Sports

John Medlen at heart of drive to go faster - safer

INDIANAPOLIS -John Medlen could've walked away.

No one could've blamed him.

His son, Eric, was testing a John Force Racing-owned Funny Car in March 2007 in Gainesville, Fla., when a tire failed. The 2,500-pound car, with an engine capable of making more than 7,000 horsepower, shook with a violence that's impossible to describe.

Its driver was tossed around with a fury that's impossible to imagine.

Eric Medlen suffered a severe head injury and, a few days later, died because of what happened in the car on which is father was the crew chief.

John Medlen's eyes fix on you. He's been around the thunder of NHRA racing so long his hearing is no longer very good. But he's adapted, matching what he can hear with a developed ability to read lips.

He understands when you ask why he didn't give it up. Why he still comes to the track, as he has for this weekend's U.S. Nationals to help Mike Neff try to qualify for and win the NHRA's biggest race. Why he devotes hours and hours to the Eric Medlen Project, an effort by Force's team and Ford not only to find out what went wrong in the past but to anticipate and prevent problems that might yet come.

As he answers, John Medlen's eyes remain fixed. He wants you to understand. too.

"Quit? That's what I wanted to do," John Medlen says. "But when I get to heaven the first thing that's going to happen is I am going to greet Eric and I want him to say, 'Good job, Dad. Way to go.'

"I couldn't look him in the eye and have him say, What happened?' "

"He would feel really bad if he knew it defeated me. I would feel worse looking him in the eye knowing I had turned my tail under my leg. That would be easy to do. If he came back here today, the first thing he would say is 'Is the car safe, Dad?' And I would say, 'It's as safe as we know how to make it.' And he’d say, 'Then I'm driving it.' "

John Medlen has spent a lifetime inventing things that make drag racing cars go fast. Now he also has his mind on making cars as safe as they can be. He knows drag racers still need to be fast. He's convinced it’s possible to be fast and safer, too.

"You can choose whatever you apply your mind to," John Medlen says. "You can send your thought patterns away from safety because you want to focus on performance. Or you can focus on both of them at the same time. You can come up with a solution that's better for both. It just takes more work.

"The more you do, the more you learn and the easier the solutions are. The first solutions are very difficult. We just dedicated ourselves to the fact that we're going to continue to press forward on safety."

Lessons learned from Eric's crash, as well as one late last year in which Force himself was badly hurt, have led to fundamental changes in how the team builds its cars. John Medlen says the team is now trying to look beyond fixing what has gone wrong and anticipate where changes can be made to keep the next bad thing from ever happening.

But earlier this year, Scott Kalitta - the son of longtime racer and team owner Connie Kalitta - was killed in a race at Englishtown, N.J., when he crashed violently at the end of that track's relatively short runoff area.

After Kalitta's crash, the NHRA cut Top Fuel and Funny Car races back from a quarter-mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet. Safety features at the end of the track here have been beefed up, with additional traps and fencing designed to gather a car the driver can't stop.

The new zMAX Dragway @ Concord, which hosts its inaugural NHRA event in two weeks, also has a longer runoff area and enhanced safety features at track's end. The sport's drivers' association also has appointed a safety committee to work with NHRA.

But Kalitta's death proves that there is much work to be done.

"When Eric passed away, Darrell Russell's dad brought a medal by that said 'Sons of God,' John Medlen said. Russell was killed in a crash in a Top Fuel car in St. Louis in 2004.

"Underneath, it had the names of Blaine Johnson and Darrell Russell, and I was shocked to see it had Eric's name there.

"But what startled me more was there was space under there for more names. I remember thinking Darrell's dad thought the same thing. I never wanted to have to add another name to it. And then I had to give it to Connie.

"Darrell and Eric and Scott died doing something that they loved to do. I believe we can make a difference and make sure their lives have not been given in vain. That's what we have to do. That's what we’re going to do to honor them.

"If there's any way in the world I can help keep someone else from going through the grief that I go through, I am going to do that."

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

  Comments