Race teams always look for the “unfair advantage,” a term coined long, long ago by Mark Donohue, who helped put Team Penske on the racing map. It’s no different in NHRA drag racing, where the crew chief shuffle is in high gear this fall.
After watching his son, eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, earn an eighth-place result in NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series 2017 standings, team owner Don Schumacher knew he needed to shake up the troops a bit. That he did by re-hiring Mike “Zippy” Neff, leader of 2005 Funny Car champ Gary Scelzi’s title with Don Schumacher Racing (DSR).
Neff, who moved to John Force Racing (JFR), was instrumental (over a period of 10 years) in securing the 2010 title for team patriarch John Force and coordinating JFR’s four teams (for John, Courtney and 2017 Top Fuel champ Brittany Force, along with 2017 Funny Car champ Robert Hight) and their attendant personnel choices, which ultimately resulted in this year’s sweep of nitro titles for Hight and Brittany Force.
Neff takes over crew chief duties for Tony Schumacher, while former crew chief Mike Green, who developed the enclosed Top Fuel dragster cockpit, remains with the team in a developmental role, working to find new ways of making the DSR cars quicker and faster on the 1,000-foot racetrack.
Schumacher has also shifted duties at three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown’s team. Brown, who earned dragster titles for DSR in 2012, 2015 and 2016, finished fourth in the standings this year with the help of co-crew chiefs Mark Oswald and Brian Corradi, assisted by car chief Brad Mason. Four victories weren’t enough to retain the title, so Schumacher secured the talents of 1984 NHRA Funny Car champ Oswald for next year and elevated Mason to assistant crew chief duties.
Corradi is moving to the other end of the Brownsburg boomerang, going from DSR to JFR, where he will work with Dan “Danimal” Hood as co-crew chiefs for Courtney Force, John Force’s youngest daughter and driver of the Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS. Corradi returns to the flopper ranks, where he once worked as crew chief for Mike Ashley, Dean Skuza and Melanie Troxel. Courtney Force finished third in Funny Car this year, despite winning no races.
There was another opening available at Don Schumacher Racing, this time with 2016 Funny Car titleholder Ron Capps’ NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T. With assistant crew chief Eric Lane moving to work with Bob Tasca III, Schumacher appointed Dustin Heim, formerly Capps’ car chief, to assist crew chief Rahn Tobler. The NAPA team won eight races in 2017, but first round losses in both the penultimate race in Las Vegas and at the Pomona season finale left the team in second place behind Hight.
Lane’s move to work with Bob Tasca’s Ford Performance Shelby Mustang marks a marque return for the California native. He came to DSR from JFR earlier this decade when Ford left the sport. In its return for long-time Ford supporter Bob Tasca III, the blue oval manufacturer needed an experienced hand; Lane’s prior Ford experience made him an ideal candidate.
This is only the first salvo in what could be an interesting off-season. With changes to nitro rules, particularly with Funny Car’s new 40-degree exhaust header rules and 7,900-rpm rev limit, this crew chief shuffle is likely only beginning.