Rookie Among Funny Car Contenders in Auto Club Finals POMONA, Calif. (Nov. 11-14) -- Eric Medlen began the 2004 season sitting on a stool in the press room at Pomona Raceway trying to explain to the media how a former rodeo cowboy and race...
Rookie Among Funny Car Contenders in Auto Club Finals
POMONA, Calif. (Nov. 11-14) -- Eric Medlen began the 2004 season sitting on a stool in the press room at Pomona Raceway trying to explain to the media how a former rodeo cowboy and race car mechanic wound up as driver of a Castrol SYNTEC® Ford Mustang that, for two weekends, looked like it might qualify No. 1 for the K&N Filters Winternationals.
Now, 21 races later, the 31-year-old rookie hopes to end his first season sitting on that same stool as the winner of Sunday's 40th annual Automobile Club of Southern California Finals.
Currently fifth in POWERade points and a legitimate contender for the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award, which annually identifies the NHRA's Rookie-of-the-Year, Medlen has been one of the feel good stories of the 2004 season.
A former high school rodeo champion, he was preparing for a career in pro rodeo as team roping partner to two-time former PRCA champion Jerold Camarillo when he received a phone call in the winter of 1995 that would take him off one horse and put him onto a much faster one.
That call came from his father, John Medlen, who had just been hired to oversee the build-up of a second Funny Car at John Force Racing. The elder Medlen offered the aspiring calf roper an alternative, a job working as a mechanic on basically the same Mustang he drove to victory last August in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn.
Not that it was an easy decision.
While Medlen always had dreamed of racing with his father, in whose Oakdale, Calif., machine shop he literally grew up, he also had grown close to Camarillo, with whom he remains in close contact.
In fact, in the end it was Camarillo who advised him to follow his racing dream, telling him that, if it didn't work out, he could always go back to roping.
Ironically, he worked just one season on his father's crew. In 1997, he moved over one pit space where, for the next seven seasons, he was a member of the crew on the dominant car in the sport: Force's Castrol GTX® Mustang.
Working first as the supercharger specialist and later as the clutch technician, Medlen celebrated 48 victories and six championships with Force. He also earned the trust and admiration of the 113-time tour winner who, when Tony Pedregon left at the end of the 2003 season, put Medlen on the short list as a possible replacement.
Although he never before had driven in an NHRA national event, Medlen was an accomplished kart racer who had made an impression on Force when he sold his shifter karts and a chopper motorcycle he had built to fund his tuition to Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School.
"We looked at a lot of drivers," Force said, "but we knew Eric and being able to put him together with his dad, it just seemed right."
It has proven to be a fortuitous move.
Medlen not only earned a breakthrough victory at Brainerd, he also put the SYNTEC hybrid on the "pole" at Englishtown, N.J., and again at Reading, Pa., was runner-up at Atlanta, Ga., and won $4,000 in the Motel 6 "Who Got the Light" program as the winner of the closest two-car race in the four professional categories at not one, not two, not three, but four different events.
Significantly, he will finish well ahead of the man whose ride he inherited. Pedregon enters the Finals in ninth place in POWERade points although he could finish as high as seventh.