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Guenter Reinhold

The Gravity of Speed

by Ryan McGee
Thursday, April 16, 2009

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Ashley Force
All John Force sees is his little girl’s eyes.

Ashley Force Hood sits deep within the cockpit, bound by nylon straps and steel tubing, wrapped in a cumbersome Nomex fire suit and sealed away inside a 10-foot fiberglass isolation chamber. Her NHRA Funny Car lurches forward, then rolls backward. It bounces up and down, noisily coiling up all the tension it can withstand, preparing to unleash enough power to launch a small satellite. And through all the smoky haze at the starting line, John Force sees only those eyes.

“The hardest thing for me is when I look in her windshield,” he says. “There’s nitromethane belching out the pipes of this 2,500-pound race car, and I look in there and see those eyes. You grow, grow, grow, but your eyes are the same from when you were 5 years old ... the same little kid who cried, ‘I’m sick,’ or ‘I’m hurt.’ And now I’ve got her in this car, and I can’t do nothing. It screws me up.”

John Force will turn 60 on May 4. He is one of the most dominant drivers ever, in any form of racing; he also has watched his John Force Racing machines blow down the strip thousands of times. As a spectator, he follows the same ritual on every run: Give a thumbs-up, get out of the way, jam fingers in ears, watch the takeoff and look to the scoreboard. But his routine changes entirely when his 26-year-old daughter eyes the starting line. He winces involuntarily, a tic really, and when Ashley’s car jets to 315 mph, his cool smoothness is replaced with herky-jerky reactions as he frantically looks around at the crew for affirmation - not to see if she has won, but to make sure she’s OK. His anxiety doesn’t end until he gets down track to greet her.

John Force (Center)
“It’s like when I first put her on a tricycle,” the elder Force says. “‘Here’s your little helmet. Now pedal.’ And she went down and fell over and bruised her knee and cried. Her mother said, ‘What made you think she could drive that tricycle?’ Except now she could get killed. All I can pray is that we taught her well and have given her the best equipment, that she doesn’t bust herself up like I’ve managed to do.”

Newton always wins. No matter how big we build the rocket, how slick we build the plane or how high we build the half-pipe, Sir Isaac lurks, ready to bring us back down to earth. No one on the planet pushes Newton’s theories around like the gearheads of the National Hot Rod Association. On the drag strip, speed breeds the most physics-bending science this side of Area 51. When an 8,000-horsepower dragster comes together, it is the most powerful form of motorsports. When it comes apart, it is among the most horrifying visions - crushing metal, bone and hearts.

On Sept. 23, 2007, at Texas Motorplex, near Dallas, John Force left the starting line for the 494th time in his career. It took just 0.083 seconds for him to recognize the first green filament of the starting light and hammer the throttle of his Ford Mustang Funny Car. As the machine hurtled forward, he was shoved back into his seat by forces greater than what astronauts experience during launch. In 0.8 seconds he reached 100 mph. By the time he had traveled 1,000 feet, he was up to 315.34 mph.

That’s where Sir Isaac was waiting.

First came a shudder ... a bang ... a vibration ... then ultraviolent shaking, all the result of a blown rear tire. The steel cage protecting Force’s body became more compromised with every foot traveled. When he tried to stop...

“I was down at the end of the strip because I’d just made a run,” Ashley recalls. “Dad crossed the finish line and hit the chute, a normal run. But the force of that parachute just ripped the car apart. Stuff started flying everywhere.” The front half of the car turned, collided with opponent Kenny Bernstein’s oncoming ride and slid several hundred yards into the sandpit at the end of the strip. A mangled mess.

“Ashley ran over to it, but her dad wasn’t in the car,” says mom Laurie. “She just came apart.”

John Force was still in the back half of the car, near the finish line. A safety crewman described the wreckage as “a plane crash site.” Force’s left ankle was broken, his left wrist dislocated, three fingers on his right hand cracked. His left knee was gashed to the bone, his blood pooling on the concrete. Crew chief Austin Coil ran up and touched Force’s hand to make sure he was still alive, then sat down on the wall and sobbed, yelling to Force, his best friend, “We’re done! We’re done!”

