MEDLEN'S MEMORIES ALL POSITIVE AT O'REILLY SUMMER NATIONALS Track Record-Holder Aims High at Heartland Park TOPEKA, Kan. -- Eric Medlen always will have a special affinity for Heartland Park-Topeka, the Kansas track to which he returns this...
MEDLEN'S MEMORIES ALL POSITIVE AT O'REILLY SUMMER NATIONALS
Track Record-Holder Aims High at Heartland Park
TOPEKA, Kan. -- Eric Medlen always will have a special affinity for Heartland Park-Topeka, the Kansas track to which he returns this week for the 17th running of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Summer Nationals.
That's because a year ago, when Medlen was trying to establish himself as the rookie driver of the Castrol SYNTEC® Ford Mustang, Heartland Park was the first track on which he reached the final round.
It mattered not that Whit Bazemore beat him in the final because Medlen felt that by reaching the money round he in some small way had justified the faith John Force had shown in hiring him to succeed departed 2003 NHRA POWERade Funny Car Champion Tony Pedregon.
Of course, it didn't hurt that he lowered the track record to 4.739 seconds in a second round victory over his boss or that he beat Pedregon in the semifinals.
"What I remember most is that we had to race John and Tony," Medlen said. "That was pretty cool, beating both of those guys and then racing Bazemore in the final.
"I remember towing up for the final and there were a lot of crew guys coming over and giving me the thumbs up," he said. "That was kinda neat because I really felt like I was representing (other crewmen with driving aspirations) who are still waiting for their chance."
A former high school rodeo champion, Medlen was prepping for a career in pro rodeo as roping partner to two-time PRCA World Champion Jerold Camarillo when he took a call that would change his life.
The caller was his father, John Medlen, who had just been hired to supervise the build-up of a second Funny Car team at John Force Racing, Inc. He asked his son to join him. It was the opportunity for which the younger Medlen had been waiting, although not always patiently. Nevertheless, it wasn't an easy decision to make.
"I told Jerold, 'I don't really know what to do,'" Medlen recalled. "'I kinda want to stay here and rodeo with you but I've always wanted to work with my dad, too.' Jerold said, 'well, you know, 80 per cent of World Champions in roping are 30 and older, so you can always come back and do this.
"'If (a drag racing career) doesn't work out, you can come back and this will always be here, but if you pass it up, it might not ever come around again, so you've got to take your chance.' That meant a lot, because he wanted me to stay, too."
Nevertheless, Medlen never seriously believed he would get a chance to drive a 330 mile-an-hour race car. He was content working as a crewman first on his dad's car and later on Force's championship winning Castrol GTX® Fords.
But when Pedregon left the team an opportunity presented itself.
Given the chance, Medlen responded first by reaching last year's Summer Nationals final and later by winning at Brainerd, Minn., spurring him to a fifth place finish in points.
Although he hadn't driven competitively before the 2004 season, the 31-year-old said he wasn't nervous before the Heartland Park finale.
"People came up to me and said 'man, your first final. Are you nervous?,'" Medlen recalled. "I told them, 'not really (because) it's not really my first final. I've been in a hundred of them, just not sitting in the (driver's) seat."
"He knew everything about the car and everything about our operation," Force said, "so putting him in the car with his dad as the crew chief just made sense."
With each of Medlen's successes, it makes more and more sense.