LAS VEGAS - Less than a month after a one of his drivers was killed in an accident, John Force failed to qualify for his first Funny Car race in 20 years.
And he was relieved.
"I woke up today with the best attitude I've had since we lost Eric, since that tragic Monday at Gainesville," Force said. "Today was my best day because I'm back where I need to be and Eric's right here with me."
Since Eric Medlen's death in a test session, Force has hired engineers and scientists to make drag racing safer. NHRA is allowing Force to run extra tests and is open to listening to his team's findings.
While Medlen's accident occurred under circumstances NHRA officials say they've never seen before, Force and his team are taking no chances in trying to prevent it from happening again.
While testing March 19 at Gainesville, Fla., Medlen's car experienced tremendous vibrations because of a tire puncture. He crashed into a retaining wall at 110 mph, but medical reports indicated that the vibrations caused brain injury. Medlen died March 23. He was 33.
Force and his team are looking at new head and neck restraint systems to limit the kind of sideways motion that was fatal to Medlen. They have already widened the roll cage, added padding and implemented a new seat belt system.
The padding has already reduced the vibrations in the cars during runs, improving visibility. But beyond that, Force said, it's just common sense.
"If I was going to drop an egg on the ground, I can put down a layer of cotton or I could put down 100 layers of cotton. What's your best chance of saving that egg?" Force said.
Medlen's father and crew chief, John Medlen, is leading John Force Racing's charge to improve safety in Funny Cars.
"I don't think we'll get accomplished what we view needs to be done in the span of time of a couple months," John Medlen said. "By the end of this year we'll probably have implemented 50 to 60 percent."
Graham Light, the NHRA's senior vice president of racing operations, said the sanctioning body is looking at the proposed safety improvements and may implement some of them in the near future.
The organization made three rule changes Sunday morning, requiring Top Fuel and Funny Cars to secure fasteners, timing pointers and clamps, preventing them from falling off the cars and puncturing tires.
Light said the surprising nature of Medlen's accident doesn't diminish the importance of preventing it from happening again.
"We've learned something in Eric's incident that we've never witnessed before that was this extreme oscillation or vibration. But now we know it can happen," Light said. "We need to learn from that, we need to try to come up with some measures and put them in place that either prevents the vibration from occurring in the future ... we need to look at improving methods of survivability."
Funny Car owner Don Schumacher said he wants to make sure that the findings of the past few weeks are important, but the practicalities of the industry might make them hard to implement. A modified chassis design, for example, might take weeks to get on the racetrack.
"We need to let things settle in a little bit and see what is the right thing to do," he said. "You're kind of in line to get some of these things done. I'm not sure all of them are the right thing to do or not."
Force said he expects NHRA will make the right decision based on the data he provides.
"The same people that make the rules over there are the same people that cried in our church, and at the funeral, those are real tears," he said. "It started with Eric Medlen, it will evolve through his dad, and it will move through my crew chiefs, it will move through NHRA and through the other teams because they're all good people. One thing about drag racing, it's a family."
Ron Capps, the Funny Car points leader and one of Schumacher's drivers, said he and his crew chief, former driver Ed McCulloch, were looking for improvements independently of and before the Force studies.
"Because John is doing what he's doing doesn't mean we have to do exactly what they're making," he said. "We will probably follow in that direction if we find something that's substantial, but we've been ahead on that curve."
Force said he feels that Eric Medlen has already started to make cars safer.
"It's better because I know Eric is right in the front seat with Ashley and Robert and that ain't just to get a win, that's to keep them safe," he said. "But I bet he's in the seat of every other driver out there, because he loved all these guys. This kid had a real passion. This kid was really special."
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