Force screamed back, over the wrenching of the Jaws of Life, “Fix this hot rod!”

To which Coil replied, “You may want to go back, but we’re not taking Ashley back!”

The fallen driver was in shock, totally detached from reality and from his injuries. But then his wife and daughter rushed over and it took just one sight to snap him back. “There was my little girl, looking at me, with her eyes all wide and red and swollen,” Force says. “She thought her daddy was dead.”

Two years ago, the Forces were flying high. After decades on the road, John was finally spending time with his four daughters. The oldest, Adria, was running the shop in Yorba Linda, Calif., and her husband, Robert Hight, was driving one of John Force Racing’s four Funny Cars. Force’s relationship with his wife, Laurie, long strained, was as good as it had been in years. His two youngest, Brittany and Courtney, were moving up through college and high school and beginning to dabble in the NHRA’s lower levels. Ashley was already threatening to unseat her father as the biggest star in their sport, and she was engaged to Daniel Hood, a member of the JFR crew. The Forces even had their own hit reality show, A&E’s sometimes contrived but always funny “Driving Force.”

But on March 19, 2007, six months before John’s accident, the gravity of their sport brought the Force family crashing to Earth. Eric Medlen was John’s 33-year-old protégé and practically a big brother to Ashley. He had started out as a mechanic with Force’s championship teams, but then he stunned Nitro Alley by winning six times in three years after Force played a hunch and put him behind the wheel, teaming him with veteran crew chief John Medlen, his father. It was another family fairytale - until a tragic test run in Gainesville, Fla., when one of the massive rear-mounted Goodyear tires on Medlen’s machine began to come apart. The deflation caused a violent pitching motion across the rear axis of the car, exerting a force of more than 40,000 pounds with every wobbly rotation. The resulting vibrations were later investigated by military flight surgeons, specialists in ultraviolent plane and helicopter crashes. They had never seen anything like this. Medlen’s head had rattled from side to side an incalculable number of times, bouncing against the very roll bars meant to protect him. In an instant, his brain had been irreparably damaged. John Medlen ran to the car, helping the paramedics lift his son out and get him breathing again, but Eric’s eyes never opened. Four days later he was gone.

“That race car literally shook him to death,” John Force says, swallowing to keep from choking. “The race car that I built for him - the one I put him in - killed him.”

It was also the same car in which Force put himself, his son-in-law and Ashley. The same basic chassis design had been in use since the Funny Car division’s last fatal crash, in 1968. “It didn’t make sense,” Force says. “I’d had crashes that looked way worse than Eric’s. I’d been upsidedown on fire, been fine every time. But the car we started running 30 years ago was for when we made 2,400 horsepower. Now we’re making 8,000. It ran 200 mph. Now we’re running 330. We were using the same frame because we thought all the chassis does is hold the driver up and hold the wheels and tires on. Eric sent us the message that we were wrong. What a wake-up call. That car had to go.”

But not before Force put it through its paces one last time. “A few days after Eric died, John was out running tests,” says Tony Pedregon, the two-time Funny Car champ who began his career driving for Force. “He was trying to recreate those conditions so he could figure out how to fix it.”

It was a genuine Chuck Yeager moment. With Coil and John Medlen by his side, Force spent the day pitching his car right and left down the strip at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, trying to replicate the violent conditions that had killed Eric. Each run was faster and shakier than the one before it, as Force reached speeds of over 300 mph. On every pass, he would jerk the wheel back and forth to see how much his neck was yanked in new restraints and how hard his head banged against additional padding. “The real heroism is that it was never about John,” says Bernstein, who would become the first team owner to install Force’s new systems, which included more foam around the driver’s head and a reinforced cockpit. “It’s about his little girls and my son Brandon and the next generation of drag racers. If he killed himself but made the car safer for the rest of us, I think he’d be fine with that.”

