HIGHT CONFIRMED, OTHERS WAIT FOR GO AHEAD TO RACE AT LAS VEGAS Force Still Undecided About Ashley Force, Neff, Burkart Participation YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- John Force said Wednesday that he will send a full complement of Team Castrol Ford...
HIGHT CONFIRMED, OTHERS WAIT FOR GO AHEAD TO RACE AT LAS VEGAS
Force Still Undecided About Ashley Force, Neff, Burkart Participation
YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- John Force said Wednesday that he will send a full complement of Team Castrol Ford Mustangs to this week's ACDelco Las Vegas Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but the 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion stopped short of confirming the participation of either Rookie-of-the-Year contender Ashley Force, rookie-to-be Mike Neff or Phil Burkart Jr., who tested impressively with the team last week.
"We have some new data and it looks like we still have issues," Force said. "All I can say right now is that I have cleared Robert Hight to race in the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford. Decisions will be made on the other three cars after I talk with my crew chiefs again in Las Vegas."
Still recovering from injuries suffered in a Sept. 23rd crash at the Texas Motorplex, Force cited "chassis issues" as the reason for his indecision. He would not elaborate further, but said he okayed Hight to compete because his car was built by a different manufacturer than the other three.
The heat-treating process has become the subject of debate in the weeks since the chassis beneath Force's Castrol-backed Ford pulled apart after a tire failed for reasons not yet determined, leaving the 125-time tour winner's legs exposed. Nevertheless, Force said Wednesday that heat treating is not the only issue currently being addressed by his team.
"We're looking at the chassis, the tires, the track surface and our own preparation," Force said. "And the chassis issues aren't just about heat treating. We have some new information on materials and that's what we're going to discuss in Vegas. The crew chiefs are going over it now."
The 58-year-old icon suffered a compound fracture of the left ankle, broken bones in his right foot, a badly dislocated left wrist, tendon and ligament damage to his right knee and mangled, broken and burned fingers on his right hand.
He was in a Dallas hospital for 27 days following six hours of reconstructive surgery the night of the accident. He learned Wednesday that his injured right foot will require more surgery within the next one to two weeks.
Force's semifinal crash was not the first accident suffered this year by the sport's most high-profile team, nor the worst. On March 23rd, four days after a testing accident at Gainesville, Fla., driver Eric Medlen succumbed to traumatic head injuries in an incident similar to Force's. The safety enhancements implemented after Medlen's crash are credited with saving Force's life.
"It's happened twice," Force said, "and I'm not going to allow it to happen again. Am I shell-shocked? Probably, because I never thought something like this could happen. Am I being overly-cautious? When we're talking about safety, yes.
"All I can say is that we're looking at new data every day and working with Ford Motor Company, the NHRA, the PRO, Murf McKinney and Goodyear to come up with answers that will make things safer for everyone.
"I have a meeting with my crew chiefs Thursday to assess the latest data and that's when we'll make the final decision. Bottom line, if I don't believe our cars are safe, I won't run them and all my sponsors -- Castrol, Auto Club, Ford, BrandSource, Mach 1 Air Services and Mac Tools -- are in agreement."
Hight, the only Team Force driver to qualify for the NHRA's new Countdown to One, tested in the new car last Thursday at LVMS and was clocked in 4.757 seconds at 305.49 miles per hour. The other three Force Fords also participated in the test session without incident.
Hight's chassis was one originally built for Force by Steve Plueger. After the 14-time Auto Racing All-American bought it back from the party to whom he had sold it, it was re-configured at Victory Race Cars, Inc., to incorporate changes including a wider cage with extra padding and a tub underneath to protect the driver's feet.
John Medlen, Eric's father, heads up The Eric Medlen Project, the JFR safety initiative launched after the Florida accident and housed in a building adjacent to the team's shop facility in Brownsburg, Ind.