Gainesville: John Force preview

FORCE BACK IN GAINESVILLE TO HONOR MEDLEN'S MEMORY Difficult Return for 14-Time Funny Car Champ GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Almost a year after teammate and protege Eric Medlen lost his life in a testing accident at Gainesville Raceway and six...

FORCE BACK IN GAINESVILLE TO HONOR MEDLEN'S MEMORY
Difficult Return for 14-Time Funny Car Champ

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Almost a year after teammate and protege Eric Medlen lost his life in a testing accident at Gainesville Raceway and six months after suffering serious injuries in a crash of his own, drag racing icon John Force returns for this week's 39th annual ACDelco Gatornationals a changed man.

"Sponsors like Castrol, Ford and the Auto Club pay us to win," said the sport's biggest star. "That's still our goal but, bottom line, Vince Lombardi was wrong winning isn't everything. There are more important things.

"I've won 14 championships and more than 100 races (125), but I'd rather be remembered for helping make Eric's life count for something," said the 58-year-old owner/driver. "Thanks to John Medlen (Eric's dad), Ford, Murf McKinney and the NHRA, we're bringing a better car to Gainesville (for this year's race), but the work doesn't stop there. There's lots more to do."

Back in his Castrol GTX ® High Mileage Ford Mustang for just the third time since last Sept. 23rd when he suffered a compound fracture of the left ankle and other major injuries in a crash in Dallas, Texas, Force has acknowledged that he was naive in believing that a Funny Car design that had survived, largely unchanged, for almost a quarter century still would protect a driver in every circumstance.

Having ridden out dozens of previous accidents and fires himself without suffering more than singed eyebrows and burns on his hands, Force raced for 30 years in the belief that Funny Cars were safer than their Top Fuel dragster counterparts.

Those illusions were shattered on the Monday following the 2007 Gatornationals when Medlen, one of the brightest young stars in the NHRA POWERade Series, suffered head injuries that ultimately proved fatal when his car literally shook itself apart, at the same time shaking the foundations of the sport itself.

Because of what happened to Medlen, Force immediately ordered changes to his team's Ford race cars that included widening the roll cage to provide more clearance upgrading the padding around the drivers' heads and enhancing the head restraint system to help reduce side-to-side as well as up-and-down movement.

The 1996 Driver of the Year believes those changes saved his life when his car broke apart and slammed into the Dodge Charger of Kenny Bernstein in the second round of the O'Reilly Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex. That accident, the worst of Force's career, led to a complete redesign of the chassis and to new NHRA rules regarding both materials and their assembly.

The result is car that is 100 pounds heavier but one that addresses the major concerns raised in last year's accidents. Although crew chief Austin Coil wasn't even sure the car would go down the track when it debuted at the season-opener in Pomona, Calif., Force posted the quickest time on race day (4.805 seconds) and reached the semifinals in an event won by teammate and son-in-law Robert Hight.

That set the stage for an emotional return to Gainesville Raceway where Force has won seven times, but not since 2001. This year, though, he has special motivation.

"We'd all like to win it (for Eric)," he said. "I know Robert would. I know Ashley (daughter Ashley Force) would. I know Mike Neff (driving the Old Spice Mustang for John Medlen) would and so would I."

-credit: jfr

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Series NHRA
Drivers John Force , Ashley Force , Robert Hight , Austin Coil , John Medlen , Mike Neff