winter, completely assembled a fabrication shop. We built jigs for cars. Eventually, we’ll build our own chassis. We built four jigs, and right now the biggest project we took on is we’re now mounting our own bodies, putting all the tin work and tubing, and basically doing all that in-house, which they previously were having done by an outside source. So, with all of that and the new chassis design and the carbon tub that we had to design and build for that, it’s just been extremely busy for us this winter. It hasn’t let up yet, and I don’t think it’s going to for a while. It’s going to take us a while to get caught up. It might be a few months where we’re actually up to speed where we would like to be.”

 

HOW IS THE TEAM’S MOOD RIGHT NOW? “Actually, it’s pretty good. We’re all really encouraged about the new chassis. Everybody that looks at it – even other competitors – when they look at it, everyone’s really impressed and really thinks that it looks good, and that it’s the right direction to go. So, we feel really good about the way that turned out. And, we’re really pleased with the expansion of the program, with being able to mount our own bodies and make those a lot nicer. And, we’re all excited about the new Ford motor. It looks really neat, it’s a neat project and we believe that it’s going to be better. So, we’re excited about making some runs with that and learn some more about that.”


The final stop of last week’s annual Charlotte media tour was at Roush Fenway Racing, where representatives from Ford Racing’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams participated in Q&A sessions. Dan Davis, Director of Ford Racing Technology, answered a variety of questions during the one-on-one portion of the program.

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Left-Dan Davis Right-Jack Roush/Photo by Jeff Kluss-SIT

DAN DAVIS, Director, Ford Racing Technology — JACK TOOK A LOT OF THE BLAME ABOUT NOT TESTING THE COT EARLIER. HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT? “We knew what they were doing. Jack’s word was ‘guillotine,’ but I was thinking that somebody was going to get whacked there. All of the indications were that those that are pushing the envelope are going to get brought in and it didn’t happen. That’s life. That’s the way it goes. Jack says it’s his fault, but it’s our collective fault. We all make judgments. I think the most important thing for me is that we got after it hard afterwards and he’s done that, so I’m fine. We had a similar discussion about the seven-post rig. There was a lot of debate about whether or not some of these modern tools needed to be brought into NASCAR or not.”

 

THEY’RE ALREADY HERE. “They were, but it was like, ‘Are they really effective?’ Do you really have to do it? I was in there going, ‘Now, now, now. Go and dig your hole. Let’s get this thing running.’ To Jack’s credit, when we decided a year-and-a-half ago to get it done, he took a one year process and condensed it into like five months. So am I satisfied with that kind of partner? You bet.”

 

TRADITIONALLY YOU HAVE BEEN ABLE TO LEARN THINGS FROM RACING THAT YOU TAKE BACK TO THE MANUFACTURER AND USE IT FOR STREET CARS. WITH AS TIGHT AS THE NEW CAR IS FROM A RULES STANDPOINT, IS THERE AS MUCH YOU CAN LEARN AND TAKE BACK? “Probably not. As far as product, no. Processes and that sort of thing is all there, but the actual product being raced it’s getting harder and harder because the things we’re racing are getting further and further away from the production roots. So that part of it is harder. We’ve got guys that are doing new engine castings and intake manifold castings and all that work we’re doing applies to the production program. A lot of stuff does transfer, but it’s not as much transfer as we would like. I guess if we had a voice in the rule-making of stock cars down the road, it would be that they tend to get more towards the production car. That’s one of the reasons we’re interested in some of the Grand Am Racing that we’re doing in the sports cars because we’re racing the car we build in Flat Rock (Mich.) – the Mustang. It’s that car. There are a lot better ties and our customers see that tie a lot better. These race fans and customers are very savvy people. I think maybe we don’t give them enough credit for what they know. They know a lot about what’s going on.”

 

ARE WE GOING TO SEE THAT IN NATIONWIDE? “I think what we’re going to see in Nationwide is a car that’s closer to what a race car ought to look like. From everything I’ve seen, it’s going to be a more pleasing looking car and more of a racy kind of car, so that’s a plus. And I think it’s gonna have a spoiler, so I think we’re getting back to something that’s more pleasing to us and more pleasing to the race fan, but it’s not any closer to a stock car, I don’t believe, than we’ve ever seen in the past. I know they’re trying to get some of the stock car cues involved and all that, and I’m all for that, that’s great. But, again, I don’t think you can dupe that fan out there by putting some creases on a hood that look like your production car and all of a sudden think you’re racing a production car. It just doesn’t work like that, but any move we can make is a good one.”

