HRA POWERade Series Transcript: Eric Medlen For the second season in a row, a rookie will occupy another high-profile ride in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series. Last year Brandon Bernstein took over for his father, six-time NHRA champion ...
HRA POWERade Series Transcript: Eric Medlen
For the second season in a row, a rookie will occupy another high-profile ride in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series. Last year Brandon Bernstein took over for his father, six-time NHRA champion Kenny Bernstein in the Budweiser Top Fuel car. Now, Funny Car has its turn at the youth movement. Eric Medlen, 30, has been selected by John Force, Ford Racing and Castrol Syntec to be the new driver of the Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang. Medlen replaces Tony Pedregon. Remember him? Yeah, Pedregon is the 2003 NHRA Funny Car champion. He left Force Racing to join his brother Cruz in a two-car operation owned by the Pedregon brothers.
Medlen not only gets to fill the gap left by Pedregon's departure, but he also gets to work with his father. John Medlen will make all of the tuning calls for his son in 2004. The elder Medlen tuned Pedregon to the title and now he gets to take his son, a former team roper in the rodeo ranks, and make a rookie into an instant winner. Eric Medlen makes his professional debut next week as the 2004 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series kicks off at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway for the 44th annual K&N Filters Winternationals, Feb. 19-22. In this Q&A session, Medlen talks about what it is like to spend eight years on the crew, what he wants to accomplish next week and what it took for him to rope a job as a driver. Just when you think it's Force talking, keep reading. It's really all Eric Medlen all the time, we promise.
Q: Why do you want to be a professional Funny Car driver?
Medlen: There is just something about the feeling of accomplishment that you get from the car, being one with the guys, being one with the car. I don't want to say that you can tame the cars, but there is a lot of satisfaction to knowing that you can work with something and if you treat it well it will treat you well. It's a machine, but it is more than a machine. My dad always says that I need to become one with the car. There really is a lot of truth to that. You have to get to know it and know every little scratch. It's like your other girlfriend. In Las Vegas (during the first test sessions) we ran 4.79 seconds at 324 mph and the feeling you get after that is unbelievable. The rewards are pretty phenomenal.
Q: What can you contribute to John Force Racing?
Medlen: I'm younger and I don't necessarily bring new blood to the team, but to this position. Maybe I can try to motivate the guys, not that John doesn't, because he really does. But I can bring a different personality around and a little different view of how the guys look at things. I can go out with all the guys. When we talk about our guys, I don't just mean the Castrol Syntec team. I mean the Syntec guys, the Castrol GTX guys and the Auto Club guys. It's everybody. They know I am still one of the guys and they know me on a different level. Hopefully I can bring a new level of energy to the teams.
Q: When did you start throwing your name into the mix as a possible replacement for Castrol Syntec driving job?
Medlen: Really it goes back to the fact that I only had two dreams. I wanted to go to the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) and I wanted to be a professional race car driver. I wanted to hang out with my dad. Even when you are a kid you realize how extremely difficult it is to get to this position. When my mom and dad split up, I started doing rodeo. Then I got heavy into rodeo. I was always going back and forth seeing my dad. Then I went to Indianapolis for the Indy 500. My dad got me tickets right down on the pit wall. He asked me if I still wanted to race cars. I told him that I did, and that is when he told me most of the guys had their education and degrees in mechanical engineering. I told him, 'Sign me up!' and I went to school. I went to a school in Ohio at a technical university and that is when my dad started working for Chuck (Etchells) and he went back on the road. His wife (Martha) moved back to Arkansas and being a California kid, I packed up and headed back to California and started getting into rodeo. Every once in a while, my dad would call up and tell me they might need a guy to clean oil pans during the summer. Every time I would get beside myself and jump at the chance. He would never call back. It wasn't his fault, it was the team's decision to go with other guys or whatever. So after a while, I would stop getting excited. Right when Gerald Camarillo and I were going to start to go to all of the amateur rodeos. Gerald turned into my father figure when my dad was on the road. He is a world champion team roper and he taught me a lot about being successful and being a good person. We were going to do the amateur rodeos and fill up my PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) card and then the next year, hit the pro rodeo. Just about the time we planned it, my dad called. He told me he was going to work for John Force and I told him that was great. He said, 'I need to get a crew together and you're my first pick.' I told him to call me the next week to let me know and I really thought he wouldn't call me back. I didn't even want to get excited. He called me the next day and the day after that and I realized it was the real deal. He needed to know by the end of the day and suddenly I realized that while I was chasing my new dream, I had a chance to go back to my original dream. I was young (22 years old) and I asked Gerald. He never had his own son but he always wanted one. He was raised in a team roping champion family. Now he had me, kind of his kid. I have the best horses and the best teacher and all I have to do is not screw up, do what he tells me and we are headed to the NFR. It would have been real easy for him to tell me that I should stick with rodeo. He had a lot of time and money invested in me. But he told me that I should get into racing. He also told me that if it didn't work out, I could always come back and we could pick up right where we left off. I called my dad and I left that night.
