John Medlen, Tim Richards start fresh
BAYTOWN, Texas -- John Medlen and Tim Richards, a couple of the most respected tuners in the NHRA, are two old pros who have new life starting this weekend.
One team's cast-off may be another team's savior. And a retiree may return to glory.
That's how it is in sports with players and coaches, and it's the same way in racing with drivers and crew chiefs.
Funny Car driver Melanie Troxel hopes Medlen is the cast-off turned savior this weekend at the O'Reilly Spring Nationals. Ron Capps hopes Richards can get out of his rocking chair and get Capps back to the winner's circle.
For Troxel, it doesn't get much worse than failing to make the show in the first four NHRA events of the season. Her team owner, Roger Burgess, was looking for something, anything, really, that might help Troxel get back in the game and compete at the high level she has shown in the past.
Then it happened, a little gift of NHRA greatness, when Medlen suddenly and surprisingly was available for hire. Medlen and Don Schumacher Racing decided to part ways earlier this week, ending Medlen's brief time as the crew chief for Capps. So Burgess didn't waste any time adding Medlen to his R2B2 Racing team before this week's event at Royal Purple Raceway.
"I truly haven't been this excited about racing, particularly nitro racing, since I got started in the class," Burgess said. "We're in this for the long haul, and it's going to be a wonderful journey with John on board."
Schumacher also had a plan, persuading Richards, 67, to come out of retirement to try to get Capps going.
"Tim's track record is exemplary," Schumacher said. "I believe he can provide technical expertise and championship-quality leadership."
Richards won six championships in his career while working for Joe Amato and Kenny Bernstein's Top Fuel teams before retiring after the 2008 season. But the chance to work at DSR with Capps was something he couldn't pass up.
"This is a terrific opportunity," Richards said. "I have a great driver to work with in Ron. In Houston, we'll try to see how the teams operate and how everyone is working."
Medlen, 59, also is in observation mode this weekend. He just wants to bring a new perspective: "Sometimes when you come on with fresh eyes, you can see things a little differently than someone who is hard at it every day," he said.
Medlen's official title is vice president of research and development, which includes R2B2's five Pro Mod teams. But his specific role right now is to help get Troxel's Funny Car team out of its slump.
Troxel has failed to qualify in the first four NHRA events of 2011 in the In-N-Out Burger Toyota. Medlen will work closely with crew chief Aaron Brooks to try to turn things around.
"I met with Aaron, and he's an open-minded young man with a winning attitude," Medlen said. "That's very encouraging. He'll get this car figured out real soon. I'm sure of it."
Just having Medlen around has to be a confidence boost for everyone on Troxel's team. We're talking about one of the most respected men in drag racing.
Medlen helped build John Force Racing into the powerhouse team it is today. He was the crew chief for Tony Pedregon when he won the NHRA title for JFR in 2003.
Eric Medlen, John's son, replaced Pedregon in 2004 when Tony started his own team. The Medlens teamed up for six victories in three seasons. Eric finished in the top five in the NHRA standings from 2004 through 2006. He was a rising star in the NHRA.
But tragedy shook the sport in 2007 when Eric lost his life after a testing accident in Gainesville, Fla. John Force decided not to run that car the rest of the season.
Force and John Medlen started the Eric Medlen Project, an effort that has produced numerous safety advances in the sport.
Medlen left JFR to join Don Schumacher's organization last season, first working with Funny Car driver Matt Hagan and later moving to Capps' team. Medlen led Capps to his only victory last year at Sonoma.
Capps reached the semifinals in the 2011 opener at Pomona but has two first-round losses in the past three events in the NAPA Dodge. He lost in Round 1 of the Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte two weeks ago. Teammate Jack Beckman won the event.
Capps has 30 career victories in Funny Car, which makes him the biggest winner in the class without a championship. Schumacher felt a change was needed, so Richards is back at work.
It will be interesting this weekend to see who shows more improvement -- Capps or Troxel.
I think very highly of John, and it's great to have him. He'll be under the hood of all our Pro Mod cars also, so everyone is pumped up. He's a guy that everyone likes and respects, and his experience is a real asset.” -- Melanie Troxel
Richards could fire up Capps, and Medlen could be the spark for Troxel, the only woman in NHRA history to win in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
"I think very highly of John, and it's great to have him," Troxel said. "He'll be under the hood of all our Pro Mod cars also, so everyone is pumped up. He's a guy that everyone likes and respects, and his experience is a real asset."
Troxel, 38, is no rookie in a nitro car. She started racing a Top Fuel dragster in 2000 and finished in the top 10 in the standings in 2006 and 2007. But this still is a new Funny Car team that's feeling its way.
"We've been struggling, so we're hoping John can offer some help to get Aaron through this rough spot," Burgess said. "I know the guys are going to continue to work hard. Their reward will be coming very soon."
Medlen is at his best when building a team from the ground up.
"I enjoy working on things when you start at the foundation level," Medlen said. "Building a solid foundation is what ultimately determines your level of success. It's how we did things at John Force Racing for 15 years, and that turned out pretty good over there.''
A crew chief in racing is like a head coach in the NFL. When things don't go well, they usually are the first ones to go. That's how it is, but failure with one team can change to success with another. It's about chemistry and a fresh start.
Just getting in the 16-car field will be an improvement for Troxel's team. And for one week, at least, Medlen would look like a savior.
A good showing this weekend by Capps would make Richards look like the wily tuner who quit too soon.
You're never too old to start anew. Medlen and Richards find themselves with a chance to be heroes again.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.