THE MODERATOR: I would like to welcome everyone to today's teleconference. Our guest on the call today will be John Force. Joining John on the call will be John Force Racing crew chief John Medlen; Ashley Force, rookie driver of the Castrol...
THE MODERATOR: I would like to welcome everyone to today's teleconference. Our guest on the call today will be John Force. Joining John on the call will be John Force Racing crew chief John Medlen; Ashley Force, rookie driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang; John Melvin, a biomedical research scientist and auto racing safety consultant who has been retained by John Force Racing, who works out of Wayne State University. We also have Graham Light, senior vice president of racing operations for NHRA.
We would like to start with some opening remarks from John Force. John, we all know this has been an extremely difficult time for you. Can you tell us what your team's plan is for this weekend at Las Vegas.
JOHN FORCE: Well, we plan on going to Vegas. That's the number one plan. First I'd like to take a few minutes, if you'd give me a few minutes. John Medlen will address us in a bit, as far as my daughter Ashley, Graham Light and John Melvin.
I want to say that this won't be my typical interview that I do because I'm always guilty of trying to entertain you. So if you'll give me a few minutes, I'd like to go through this, then we'll open it up to questions for all of us.
Number one, we do intend at being at Vegas. But we do have some testing to do before Vegas. We'll address that through questions.
The first thing I'd like to do, why I called this call, was to apologize to the media, to the announcers, to everybody nationwide because in this time for John Medlen's family and our family and everybody involved, we needed time just to kind of get through this and get our ducks in a row. I know a few of you were a little angered at me, like the story needs to be said. But we were working on getting data together.
We spent a week in Gainesville with John Medlen and his family and Eric Medlen, Ashley, Robert Hight, a few others. We went to Indy, we returned yesterday, we spent two weeks there getting organized which direction to go. But I want to say the calls and the letters and the tribute by ESPN and all the announcers for Eric, I know it was felt by John Medlen and myself. It's just important I take a minute to thank these people. The only joking going around here is we compare it to Groundhog Day. Robert, Ashley and I get up every day, and every day seems to be the same until we can figure this out, how to move on, not just for ourselves but what we would want for Eric Medlen, what he would want us to do, and that is to move on.
I also want to thank Castrol and Ford and AAA and Brand Source, Mack Tools, Mach 1 and Nordic Boats. Those are people that pay me. When I chose not to run Houston, they all supported me. When we canceled dozens of appearances between the four of us, the four drivers, they were all very understanding. I just want to show respect to them because they showed respect to us.
But I want to say here right now, two statements I want to make, because I wrote them and I want you to understand this. I'm going to read this. This is written by me.
NHRA has a very high level of safety measures currently in place to make these cars as safe as possible. Given the inherent risks, the risks of the sport, we're all aware of it, but we believe that if we work together at John Force Racing with NHRA and with PRO (Professional Racers Organization), I've been on the phone every day with Kenny Bernstein (PRO president), we can learn additional ways to improve the safety of these cars. NHRA will certainly consider to mandating these such changes. There's a lot of things that we're addressing. But we haven't asked anything until we get our data put together.
I want to go there. But I want to say one other thing here that has already caused us a lot of grief and problems and that's why we didn't respond. Internet gossip can provide nothing but negative results in these efforts. The Internet is a good thing. But a lot of times they go off half-cocked because they don't understand what we're trying to evaluate, what we're trying to say. We're not sugar coating anything.
But JFR here is making great attempts, we're financing, and right now I'm supporting these recent safety evaluations. We need everybody to understand that we at JFR, NHRA, the people at SFI, other people in the related industry, because we've had dozens of meetings in Indy over the course of two weeks, and I got to say all the vendors from Goodyear, they took their time to fly in. So many people came to work with us so we could address what was going on. Melvin was brought on board. He works up at Wayne State University in Detroit. He's been on my payroll for three weeks. He's been giving us input. Graham Light, Dan Olson, PRO, Kenny Bernstein, his car went to McKinney's to be worked on for the changes necessary we felt for now to address these problems.
There were no answers at first. Then we started getting data, nothing like we've ever seen before. It's oscillation that takes place, and it moved on into harmonics in this race car. Things like this have never been seen in racing history of any kind of motorsport. The only comparison they could make to me was a helicopter in the military when a blade came off. John Melvin can explain this.
What I want to say is, the steps we've took, is cockpit. We've not addressed the tire. In fact, there's a statement here that Goodyear made, that they feel the tire was punctured. We never said it was the tire. We could have ran over a nail. Somebody could have shot it with a gun. We only know that the tire, part of it, left the car, that set up the situation that has never been seen before.
Dragsters don't have this problem. But it was directly, even though a tire came off, we never said it was the fault of the tire. We believe Goodyear works hard. I'm not sugar coating it. I'm telling you what my crew chiefs, my generals, tell me that needs to be said.