 

WHERE IS FORD ON THE NATIONWIDE SERIES AND THE POSSIBILITY OF RACING MUSTANG? “There was a thought that we might want to race a pony car. We have a lot of different interests. Right now, we’re evaluating whether or not that’s the right way to go. We’re starting to lean more towards possibly using the Fusion, but we’re not real sure. It looks like the Camaro is not coming in and if that’s the case, then here we’ve got a Mustang racing against a Camry or Malibu or something like that and that’s not real appealing either. We’re taking another look at it deciding what we want to do.”

 

HOW FAR ALONG IN THE PROCESS ARE YOU? “It’s pretty far. The Fusion is a lot easier. If we decide to go that route, we already have the Fusion in place so that’s pretty straightforward. The Mustang was quite far along and we knew what we wanted to do there, so we could really go either way at this point.”

 

HOW MUCH MORE COOPERATION WILL THERE BE BETWEEN TEAMS THIS YEAR COMPARED TO THE PAST? “Usually what would occur is you would have one team, let’s say the Robert Yates organization. They’re wanting to do something technically, so you put engineers and you put a lot of work involved in what they want to do. Well, they didn’t want to share that with the Roush people. Meanwhile, you’ve got the Roush group over here doing some things and they don’t want to share that with the Yates people. And then you’ve got the Wood Brothers over here doing some things and they don’t want to share that with any of the other groups. So we ended up doing things three times or we would end up doing them with a different spin here and there, or the data one group had would be different from the data of the other, so you’d end up doing everything three times primarily because no one team wanted to share what they had with another team and/or you’re worried about the fact that if the Yates group, just to pick an example, were to give something to the Roush people and the Roush person who got that information left that team and went to the Hendrick program. Then, all of a sudden, everything they learned just went to Hendrick. They’re all worried about that and paranoid about that. Okay, I get all that. Meanwhile, the manufacturer then gets to deal with three entities all differently until they’re all one and duplicate how your resources are allocated. It’s just not very appealing. This is the problem we had with the engine program. You had Penske running Fords. You had Yates running Fords and you had Roush running Fords. They all had their own way. They had their own bore. They had their own pistons. They all had a different way of doing it, but here we are trying to make castings that would fit these three different styles. It got to a point where one casting wouldn’t even do it. So now I’m casting blocks for Penske. I’m casting different blocks for Yates. It’s an expensive, ugly, duplicate thing. When we got them all together things got way better. We were actually able to spend a lot more time on just one entity and get it right. So I see the same thing happening here where we can do something once, get it right and then not be all worried about it or have the teams worried about it.”

 

IS THIS A RESPONSE TO WHAT DODGE AND TOYOTA HAVE DONE ALONG THE SAME LINES? “Not at all. I feel like we started the whole process with the engine alliance. That’s been going on for quite a while, so I feel like we sort of figured it out, but getting it implemented could be difficult.”

 

THE ECONOMY IS STRUGGLING RIGHT NOW. HOW DOES THAT IMPACT YOU AND WHAT KIND OF BUFFER DO YOU HAVE FROM THAT? “Nobody has a buffer. If you’re a company like Ford, which has been losing money the last few years, they turn over every rock to figure out, ‘Are we wasting any money anywhere?’ Racing is a big program. The marketing side of it is a big project with a lot of money, so we get scrutinized just like anybody gets scrutinized. We ask ourselves those hard questions every year, so when a corporation comes in and asks us questions, we already have a lot of data and answers. But it’s always hard. For me, I would like the questions to be hard whether the conditions are good or the conditions are bad. If we’re wasting money, then we should be called on the carpet. If we’re not delivering value, then we ought to quit doing what we’re doing.”

 

DOES WIN ON SUNDAY, SELL ON MONDAY STILL APPLY? “Not really. It applies in the general world, but the idea that you win a race on Sunday and that motivates somebody to go buy a car the next morning probably doesn’t work like that because a car is such a big expense nowadays. But certainly winning and having the right pedigree affects a person over time. When they’re ready to buy a car, they’re going to take that and apply it to what they decide to purchase. So it may not be that Sunday to that Monday morning, but certainly over time it does that and it happens that way. We see the NASCAR fan buying tons of our F-150s and lots of our big cars. They buy a lot of our stuff and we love them.”