Q: Did you expect to be considered for a driver's job right away or were you happy working on the car?
Medlen: I started being a mechanic and honestly, I was living a dream. I was working on John and Tony's cars and we won the first eight races (1999) and I was standing in winner's circle and I told my dad that I thought I should quit and go home then. I thought if we lost now, it would stink and that wouldn't be any fun at all. That's the year we won 14 races and it was unreal. As time went on, I noticed that unless you had a ton of money to buy into a ride or unless you were the son of a team owner, there was a pretty slim chance that you can get into one of these cars. I've seen guys try and they get shot down and I didn't want to get myself into that. So I let it go but in the back of my mind, I was always thinking about it. We would be ready to warm up the car and I would think that if the driver was late, I knew what to do and I could warm it up. So I wanted to see what it was like and prove to myself that I could do it. So I went to Frank Hawley's School for drag racing. I was living with John in the winter and I used to stay there and never go anywhere during the offseason. I took him to the airport and he asked what I was doing. I told him I was just hanging around, not going anywhere. I really wanted to keep it quiet because I didn't want it to ever be a distraction. Well, I was raised never to lie and to always answer a question straight. So I told him I was going to Frank Hawley's and he wanted to know why. I told John that I always wanted to drive and since I knew I wasn't going to get the chance to drive (professionally) I at least wanted to see what it was like in the driving school. He didn't say anything. He was real quiet. He called me the next day and asked if Ashley (Force) could go with me. He wanted me to watch over her and I would be doing him a favor. We ended up going over there and making 16 runs.
I got back from Hawley's and he asked how I liked it. I told him I thought it was unbelievable and I was going to try to go back if he didn't mind, only when we weren't working. So I kept going back. Then Ben Marshall, the driver of Mike Dakin's Warrior car, and I were talking. I told him I wanted to get my license and he said I should talk to Mike and see if I could drive the car. We were testing for the biggest race of the year in Indianapolis and how do you go up to Austin Coil and ask if I could maybe not work and drive another car? John and I got to talking about it and I told him I had the chance to get my Top Alcohol license but that it was while we were testing so I couldn't do it. He talked to Coil and they slipped me out enough to get it done. That was in 2002. That year I entered the Las Vegas divisional event with Texas Stagecoach car. I did that. At that time, I used to race shifter cars, I had three or four of those. I built a real nice trailer for those. It was first class and I built it all. I had a chopper that I built myself. I probably had about $35,000 invested in this bike. It was just cool. But you have to have money to race. So I sold all of the stuff for probably 10 cents on the dollar. But I was chasing a dream. OK, so I lost $30,000 on both of those deals. Was that worth passing up the chance? I didn't think so because if it didn't work out, I could build those things again. I did it once, I could do it again. The next year (2003) we were testing and John asked why I hadn't been driving. I told him I ran out of money. I sold all the stuff, but I went to Hawley's four or five times, ran the Warrior car and the Stagecoach car and I'm out of money. I did it, I know I can drive and that is it. At the time, I didn't care because I was living a dream. He asked if I wanted to make a couple of laps in the Funny Car. Just to see what it was like. I just about fell over. It's not like it came out of the blue. I had mentioned I wanted the chance just to get in one of those cars to see what it was like. He was just being loyal and showing me that he was just trying to repay me for spending a lot of time and money with everything. The guys put the spare car together so I could drive it. They spent all night working on it. We