A lasting legacy: Eric Medlen’s death spurred NHRA safety gains

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) John Medlen remembers his son’s final seconds like they were his first steps.

Eric Medlen inched his dragster to the starting line and waited for the signal. John, also his son’s crew chief, made a couple of routine checks, looked in Eric’s eyes, gave him a thumbs-up and pounded on the hood twice.

“Neither one of us realized he had a little less than three seconds to live,” John said.

Ten years after Eric’s fatal practice run at Gainesville Raceway, home to one of professional drag racing’s premier events, John is still dealing with the demons that come from burying a child. Eric’s death became a defining moment for NHRA, mostly because of the way John reacted to it and the safety changes he fought for.

“Eric would not want anybody here on this earth that’s left to be burdened to the point where you can’t live your life because of his death,” he said. “… I hear his spirit tell me all the time, `Keep going, Dad. Make these cars safe. Keep somebody else from having these kinds of issues.”‘

Eric grew up around racing in Oakdale, California. His father placed his bassinet on a workbench in his garage, and he spent hours at drag strips. Even the school bus dropped him off in front of dad’s race shop.

John Medlen has left John Force Racing to join rival Don Schumacher Racing. (Photo courtesy John Force Racing)

John steered his son toward other pursuits, and to an extent, that worked. Eric was a champion calf-roper in high school, then a mechanical engineering major in college.

But the track always beckoned. The man nicknamed “Duff” spent eight years working as a John Force Racing crewmember before the team gave him his big break as a driver in 2004.

“I tried to talk him out of it, but he wasn’t going to have it,” John said. “If it had wheels, he was going to race it. Go karts, sprint cars, it didn’t matter what it was.”

Eric won six times in 72 starts in the National Hot Rod Association and finished in the top five in points in each of his three years at the pro level. His death shocked the series, even if everyone associated with it knew the perils.

Drag racing has always been one of the most dangerous forms of motorsports, whether it’s on backroads, city streets or professional strips. It became increasingly popular in the 1950s: Bigger engines, lighter cars, faster speeds – and increased risk.

Eric reached the top level, where nitromethane-powered dragsters race in side-by-side lanes and routinely top 300 mph in less than five seconds.

“You know what can happen. Everybody in the industry knows what can happen,” John said. “But we’ve never seen an injury like Eric’s before.”

On March 19, 2007, a day after the NHRA’s Gatornationals, Eric and his Force teammates stuck around to test at the historic track, a common move that allows teams to acquire valuable data while reducing travel costs.

As Eric, 33, pulled to the starting line, everything seemed normal. He released the trans brake, allowing his Funny Car to lunge down the track with the G-forces of a fighter jet. And in the blink of an eye, Eric endured a violent, mid-strip tire shake that snapped the chassis, caused his car to slide out of control and forced his head to whip side to side about 150 times. Goodyear later said something apparently punctured the tire at high speed, causing it to lose pressure and start jerking the entire car with more than 40,000 pounds of force.

John rushed to the crumpled car as it came to a stop against a concrete retaining wall, found Eric unconscious in the cockpit and started yelling at him to breathe. John could tell the wreck was bad. Then he saw a paramedic shine a flashlight into Eric’s eyes, turn to a colleague with a look of desperation and try again.

“I’ll never forget,” John said. “She threw that flashlight into the corner of the ambulance. You could tell this was serious.”

Eric’s head swelled so much because of a traumatic brain injury that he was hardly recognizable in his hospital bed. Doctors worked around the clock trying to relieve pressure and improve blood flow to his brain.

Despite the aggressive treatment, Eric’s body lost the ability to manage its salt and water levels.

After four days with no improvement, the decision was made to take Eric off life support.

He died immediately.

“People were mourning, people were hurt, people were dying inside,” said team owner John Force, who stayed at the hospital with Eric’s family. “But they also were already thinking about moving ahead. They weren’t going to let this happen again.”

Force’s cars skipped the next race, and he canceled the reality TV show “Driving Force,” which focused on him and his three drag-racing daughters.

“We’re not going back to making movies,” Force said. “We’re going to learn how to build race cars.”

Eric’s father led the charge, meeting with NHRA executives, competitors, industry experts and even military and NASA engineers. They studied metal energy, seatbelts, tires, padding.

“As long as I’m on this earth, I’m not going to have Eric give his life in vain,” John said. “We’re the ones here that can make all that count for him and for his memory.”

Changes came quickly.

There were tighter tolerances for chromoly tubing used to build chassis. There were wider roll cages. There was thicker padding surrounding drivers’ helmets. There were now seven seat belt attachment points, keeping drivers more tightly harnessed for added stability and support.