 

DO YOU FEEL THE NEW CAR IS A GOOD THING AND PUTS SOME RESTRAINT ON THE ESCALATION OF COSTS? “Not necessarily. To me, the car of tomorrow just meant that we get to do everything all over again. We just got the old car done. We’ve got all these chassis done. To me, the car of tomorrow caused a tremendous amount of waste, which might have been avoided, but it’s happened and it’s done. We’re not gonna cry about it anymore. Let’s get on with it. The car of tomorrow, you’ve got all these current Cup cars from last year are all going to waste. The thought was they were all going to be ARCA cars, but there aren’t that many ARCA teams in the universe that run all that stuff. So we’re building all new cars at a pretty big expense and we have to do it very quickly. There are plusses and minuses on anything you do. At some point, you just know what the rules are and you just get it and get after it.”

 

DID YOU SAY ANYTHING TO NASCAR ABOUT THE OTHER TEAMS TESTING THE NEW CAR LAST YEAR? “It’s a catch-22. You know other people are doing some things. In some cases, you’re not exactly sure what they’re doing, so you don’t have perfect data. You suspect, you think, you talk to officials about it and it’s like, ‘Well, it’s not allowed and we’re looking into that.’ You get caught up in this whole scenario about ‘if you’re doing bad things, you’re gonna get penalized really badly. People that are abusing the rules, they’re gonna pay for it. We’re not so sure they are.’ You can get caught up in all that, but then over time you get enough data and you find out, ‘Okay, this is what’s really happening. We’ve got to get with it.’ Sometimes we’re ahead of the curve and sometimes we’re behind the curve. We talked about the engine thing, I think the engine consolidation we did was way ahead of the curve. I think in testing the car of tomorrow we were behind the curve. We misunderstood some things. We took some things at face value that maybe we shouldn’t have. The big key was that once we figured out we were behind, how quickly and how hard are we going to catch up. I think we’ve caught up. To me, if you look at the end of last season, you had a Hendrick team that is the benchmark and we were right there just behind them. And I really feel like between then and now we’re right there, so we’re ready to get after it. Unfortunately, I don’t think Daytona is going to tell us where we’re at, but at Vegas we’re going to figure out where we’re at. If we’re not really quite competitive and really there, I’ll be disappointed in ourselves.”

 

DO YOU THINK NASCAR SHOULD TRY TO LIMIT TESTING IN SOME WAY? “They’ve tried to limit testing. They didn’t give you tires to try to make it less costly. Then you had teams that decided they were going to spend their own money to have their own tire developed and then buy those tires to test. So here you have a situation where you’re trying to limit the amount of expense, which, in fact, what happened was you incurred more expense on some teams because they had to go around the mandates and do some things that normally you wouldn’t have to do. So I think it’s very hard. I’ve only been in racing 10 years. I’m not a long-time observer, but from what I have seen so far is that teams with a lot of money spend it all. They spend it on whatever they think is going to make their teams perform better. So the idea that a sanctioning body is going to have a team spend less money and that they can do that through rule-making is not going to work because if the teams have the money and they’ve got an engineering staff and they’ve got curiosity, they’re going to spend all that money. And the big teams are going to spend more money than the little teams. That’s just how it works. So if you have the money, you’re going to spend it. The fact that a sanctioning body says, ‘We don’t want you to do this. We don’t want you to do that.’ It doesn’t mean that they hand money back to the sponsors, it just means they spend their money on something else. In that case, they don’t save money. You can try to make the rules so that the best you can do is to limit the effectiveness of spending all that money. That’s about all you can really do. You can say, ‘Okay, you can go ahead and do all this stuff, but your performance is only going to come up a little bit.’ Therefore, the effectiveness of spending all that money is not so good and the reason for that then is that the little guy that doesn’t have the money, he’s almost as effective without spending it. I get that. It makes a lot of sense, but that’s really hard to do.”

 

WHEN YOU DO YOU THINK WE’LL SEE FORDS IMPROVEMENT KICK IN? “I think we’re going to be fine at Daytona, but it’s gotten to a point at Daytona that the bodies are so similar and the aerodynamics are so similar that it’s going to be about engines. Engines make a huge difference in the handling of the car and the ability of the driver to do his craft is going to be the whole deal. The car itself, there’s not much there. As soon as you get to Vegas you’re going to start to see what all the analysis and engineering and all the things that have been done start to show. But then you’re going to have to take a trend. You’re going to have to look at several races in a row. We did the same thing last year. I think it was at Dover, that was the first time that Ford really collaborated with Roush and put a lot of engineering at the car – the second Dover race. That’s the first time we really poured all of our stuff together into a car on the track and we did it for all the races from then on – the nine races after that. We were competitive in all nine of those and we were right there. We won three of them, so now we’re looking at saying, ‘Okay, we’ve improved since then over the winter,’ so we would expect to really hit it hard in Vegas. But, you know what, I’ll keep my word. When you think you know it, you don’t (laughing).

