14-Time Champion Dealing with Emotional Week at Sonoma SONOMA, Calif. -- It seems like only yesterday that John Force and Eric Medlen were playing cowboy with two-time PRCA champion Jerold Camarillo on his ranch just outside Oakdale, Calif., ...
14-Time Champion Dealing with Emotional Week at Sonoma
SONOMA, Calif. -- It seems like only yesterday that John Force and Eric Medlen were playing cowboy with two-time PRCA champion Jerold Camarillo on his ranch just outside Oakdale, Calif., Medlen's hometown.
It seems like only yesterday the two were floating in the pool at a Bay Area spa for an episode of the hit A&E Network TV series, Driving Force.
And it seems like only yesterday Force was celebrating with Medlen in the winners' circle at Infineon Raceway, site of the 20th annual FRAM/Autolite Nationals, where, in a perfect world, his young protege this week would have been defending his Funny Car championship.
But, as Force so often has been reminded the last four months, the world is not perfect and Medlen, one of the brightest young stars of the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, is gone now, his light extinguished in a freak accident during testing last March at Gainesville, Fla.
The impact of that loss will reverberate this week for friends and family: Eric's mother, Mimi, his uncle Steve, cousin Butch, Camarillo and his sister, Christie, and everyone else in Oakdale's close-knit cowboy community.
However, it will be felt most deeply by the two people closest to Eric during his all-too-brief racing career: Force, the 14-time series champion who was friend and mentor, and John Medlen, the father and crew chief with whom he shared six tour victories and for whom he never finished worse than fifth in the driver standings.
Operating in a such an emotionally-charged environment, the two know they still have a job to do this week and that is to find a way to keep Force's Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang in the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship.
After a runner-up finish last week at Seattle, Wash., Force finds himself on the inside, looking out, for the first time all year. Only this week's race and two more remain before the NHRA certifies the eight cars eligible to compete for the $500,000
"If Eric was here, he'd be right in the middle of (the Countdown)," Force said, "but he isn't, so his dad and I have to get him in the hunt."
Indeed, John Medlen has taken on a more and more prominent role on Force's High Mileage Mustang, working closely with co-crew chiefs Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly to circumvent the glitches and gremlins that created an early-season nightmare for drag racing's biggest winner.
Off to the worst start of his 30-year career, one in which he won exactly two racing rounds in the season's first 11 events, Force only recently began to flash the form that made him an Auto Racing All-America selection 14 times in the last 16 seasons.
"I didn't wake up one morning and not know how to drive," Force said on the eve of his return to an Infineon track on which he has won more often than any other pro driver, "and Coil and Bernie didn't wake up not knowing how to tune a hot rod. We had some issues, but we're working it out."
Those "issues" threatened to put Force in a hole from which he couldn't extricate himself. However, since winning earlier this month at Bristol, Tenn., a triumph that extended to 21 the number of consecutive seasons in which he has won at least one tour event, the 58-year-old at least has given himself a chance at another title.
"We've struggled," Force said. "Everybody knows that. We went from being one of the greatest teams in history to being (one of) the worst, but now this ol Mustang is starting to talk to me. With all the yellin' and screamin' and fightin' over here, we kept it together because we're family.
"Even if we don't (make the Countdown), bottom line, we're having fun again and we're gonna go down slugging. We've still got time."