John Medlen, 66, works for Don Schumacher Racing now. Returning to Gainesville every year is the hardest part of his life. Sights, sounds, smells, all come rushing back like the crash was a day – not a decade – ago. He welcomes questions about Eric’s triumphs and tragedy, mostly because they help remind him about the son he lost, the life they lived together and the reason he still works to make the series safer.

“It’s very difficult, but you have to do it,” John said. “You’ve got to face your adversaries and deal with the demons. They’re not going away.”

There have been a few NHRA deaths since Eric’s – Scott Kalitta (2008), Neal Parker (2010) and Mark Niver (2010) – but none of those were caused by tire shake.

Six months after Eric’s death, Force endured a similar tire shake during a race in Texas. The violent crash broke his left ankle, left wrist and several fingers and put a deep cut on his right knee. Force was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he spent weeks before leaving in a wheelchair.

But the 16-time champion avoided any head trauma, which he attributed to the NHRA safety modifications put in place following Eric’s accident.

Force responded by erecting life-size statues of Eric at his team facility in Indiana, and at his corporate headquarters in California. He created museums to house Eric’s race cars.

He sees the impact they have on everyone, even his 5-year-old grandson.

“He pointed at the statue and goes, `What is that, Grandpa?'” Force recounted. “And I said, `That’s Eric Medlen. That’s the guy that saved your Grandpa’s life and I ain’t never forgetting that.”

More AP auto racing: http://www.racing.ap.org

Road America weekend, Friday notes

Abnormal USF2000 podium of Malukas, VeeKay, Kohl. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The Verizon IndyCar Series had two practice sessions today (you can see linkouts to practice one, and practice two, here). But it was far from the only action at Road America.

With seven sessions from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and three sports car sessions, two Pirelli World Challenge and the first Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race, it was a very busy day of action.

Notes from all of those sessions are below.

MRTI

  • In USF2000, a rare occasion happened. Oliver Askew not only didn’t win the first race of the weekend, but had a mechanical issue that sent him to pit road. It opened the door for Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) to capture his first series win in a banner day for Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team. Pabst Racing finished first (VeeKay), third (Lucas Kohl, in his first podium) and fourth (Calvin Ming, after starting 15th). Splitting them up was BN Racing’s David Malukas, the young Chicago native having scored a surprise pole position in the morning, finishing an impressive second place.
  • The first Pro Mazda race of the weekend saw Victor Franzoni on top over Anthony Martin, as the two championship combatants this season continued their bout. Martin (Cape Motorsports) and Franzoni (Juncos Racing) exchanged the lead early before Franzoni got past, then waltzed away. Team Pelfrey’s Nikita Lastochkin finished third for his first podium finish of his Mazda Road to Indy career, after two years in USF2000 and now into his first Pro Mazda season.
  • An intriguing Indy Lights qualifying session for race one saw Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist continue his recent form. The Brazilian rookie edged Carlin teammate Neil Alberico for the top spot, with Ryan Norman best of Andretti Autosport’s quartet in third. Points leader Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) starts fourth while Nico Jamin (Andretti) is fifth, Wisconsinite Aaron Telitz (Belardi) 11th and Colton Herta (Andretti/Steinbrenner) 13th. Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin) did not qualify due to a mechanical issue. Kaiser led practice earlier in the day.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires held three other sessions on Friday. As noted, Malukas won the pole for the first USF2000 race held earlier Friday. Qualifying for the second race took place after IndyCar second practice, and saw VeeKay on pole. In qualifying for Pro Mazda race two, the grid is jumbled after an apparent strategic error cost Franzoni a proper lap time. A red flag meant he wasn’t able to set a realistic time and he will start from 15th and last on Saturday. Meanwhile Martin will be on the pole for Saturday’s race.

RESULTS

Indy Lights: Weekend Results
Pro Mazda: Weekend Results
USF2000: Weekend Results

SPORTS CARS

Photo: Global MX-5 Cup
  • Patrick Gallagher edged Bryan Ortiz by just 0.0263 of a second in a new record closest finish in Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, which breaks the record for the second time in three races. After Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 at Indianapolis, Gallagher turned the tables with his win today, moving his McCumbee McAleer Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup car to the outside of Ortiz exiting Turn 14.
  • Pirelli World Challenge had only two sessions total today, one practice apiece for GT and GTS/TC.

RESULTS

MX-5 Cup: Weekend Results
PWC: Weekend Results

Tony Stewart to race in Rico Abreu fundraiser at Calistoga

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SONOMA, Calif. (AP) NASCAR is back at Sonoma Raceway and the defending race winner won’t be part of the field on Sunday.

Tony Stewart, who scored the last of his 49 career victories here, is retired now and watches the Cup races as a team owner. He still plans to race this weekend.