 

ARE YOU FOLLOWING THE TEAM CAP CLOSELY BECAUSE NASCAR NEEDS FORD TO HAVE A CERTAIN NUMBER OF TEAMS? “It’s critical. We feel like we’ve got to have eight or nine championship capable teams on the track every week to make it worthwhile for Ford. You can’t have one or two cars that you just pour everything into and think that you can win in this sport. There are too many variables going on. You’ve got to have an armada of cars, I think, to do what needs to be done. So that means we need eight or nine championship-level cars each weekend and we’ve got to make that work with Roush, Yates and the Woods. We’re talking to the Woods really hard about how to engage them in this activity, to gain some engineering stuff that’s going on and get their level up. This is hard. It’s hard to get this done overnight.”

 

SO ARE YOU LOOKING FOR SOME LEEWAY? “I wouldn’t say leeway. I think what’s important is that we all understand what we can and can’t do, and then we can push it up to the line and park it there and make sure that we’re within the guidelines. To me, it’s important to know what are we allowed to do and then as a manufacturer we’ll make darn sure that we’re within what we’re allowed, and if that means we’ve got to go help Yates Racing get sponsorship in order to alleviate some concerns about the Roush marketing organization and that’s what we need to do, then we’ll go do it. We want these teams to succeed and we want to do it within the framework of NASCAR and we want them to bless what we’re doing. I don’t want to be in the NASCAR trailer every weekend getting tortured over some misunderstanding or some infraction that we’ve had. That’s one reason we didn’t do all this testing. We didn’t want to get tortured with, ‘Hey, you didn’t listen.’ We have an integrity issue at Ford that says we are going to have high integrity and we’re going to win and compete and do it right. Maybe we have more integrity than others. I’m not saying that others don’t have integrity, but to us we are really wired from that standpoint. We’ll do what we’re allowed to do and we’ll do it with vigor, but we need eight or nine teams. We’ll push the envelope to get there, but in terms of going into NASCAR and saying, ‘You’re wrong and you need to change the rules for us,’ that’s not our style. Our style is to understand what the rules of the sport are and then get creative at meeting our objectives while still maintaining their rules. That’s what I view my job is – to push on it hard within their framework. Half the time that’s what racing is about – you meet their requirements with a unique solution that nobody thought of that gains you a competitive advantage. That’s racing. Whether that’s team ownership, sponsorship, general managers, whatever it is. There’s lots of racing going on. Some of it’s in the garage and some of it is somewhere else.”

 

CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE MISCOMMUNICATION ABOUT THE TIRE? “I don’t know if it’s a miscommunication. You could not get Goodyear tires to test – period. So one could go talk to another manufacturer, spend a bunch of money and have a Goodyear look-alike made and go test with it. The intention of the directive was for you to not test and the directive was in order to make sure you don’t test, we’re not going to let you have any tires. Okay, I get it. This all makes sense. Now, did someone feel like there would be energy for someone to expend to go have a look-alike tire designed, manufactured, made and paid for to test? I’m not sure anybody thought that would occur. It did. Who’s at fault here? I don’t know if anybody is at fault, it’s just that we didn’t do it because we understood what we were being asked to do – don’t test. If someone said, ‘Don’t test our Goodyear tires.’ Then we might look at it different, but it was kind of like, don’t test. Now I’m not throwing anyone else under the bus because, again, the whole idea here is to be creative, push the envelope and do what you’re supposed to do. We just didn’t.”

 

YOU WERE JUST TRYING TO ADHERE TO THE RULES? “We were just standing back going, ‘I hear you. I hear what you’re asking for and we’re going to adhere.’”

 

IS THAT WHY JACK MIGHT BE SO MAD? “To Jack’s credit, Jack has pushed them up on occasion and got hurt, so I think he’s kind of learned that you know what, don’t push it. So be it. To me, it’s a non-issue. We fell behind. We only ran seven or eight races last year nowhere near where we should have. To me, if we were clueless, if we had no recovery plan, if we didn’t feel like we could catch up, then I’d feel really bad about it, but I don’t. At this point, it’s fine.”

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