There's going to be a program headed by John Medlen. When we get this package put together, we're going to take it to NHRA. We're going to turn it over with Kenny Bernstein through PRO to look for the future what we can continue to do to build a safer race car.
I think that pretty much covers it. I want to say that I really want to thank Ron Capps and his team and so many others, J.R. (Todd), for dedicating the race. Ed (McCulloch, crew chief for Ron Capps) walked into our shop. We were having meetings with Goodyear, 10 people in the boardroom with my crew chiefs. Ed and Capps handed this trophy over from Houston. It was very emotional. Bernie and John Medlen, we know we're in a great family of racers. It's why with us our time to do this for everybody, not just us, not for my family and not just because Eric Medlen would have wanted it, and because his father wants it, but because racers deserve to know the truth. If we all work together, we'll make it better.
Guys, I want to close here and we'll open for questions. I was guilty of being on the other side when these issues happened with the dragsters, and I gave my input. I was even told, you don't own a dragster. I was guilty of shutting my mouth.
But now I'm on the other side with John Medlen. Now I know the pain. We are going to address this. We're going to work with our partners.
We'll just open it right now. I didn't mean to drag that out. I just wanted to make some statements. We're open for questions. Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions from the media.
Q: John, how were you able to get through this? How are you and your family doing?
JOHN MEDLEN: Well, everybody asks me that question every day. They say, How are you doing? I wish I knew how to respond to that. We're getting by one day at a time. We have a very strong religious background. The Holy Spirit just gives us the power to take it one step at a time. That's the only way we can find the peace. The loss and grief almost seems to get worse every day, but we're doing the very best we can to deal with it.
Q: Graham, do you recall ever making an exception to the seven-day non-test policy before a national event?
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, this is unprecedented. But under the circumstances, and we had, along with John Force, lined up the use of O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis. Their shop is within a mile or so. Unfortunately, the weather was so cold back there we were unable to use it.
What John is testing is not the performance of the car. Under the circumstances they made some significant changes that we all want to learn from, the other teams and ourselves. One of the questions John has is whether or not the car is even drivable. Under those very rare circumstances, we allowed John to go out and make a 300-foot pass. There will be no data gathered. Dan Olson will be there to make sure the data recorder is not connected. There will be no times or anything. We just felt under the circumstances it was the right thing to do. Yes, it is in violation of our testing policy. Again, it's the right thing to do.
Q: You and NHRA really seem to be getting behind this research. It seems like you've really made a commitment to try to improve the safety.
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, since the beginning of our sport, unfortunately we've learned from accidents and people's injuries, so on in the past. You have to take every incident and review it and try and piece it together as to what happened and what can be taken to hopefully reduce those sort of chances again in the future.
Q: John Force, I guess you were talking about cockpit changes early on. What kind of things are being considered, being discussed?
JOHN FORCE: When we got to Indy and John Medlen was in the middle of all the emotion and the pain, we started addressing the car. We were on the phone to Murf McKinney. I have to say he spent two and a half weeks getting us prepared. In fact, I'm told they're changing Kenny Bernstein's car as of right now. That's why the information of what we're going to do was basically all we could do right now, was to change -- to work within the rules of NHRA, but change the cockpit area of the driver.
Trevor Ashline of Safety Solution, after the roll cages were changed bigger, because we didn't have enough protection in there. A lot of the teams were already changing them. They couldn't change the roll cages, but they were adding padding.
The problem is, there's no room to add the amount of padding you need. He was working on that. Another fella, ISP, Chris VanGuilder, worked in the cockpit with the seats, with the padding. The information we got from John Melvin, how we needed to secure the driver's head. I'll let them explain that. These things had to be done immediately.
We also addressed the seven-point harness. Simpson came in. A number of people. We addressed the seat belts. We did a lot in the cockpit. We don't know if it will be drivable. That's why even the neck brace with the R3 neck brace, another unit like the HANS device, they addressed different angles on it for side impact. These cars are meant for single impact. What you got here was a whole lot different. The doctor can explain that.
We had to jump into the cockpit now. I've got six cars. I think three of them are still in Indy. But my team was on its way to Vegas, should be there by now. All of the changes that were designed and made and put in, taken back to the labs and redone, will be starting to be installed in the morning so I can get in the seat tomorrow.
I don't know if it's drivable, what we've done. With that information we need to create a situation of tire shake. If we can do that, I'll know if my head will be able to see with what we've done to protect it. Maybe too much. But with that information, I can give it to Ashley. With that information, I can give it to Robert and Kenny, which is going to have the same situation.
