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

Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, points

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

POINTS: Standings after Rolex 24 at Daytona l Michelin Endurance Cup standings l Daytona endurance points

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


STATS PACKAGE FOR ROLEX 24 HOURS OF DAYTONA:

Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.