Rookie Gets His Shot After Eight Years as JFR Crewman
YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- Twelve-time NHRA Funny Car Champion John Force confirmed Thursday that rookie Eric Medlen will be at the wheel of the POWERade Championship-winning Castrol SYNTEC Ford Mustang when the 2004 season begins next month (Feb. 19-22) at the K&N Filters Winternationals at Pomona Raceway.
"We talked to a lot of very talented drivers," Force said of his search for a replacement for the departed Tony Pedregon, "but, bottom line, we had an opportunity to give a young driver a chance and, after talking to all my Crew Chiefs, that's what we decided to do.
"Eric has been here for the last eight years," Force continued. "He knows our routine. He knows what we expect. He tested in my car (the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang) after Vegas (last October) and that really is what told us that he had the potential to do the job."
Medlen, 30, is the son of John Medlen who, as Crew Chief on the SYNTEC Ford, directed Pedregon to eight victories in a spectacular 2003 season and to 27 wins in his eight years at John Force Racing.
"We are extremely pleased to have Eric Medlen coming on board to represent Castrol and the SYNTEC brand," said John Cronin, sponsorship manager for Castrol. "It's exciting for Castrol to play a role in the development of such a talented young driver, one we believe will immediately compete for the NHRA POWERade Championship."
A native of Oakdale, a northern California community in the heart of "cowboy country," the younger Medlen was preparing for a pro rodeo career as team roping partner to 1975 World Champion Jerold Camarillo when he was contacted by his father about a crew position at JFR.
"I always wanted to work with my dad," said the former high school rodeo champion, "but I didn't want to let Jerold down, either, because it got to be where he was kinda like my dad, too.
"So I talked to (Jerold) and asked him what he thought I should do. He said, 'well, you know (that) 80 per cent of World Champions in roping are 30 and older, so you can always come back and do this. If I was you, I think I'd go (to JFR). If it doesn't work out, you can come back and this will always be here. But if you pass it up, (the opportunity) might not ever come around again.'"
As a result, Medlen opted to join his father, working during the 1996 season as a crewman on the Pedregon-driven Funny Car that ultimately finished second in points behind the companion car driven by Force. The next year, he moved over one pit space to work with Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly on Force's Castrol GTX entry.
After serving as Force's supercharger specialist for five years, Medlen was the "clutch guy" on the national record-holding Ford each of the last two seasons.
Now, little more than eight years after contemplating a career astride one horse, he tries to ride herd on almost 7,000 as the new driver of a hybrid Ford Mustang that has covered the standard quarter mile in as few as 4.721 seconds.
Although he is licensed in the Top Alcohol Dragster class and has made test laps in both the SYNTEC Ford and in Force's Mustang, most of Medlen's actual driving experience has come at the wheel of modified go-karts, including 120 mile-per-hour shifter carts of the type used by Indy Car drivers to keep themselves sharp during the winter off-season.
At one time, Medlen owned three such shifter-karts, but he sold all of them along with a self-built "chopper" motorcycle to buy seat time in a Top Alcohol Funny Car at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in Gainesville, Fla.
His "cowboy" biography notwithstanding, Medlen always has been mechanically inclined.
"Growing up, my dad had a machine shop and we always raced something," Medlen said. "Stock cars, hydroplane boats, alcohol cars. When I was in fifth grade Dad got us a go kart that he converted to alcohol.
"I was so little they had to have two pillows behind the seat and the pedals kind of arced up so that I could barely reach the arc, but I could get it to go full throttle, although just barely. So we'd go out and mess with those karts and the boats. From kindergarten on up I was gone from school all of the time.
We were always racing something so, when my dad and mom split up (in 1987), for awhile I was kinda lost.
"I wanted to go (to Arkansas) with him, but then I felt bad about leaving my mom and all my friends were in Oakdale. That's when I started taking up roping."
Although his driving resume may be lacking, Medlen is an accomplished machinist who spent two-and-a-half years studying mechanical engineering at Terra Technical University in Fremont, Ohio, and two years working for Callies Crankshafts, Inc.
"In John Force and Eric Medlen, we believe we have the most formidable 1-2 punch in motorsports," Cronin said. "John's experience coupled with Eric's youth and enthusiasm put Team Castrol in a position to outperform the competition in pursuing a 12th straight NHRA Championship. It should be a great ride."
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