went to warm it up and my dad asked if I wanted to move anything. My foot didn't fit very well with the throttle pedal, but the guys had already put so much work into it, I didn't want them to have to change anything. My first run, my foot slipped back and the car went out of the groove. So I figured I would push down harder next time. If I could have broken that thing through the car, I would have been happy. But I think from pushing on the gas, I was pulling on the wheel. The wheel broke off and I shut it off. The car was still going straight and I didn't want to pull the chutes in case it would veer the car over. The track was black, I couldn't see that well. I tried to guide it over with my hands, but forget it, that is never going to work. So I started to think that I should probably get on the radio and tell them what is going on because they are going to wonder why I was in the center lane. So I tell them, 'Um, the steering wheel came off.' (Co-crew chief) Bernie Fedderly, who is Mr. Calm, gets on the radio and says, 'Do you think you could get it stopped?' I thought for a second before I said, 'Yes, I can get it stopped. Sure.'
On and off I got a couple of more chances. Then Las Vegas happened and serious word got out that Tony was going to leave and I think John got frustrated and thought he may as well give the guy a chance. He asked if I had my firesuit with me. Are you kidding? Of course I had it. He asked if I could run Monday and of course I did. The worst case scenario was that I was going to at least try to get my license. We made a run, it went to half track before I shut it off. I had asked my dad how far he wanted me to drive it and he said as far as I wanted. He told me that if I should drive it until I get uncomfortable. I finally made a pass that made it all the way to the end. It was great. The third run it ran 4.97 at 260 mph. It started to get a little out of the groove, so I shut it off. But it was going pretty good. They called that into (director, Top Fuel and Funny Car) Ray Alley and he said the time was good, but I had to run a faster speed. The guys were just beat. We just won the championship the day before but the car pretty much was burnt up from the final pass on Sunday. Here are a bunch of guys who won the championship. You would think they would just celebrate all night. Don't even put the car in the trailer, just leave it out all night. Just go and celebrate. No, we were working until midnight so we could test the same car the next day. That is what championships are made of. John talked everyone into making one more run that day just so I could go for the license. The guys were cool and they were all for it. We got up to the line and it was dark. John came up to me and said, 'OK, you are going to experience something new. It's called header fire and it is going to scare the daylights out of you. But it's OK. It's going to look like the car's on fire, but it's fine. Just keep driving. No matter what you do, keep on driving it until the lights.' I asked him what happens if it blows up but he told me not to worry. It put out a cylinder and it got to the point where I could hear the crew chiefs yelling for me to turn it off. But in the back of my mind I kept hearing John telling me to get it to the lights. I kept going and shut it off at the lights. It caught on fire. When I got out there were flames two or three feet high. I felt bad for the guys because I knew how much work they did on that car and I knew they had a bigger mess than they did from the night before. I apologized to the guys because I knew I was just being selfish and going for the license. But the car went 280 mph and that was just at the requirement for the license. But I stayed with them and helped with the entire cleanup. We all had to go to Pomona and the guys had to build eight motors just to run at Pomona. They guys never complained once. They thought it was the coolest thing. You can't buy that from crew guys and you can't teach it, it's just there. There is just something about John. He is able to put all these guys together and that is how he builds championships.
Q: When did you find out that you were going to be the next Force Racing driver?
Medlen: It wasn't until after Pomona and after the (awards ceremony) that it came out. Even a week after the final race we honestly thought Tony was going to change his mind and stay with Force. That is a big deal and I think he actually thought about staying for a long time. We thought he would stay and everything would be OK. Then Tony announced what he was doing. John was contacted by a lot of drivers for the opening. I told him that if there was ever a chance, I would love to drive with you. But I would be perfectly happy to keep working on the clutch or cleaning oil pans or anything you need. He told me he was trying to sell me to the sponsors, but now the sponsors have a big say in the drivers too. They put a lot of money into the deal and they wanted a young guy just like me, but with a big name and a lot of driving experience. But I told John that person didn't exist unless you give guys like me a chance. Otherwise, you are going to have the same 16 drivers every weekend for the next 20 years. I really didn't know until a few days before we made the announcement was made in early January.
Q: When did you get into rodeo?
Medlen: My dad was always my buddy. He used to race hydro-planes and he got into a real bad crash and was paralyzed. The doctors said he would never walk and even if he did, he would be really messed up. Well my dad got into a weight training program and then got into body building and I would go to the gym with him every night. We would spend two hours a day there. I was always with my dad. When he left, I thought, 'Now what do I do?' and that is when I started doing rodeo. In high school I roped calves and did team roping. I was moderately successful. I always had the nicest horses and the best equipment and the best teacher, but I was little. If I drew a little calf, I was pretty good. If I drew a big calf, I wasn't so good. Once I got out of the high school ranks, the calves got better and I couldn't do that anymore. So team roping was were I spent my time. I helped with clinics. We had clinics for team roping just like we have Hawley's school for drag racing. I'm not going to say that I was so good that everyone should have seen me, but I was getting better. There are about a dozen guys that go to NFR every year and I used to rope with them and against them. They beat me plenty, but I used to beat them too. If I would have progressed with them, I could have been there too. I used to work the clinics with Gerald, which made me feel pretty honored because he was a world champion. I was progressing and I was getting bigger and a little better. I was teaching guys when it wasn't too long before that when I was being taught. I was on a good path. Then my dad called.
Q: What do you think about working with the same crew you have been working with for so long?
Medlen: It feels awkward. Growing up my dad and his brother started working full time when they were just 14 years old. They instilled a hard working ethic in me. When someone else is working around you, that means you need to work too. Always keep your nose to the grindstone. These guys are working so hard and I don't feel that I am working as hard as they are. But when I get out of the car, I'm already exhausted. You can't do both. The guys have been so supportive and they remind me that I'm not supposed to do both (work on the car and drive it) and that helps. They still tease me a bit, which is good. This is so special to be able to do this with the guys but especially my dad. When he was racing hydro-planes or stock cars, I always had a toy version. To be able to do this professionally, with my dad, is very special. I know the guys mean a lot to him. I don't care if the car blows up in the water box. Every time I get out of the car I tell the guys what a good job they have done because I know what it takes just to get it up to the line.
Q: What are you looking forward to the most about Pomona?
Medlen: Qualifying. Pomona is tricky and it can get cold there. You need to get qualified on the first run. I want to be able to show the sponsors that even though they took a huge risk on a little Western kid from California, but hey, we're qualified. I want them to know they made the right choice. If we don't qualify, we won't tuck our tails and walk away. You can't keep champions down. When Tiger Woods is seven strokes out on Saturday, people should never count him out. He's a champion and that is proven when he is four strokes up at the end of the day on Sunday. Champions know what to do. If we give it our hearts, we'll get qualified and hopefully we'll get qualified in the top half.
Q: Do you feel extra pressure knowing that you are replacing the 2003 NHRA POWERade Funny Car champion?
Medlen: I think having my dad there takes some pressure off. Our communication lines are very open. Having John there is great. He's not John Force, 12-time Funny Car champion. He's just John. He's there and he is great to talk to and that takes pressure off. There is some pressure because we know we have the best car. But I also have a lot of confidence knowing that I don't have just some car that we pieced together for $100. This is the championship car. The same reasons that can cause pressure are the same reasons why we should have confidence. John tells me just to get out there and have fun because that's when I will be at my best.
Q: What expectations do you have for yourself?
Medlen: At the end of the year I would like to know that we did better than everyone thought we would do. I would like for us to surpass the sponsor's expectations. If you prove yourself, they will go to bat for you. I don't expect respect from the beginning, but I want to be able to earn some.