Volume IX, Issue 3, Page 153

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What needs to change?


As I write this column it’s been just four days since Eric Medlen’s horrific crash, and the young man remains in the hospital in a drug-induced coma that he will be in for a couple of weeks according to Force team spokesman Dave Densmore’s press release (and by the way, as far as I know Mr. Densmore is the only spokesman the team officially employs).

No matter how successful Eric Medlen’s recovery from his injuries is, he, his family, and the John Force team will most likely never be the same. Thoughts of Eric Medlen will surely flood John Force’s mind each and every time he sees his daughter Ashley suit up and strap into her Fuel Funny Car. Every father who has a daughter or a son driving a fast race car will for a period of time be affected by Eric Medlen’s tragic crash.

But we all have to remember and realize that drag racing is the most dangerous of all the motorsports with many, many classes where 200-mph or even 300-mph speeds are the norm. Every NHRA and IHRA national event track has unforgiving, steel re-enforced concrete guard walls. So when we do have an inevitable crash such as Eric Medlen’s the results are often bad. It is the nature of what happens when a steel-tube race car meets concrete at speeds approaching or even exceeding 300 mph.

So what should we as fans and spectators take from Eric Medlen’s crash? Should we immediately start looking and someone or something to blame for this tragedy that has touched the sport.

As we know from past experience (like the death of Darrell Russell) the sanctioning body will never reveal to the public what they did or did not find as to the reason for the crash. Why does the public need to know about these matters anyway, as long as we can trust the sanctioning bodies to at least attempt to make safety changes -- which both the NHRA and IHRA have done in the past. In the litigious world we live in that really is the most we can expect. No person, company or sanctioning body is going to admit responsibility because the lawsuits that would surely follow would mean the end of the sport.

So, I say no one is to blame for this accident and no one should feel responsible for it. After Darrell Russell’s death I was one of those that demanded action to try and prevent exactly this kind of accident from happening. Ray Alley and the NHRA and Mike Baker and the IHRA took drastic measures to prevent this, including making head and neck restraint devices mandatory. They tried everything they could think of and basically failed to slow down the Top Fuel and Funny Cars.

In the mean time Pro Stock and Pro Mod cars are making quantum leaps in speeds and ET’s and 200-mph Comp, Top Comp, Top Dragster and Top Sportsman cars are becoming more common every day. And the danger level in the sport continues to rise each and every year. At the same time the sanctioning bodies do what they can to make the cars and drivers safer through improved design of safety equipment, the chassis and the tracks. But in my opinion nothing they can do or legislate is going to make drag racing a totally safe sport. Not as long as we have heavy cars going 200 to 330 mph down tracks surrounded by concrete guard walls.

Nothing short of NHRA and IHRA making the drastic kinds of rules changes that NASCAR did over 30 years ago to keep their cars from going over 200 mph is going to slow drag racing down. And I don’t think anyone in a position to do that in drag racing has the stomach for that kind of action.

As a sport we all just have to come to grips with the inescapable fact that in professional drag racing there will be crashes, and people we know and admire are going to be hurt or worse. I’m not giving the sport a “pass” here. I’m of the opinion that both Top Fuel and Funny Cars are too fast for the facilities. Perhaps both the NHRA and IHRA should look at the “soft” walls that NASCAR and the IRL have developed.

I think that Dan Olson and the NHRA ought to keep going down the path started by Ray Alley and slow down the Fuel Cars so that a 300-mph pass is a big deal. A 330-mph pass just isn’t a big deal anymore so what’s the point? Drag racing just isn’t about speed anymore. If it were we’d run cars one at a time instead of in pairs. NASCAR sure hasn’t suffered loss of sponsors, fans, or TV contracts with cars that generally run slower than 200 mph on their fastest tracks.

Every driver and every tuner of a drag race car that exceeds 200 mph in a quarter mile has to be aware of the inherent risks they are taking. If they are driving and crewing a 300-mph car they should be even more so. While we can grieve for them when they crash and are injured, we shouldn’t feel too sorry for them. As they used to tell me in the military after I had enlisted and started to gripe, “You can’t be a victim when you volunteer!”

So, while we are all concerned and worried about Eric Medlen we all should realize that young man wanted to do nothing else but drive a nitro burning Funny Car. He knew and fully understood the risks he took every time he got into the car.

I really don’t know Eric that well other than to say hello to him in the pits and shake his hand, but his dad, John, and I are fairly good friends and he’s the one I’m really sorry for and worried about. To John I say keep the faith and take comfort in the fact that you were helping your son live his dream. As a father you can’t do more for your child. 

As for the rest of us, as we’re praying for Eric’s recovery, we’ll just have to hope that his crash will result in redoubled efforts from the major sanctioning bodies to make drag racing cars and drivers safer, whatever the cost. 


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