You can't just make a big opening for the head because then you have no protection. What have you accomplished? It needs to be tested. NHRA was good enough to allow us to do that. We will receive no data from the runs. We don't want any data. We only need to go 200, 300 feet to get to the tire shake. We're going to try to create tire shake. Dan Olson will be there with us. He is a crew chief, so he understands exactly what we're doing.
Q: John, excuse me if this is an awkward question, but can you talk about the future of the team right now, where it's headed with the employees that you have on board right now.
JOHN FORCE: I have contracts with four teams plus my Super Comp teams. Those dragsters are out at Victory having roll cages, padding, everything changed. There was a lot of good information that came out of this in a short period of time.
As of right now, John Medlen and his team are staying intact. We will take all four teams to Vegas out of respect for Eric Medlen and his family and for our own team. We want to be together. We want to stay strong. We will only run three of the teams. But I want to clarify: until I drive this car and test it, and we have considered running Indy, it was so cold. We looked at Dallas, we looked at a number of places, but as I told Graham Light, there's not time to get there, set up and test, then get to Vegas. I wouldn't go to Vegas without knowing whether it was drivable.
But if it does not work, I mean, I have issues with Ashley, she's here, I want to let her speak, but if it doesn't work, with what we've created, we have to go back to the drawing board, we may not be able to enter the race at Indy.
My life has changed to where it's not just about winning the championship. My priorities are how to race and believe that what we are doing is right. And safety is my number one priority right now. If the cars are not right, then we will not enter the three cars. But we fully intend to. We're going there with the attitude that what we have done will work. My crew chiefs believe it. Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, Jimmy Prock, headed by John Medlen, they live it. Dean Antonelli, they live it every day. It's a sickness. We will come out of this, I promise you that.
John Medlen, God bless you. You're the strongest individual I've ever met. I know you got God leading you. I'm going to go where John Medlen tells me to go. We will be at Las Vegas.
Did I answer that, I hope?
Q: John, we've seen the family ties, the emotional ties, how you felt about Eric Medlen. On this team right now, what is the emotion? What emotions are you going through in terms of getting back to where you need to be?
JOHN MEDLEN: Was that for John Force or John Medlen?
Q: John Force.
JOHN FORCE: Maybe John should answer that. I thought it would get better when I got to California. I'm being honest, it got worse for me. I need to get to a racetrack. I need to get out here with these people and do what I do. That's the only way I'm going to get well.
John, would you answer this, please.
JOHN MEDLEN: Yeah, basically I think John's earlier statement kind of outlines what we feel with all this. I wish there was a word to describe what our emotions are. There's nothing in my vocabulary that can describe the level of grief, all those emotions that would involve a circumstance like this.
One of the things we're trying to bear in mind is, I can see Eric talking to us and watching us. He would say, you know, Get back out there and race, guys. That's what I do. That's what he did. That's what he loved to do. You couldn't direct him in any other manner. I tried many times to get him to pursue his engineering degree. He loved that race car. He loved racing. That's what he wanted to do.
He would be very disappointed in us if we just tucked our tail under and continued on.
However, he would also be saying, Just make sure the cars are safe, dad. Once we tell him the cars are safe, he wouldn't question it. He'd get in it and go. We're doing everything we can in evaluating all the circumstances involved here that we're going to send the guys out here with a safer race car and we're going to keep right on going. That's just what we do.
Q: John, just wanted to ask you, how much harder is it getting ready to go back to the racetrack and putting your daughter into one of these cars?
JOHN FORCE: That's the hardest part for me right now. You know, if I didn't go back, then I failed Eric. But that's the hardest part for me. I always believed these cars were safe. I promised these kids they were 'cause I've driven them for over 30 years. I've been through every type of crash you can imagine.
I'd really like Dr. John Melvin maybe to address what he's gotten from the data and what he's found in the lab of what took place. Can't even explain how it happened. You live with it every day. But we also know, when I sat with Dan Davis at Ford, we talked about racing, you know. Race cars race. That's why we do it, the edge you live on that makes it exciting, that you're doing what nobody else does. Then you put your child in there, and it's hard.
Ashley is here if you want to ask her. Robert is mad at me because why didn't I allow him to race Houston. He was in the points lead. He understood. Ashley is mad because I'm debating Vegas with her.
We owe it to protect the drivers and we owe it to protect our children. So I'm weighed between a father and I'm weighed between an owner that says you take that chance. I have to explain it to the wife. My wife took Ashley from Indy and took them out of the country for a week, all my kids. Hell, I didn't know if she was going to bring 'em back. Went on a little vacation, tried to get away.
When Ashley came back yesterday, she's here with me now, still aggravated at me. But I don't care if she's aggravated. When I know it's right, with my crew chief's input, and with what I know, then we'll make that decision for Vegas, but we're not going to know till we get there.
We're headed there tonight.
Continued in part 2