Stewart will run at Calistoga Speedway in an event that is being largely promoted by Rico Abreu and his father, local businessman David Abreu.

The race used to be called the Wine Country Classic, but has been renamed the Boys and Girls Club Dirt Track Classic. David Abreu designed the event as a fundraiser for a facility to house after-school programs for local children in Calistoga.

“My dad and I have always wanted to promote a race to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club,” Rico Abreu said. “There is a need for it with our demographics and it accommodates hundreds of kids in our valley. It provides them a safe place to learn and grow.”

Rico Abreu, one of the nation’s top dirt track drivers, benefited from the program along with his two siblings in St. Helena.

Stewart, Abreu and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are among those entered in the Saturday night dirt track event to help draw attendance.

David Abreu, founder of St. Helena’s Abreu Vineyards, is hoping to raise $250,000 for an equipped clubhouse at the Calistoga Boys and Club location. He will give a famous “Macho Magnums” – 40 magnums from his Napa Valley 2010 collection – to the first $100,000 donor.

It will be Stewart’s first Winged Sprint Car start at the Calistoga half-mile. He did win a USAC Western Midget Series race in 1994. He also set the midget track record that same weekend and held it until USAC made its return to the venue in 2008.

“I’m really looking forward to running the Calistoga Speedway since I haven’t raced there since 1994,” Stewart said. “I’m also excited to see all the improvements that have taken place at the track since the last time I’ve been there.”

Abreu is driving as well as promoting and fundraising. He’s competing Saturday night in the Sprint Car Challenge Tour 360’s and the King of the West-NARC 410’s.

“Having Tony Stewart and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in competition will certainly be an exciting thing for all the fans in Nor-Cal,” said Rico Abreu.

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

Newgarden, Penske top second practice at Road America

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Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden topped second practice in a 1-2-3-4 sweep for the Team Penske outfit, driving the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet. Newgarden’s best lap of a 1:42.8229 was about five hundredths of a second quicker than teammate and defending race winner Will Power, who was second with a 1:42.8229. Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves completed the Penske top four sweep, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe the best of the Honda drivers in fifth.

The session was only briefly interrupted early on when Alexander Rossi went off the track in Turn 14 and gently slid into the tire barrier. The red flag was flown to remove the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda from the barrier, but Rossi was able to continue, ending the session in 11th after leading the morning practice.

Of note, Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones enjoyed a strong session to end up sixth, while teammate Esteban Gutierrez was 17th on his return to Coyne.

Also, Robert Wickens continued to fill in for Mikhail Aleshin, ending Practice 2 in 20th. While Aleshin is reportedly en route to Road America, it is unknown if Wickens will continue his fill in role through the weekend.

Times are below. Practice 3 rolls of at 12:00 p.m. ET (11:00 a.m. local) on Saturday.

Sauber says it’s ‘soon’ to naming Kaltenborn’s successor

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Sauber F1 Team enters this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix without a team principal and trying to work ahead on its 2018 preparations, making it a tough weekend for one of Formula 1’s smallest teams.

Sauber team manager Beat Zahnder attempted to explain the team’s managerial structure this weekend in Kaltenborn’s absence and teased when he hoped a decision would be made regarding Kaltenborn’s successor.

“Jorg Zander, the technical director and myself, we’ve been entrusted to run the operation of the team this weekend but this is only temporary,” Zahnder explained during the FIA team principal press conference on Friday.

“It doesn’t change a lot for us because our job is to have two cars running as quickly as possible around the circuit and for me it’s a little bit more media work.”

Asked when he hoped to have a successor named, Zahnder replied, “I hope soon. We were talking to some candidates and I hope we can announce it sooner rather than later.”

Former Renault F1 chief Frederic Vasseur’s name has been floated this week, as have other former F1 team chiefs Dave Ryan and Jost Capito, after Colin Kolles’ name was floated earlier in the week.

Zahnder said he could not explain the insider workings of the team.

“I cannot, no. You’ve seen the official press statement from Mr Picci and it seems that Mr Picci and Mrs Kaltenborn had different views how to operate the company. We shouldn’t forget that it’s not only a race team, it’s a home team as well with 350 people or so, but I cannot give you more information because I’m not actively involved in that decision,” he said.

Sauber is still in the process of not only finishing this year but also preparing for its 2018 switch to Honda power. This is an important change and one that comes amidst the turmoil currently encapsulating McLaren and Honda’s turbulent relationship.

“We have started with the project and there is an exchange of information on the logistical side, on the set-up side and the garages,” Zahnder explained. “We have to organize computers and IT stuff and things like this so the work has started, yes.”

With the two McLaren Hondas set to start from the rear of the grid this weekend, Sauber can at least work to get into Q2 and get further up the order with its pair of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein.