Commentary

John Medlen still working on healing, safety and getting Mike Neff a win

John Medlen was supposed to win titles with his son, Eric, behind the wheel of a John Force Racing Funny Car. But Eric was killed in a practice crash last year, and now the elder Medlen is tuning for Mike Neff and doing everything he can to make cars safer, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: November 1, 2008, 8:08 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

BROWNSBURG, Ind. -- John Medlen goes into the museum room about once a week to reminisce among the mementos from his son's life. Eric Medlen's black Ford Funny Car sits in the middle, surrounded by photos, uniforms, trophies, guitars, even a lasso and practice roping calf from when Eric fostered dreams of being a rodeo cowboy rather than a drag racer.

Eric Medlen
Courtesy NHRAEric Medlen won six national events in his career. His father John was his tuner.

Every day when he drives to work at the sprawling John Force Racing shop, John Medlen drives past a statue of Eric, the young driver holding a victor's Wally aloft.

John can't get away from memories of Eric, a year and a half since the 33-year-old driver died in Gainesville, Fla., after a practice crash. Not that he would want to.

But John Medlen has to move on. There is much work to do in the name of his son, but also for John himself.

A comfortable occasion
This weekend at Las Vegas, the second-to-last on the NHRA schedule, the partnership of crew chief John Medlen and driver Mike Neff turns a year old. Vegas was where Neff first stepped into Eric's car, driving for Eric's crew chief and dad.

"I had a lot of people ask me, 'How are you going to do with another driver?' When Eric sat in the seat, that was his seat. That was Eric's and my relationship," Medlen said. "When Mike sat in the seat, I was fully convinced that Eric sent him. It was like a very comfortable, reassuring occasion because I always felt in my heart that was the right thing. That was who was supposed to be in the seat. I knew that Mike wanted to do it and I thought, 'How could you get a better scenario than that?'"

On the track, it has been a fruitful relationship. Neff, a longtime tuner who guided Gary Scelzi to a Funny Car title in 2005, is a near shoo-in for rookie-of-the-year honors, having driven the JFR Old Spice car into the Countdown to 1 with three runner-up finishes.

"I'm just trying to help out. Nobody will ever replace Eric," Neff said. "It'll never be the same for John Medlen like it was with Eric, no matter if we won every race. But we really get along well. I know he enjoys the tuning of the race car; this is what John loves to do and what Eric would want us to do."

Of course, love and success go hand-in-hand in racing, and the Medlen-Neff partnership didn't find much early in the season with six starts and six first-round losses, with only one first-round pass under five seconds. But when things clicked in the seventh race at St. Louis, they clicked nearly all the way to the winner's circle, with Neff advancing to the final round only to lose to Tim Wilkerson, the current points leader in Funny Car.

That day, Neff saw a twinkle in Medlen's eye that he hadn't seen throughout their partnership, and that perhaps no one had seen since Eric died.

"The guys were finishing putting the car together, getting ready for the final round, and we're both standing in the trailer. I remember him looking at me and saying, 'This is fun,'" Neff said. "That is something that made me feel good. It was a sign of life, of just the whole healing process."

Six weeks later, Medlen's heart was ripped open again.

"You don't know …"
Medlen exchanged greetings with Scott Kalitta before Kalitta climbed into his car for a qualifying run June 21 in Englishtown, N.J. He had a great appreciation for the two-time Top Fuel champion, who spent hours upon hours with Eric when he was first learning to drive, talking about concentration and launching off the starting line.

[+] EnlargeScott Kalitta
Courtesy NHRAThe death of Scott Kalitta earlier this season was a huge blow to the entire racing community, but few took it harder than John Medlen in the wake of his own son's death.

Moments later, Kalitta was gone, killed in an accident at the end of his run.

It was a cruel irony for Medlen. In the wake of Eric's death, he and John Force Racing had established the Eric Medlen Project, attacking safety with the same passion they attacked the quarter-mile. Medlen died when his Funny Car had a tire failure that led to tire shake and the most violent vibrations ever recorded in a dragster cockpit. Medlen's head slammed repeatedly into the roll bars, causing fatal trauma.

John Medlen and his team focused their safety efforts on the driver's cage, enhancing the padding around the driver's head, the tubing and the tub. Their efforts were validated later in the 2007 season when the boss himself, John Force, took a horrifying tumble down the track at Dallas and lived to race again thanks to TEMP's innovations.

"It's a job all by itself, but [Medlen has] taken on our safety program, that's his mission," said Bernie Fedderly, a fellow crew chief at JFR. "It's really pretty incredible to watch; I think he's immersed himself in the safety program to help ease the pain, to think that Eric's life counted for something."

The driver's cockpit was as safe as it had ever been when Kalitta went down the track at Englishtown, suffered parachute failure, and soared through the runoff area into a concrete wall and camera boom. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

"The things that you can't fix are the worst problems to deal with, because you know they exist; you know the potential of something happening is there," Medlen said. "In Scott's case, we didn't know that the series of events that led to Scott's accident could unfold the way they did. But when you see them, I get real disgusted with myself. Why couldn't I have conjured that up? Why couldn't I think of that? Because you hadn't been exposed to it.

"That's why we've opened a new chapter in this Eric Medlen Project, a new project that says, 'Look. If you're at an intersection and there's a right and a left, look right, left, up, down and in front of you.' If you didn't know what was coming that run of Eric's, how could you have known with Scott's? You didn't know it was coming, and you don't know when the next one's coming, so your level of preparedness just moved from damage control to preventive."

Darrell Russell died in a Top Fuel crash in 2004 at Madison, Ill., and after Eric died, Russell's father gave John a medallion with a picture of an angel and a quotation about sons in heaven. On the other side was a list of names: Blaine Johnson (who died at Indianapolis in 1996 in a Top Fuel dragster), Russell and Medlen.

What took Medlen's breath away was the empty space under Eric's name, seemingly waiting for another inscription. Medlen's wife later had the medallion inscribed with Kalitta's name, and John gave it to Connie Kalitta. One father to another.

"Connie said the same thing: 'We've got to keep going. We can't continue to add names to this list,'" Medlen said.

Moving forward
So who is John Medlen today? A safety pioneer first, or a racer? Don't ask him to choose.

John Medlen

I'm just a human. That's it. We just do what we do. Eric, he was an adamant pursuer of perfection, but he realized that it was driven by passion and only achieved through excellence. It's that passion for an end result that drives you. We're all just taking in air like the next guy, and if we're driven more today, it's for Eric.

-- John Medlen

"I'm just a human. That's it. We just do what we do," Medlen said. "Eric, he was an adamant pursuer of perfection, but he realized that it was driven by passion and only achieved through excellence. It's that passion for an end result that drives you. We're all just taking in air like the next guy, and if we're driven more today, it's for Eric.

"I always considered if Eric could come back today, the first thing he would say is, 'Race car ready?' Then he'd look at me and say, 'Safe, Dad?' After everything that's happened, I want to be able to look him in the eye and say, 'As safe as we know how to make it.' He'd say, 'All right, let's go.'"

Medlen's friends have noticed a racer's determination returning to the 59-year-old, or the "fun," as Neff described it.

"I've seen that competitive spirit, that competitive nature when he and I were working together," said Tony Pedregon, who won the 2003 Top Fuel title with John Medlen and later worked with Eric. "It did seem like it took a little while; that's our nature. He's got it -- he's got that passion back more than ever."

Two races remain for Medlen and Neff to get that elusive first win, and if it doesn't happen at Las Vegas or the finale in Pomona, Calif., they'll be back next season to keep trying.

That's what Medlen's life is now, an exercise in perseverance. For himself. For Eric.

"It isn't about losing his son; he's trying to win for his son. I've watched them in [three] finals, it's almost like the Lord is waiting to pick when they're going to win. They're waiting for a place, or a time, and I don't know what that means," John Force said. "I really believe someone is running this program from up above. I live by that, and now I've got reinforcement of a man who lost everything that mattered, and he didn't walk away."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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