Force knew enough to know that he didn’t know enough, and he called in experts: Ford engineers; the SFI Foundation, which specializes in automotive safety advances; and Dr. John Melvin, who had led NASCAR’s safety revolution in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death. “I didn’t know what oscillation was,” Force says. “We got into all this F1 and NASA stuff. I was getting educated on something I thought I already knew everything about.”

While Force and Medlen poured themselves into the car, Ashley was thrown into grief. Those many years of watching her dad walk away from fireballs had desensitized her to the danger. But now her “big brother” was dead, and the reality of her occupation became all too real. “One week, everything is good and we’re having fun,” she says. “Then things happen. It’s just so weird that the entire world can switch like that.”

John Force and his team took a month to completely redesign the driver’s compartment. They canceled the TV show and began to examine the role of racing in their lives. “We’d become too worried about Hollywood and not worried enough about racing,” he admits. Father and daughter went to a local Coco’s restaurant and had the conversation John realized they’d never had before. He told Ashley that he was afraid he had talked her into racing, that maybe she raced as a way to get closer to him. If she wanted to walk away, he wouldn’t blame her. “I just want you happy,” he said. To his surprise - and relief - she said that what made her happy was racing.

“People look at me like I’m nuts,” John says. “‘How can you put your little girl in one of those cars that killed Eric?’ But you know what? This isn’t the same car that killed Eric. This car is stronger, safer, better. Instead of being happy with what we’ve got, we’ll keep changing it however we need to survive.”

Those changes are taking place at the Indianapolis headquarters of the Eric Medlen Project, a research and development facility funded out of Force’s pocket and overseen by John Medlen. Plans for the project were announced on Aug. 31, 2007; that weekend, Hight made the finals of the U.S. Nationals, drag racing’s biggest event, and three of the four John Force Racing teams qualified for the Countdown to the Championship. For the first time since March, everyone was smiling again.

Four weeks later came Force’s crash. Blown tire. Violent oscillation. Broken bones and spilled blood. But no brain damage. Medlen’s death had likely saved Force’s life. That Christmas, Force’s three youngest daughters stopped by his inpatient rehab with a present. It was a simple note with a clip-art picture of a holiday angel:

“Dear Dad,

We love you so much and are so thankful that we get a second chance with you. Even though we’d be happy if you’d retire and run your teams and live a safe and happy life driving Mom crazy, we know that you love your race car and miss being out on the track. We just want you happy.

Love, ABC ... your guardian angels.”

Last April at Atlanta Dragway, the roar from the grandstand nearly drowned out the dragsters on the strip. All spring, John Force had shocked fans with how gingerly he walked and how much more slowly he talked than his trademark nitro-burning pace. He had to be helped from his rental car and into his race car. But in Atlanta, in his newly designed, better-reinforced seat, Force blasted through three rounds and into the finals. Against Ashley. It was their first head-to-head final round. Daughter was a nervous wreck. Dad was worse. He clicked the radio to ask about her so much that his team told him to shut up and concentrate. When the green light finally fired, they rumbled off the line and Ashley won her first finals race - the first for a woman in Funny Cars. By midseason, the Forces, Hight and Medlen’s replacement, Mike Neff, were all solid title contenders. Brittany and Courtney made their national event debuts. Once again, spirits were soaring.

Then on June 21, Scott Kalitta's Funny Car was traveling more than 300 mph when the engine exploded at the finish line, destroying the parachute and sending his Toyota head-on into the retaining wall. The fatal accident prompted NHRA officials to shorten races from the traditional quarter-mile to 1,000 feet. The league admits it is a temporary fix while it sorts through potential solutions to the sudden rash of safety problems. Those issues are why the Eric Medlen Project was created - and why the Forces still race. (After three events this season, all four JFR drivers are in the Top 10, with John in ninth place, one spot ahead of Ashley.)

“You can’t walk away when those accidents happen,” Ashley says. “I miss Eric every day. I miss Scott. I wish Dad wasn’t hurting all the time. But if I just quit, I would never want to come to a race again. My whole life has been full of so many great memories of racing. Imagine if my last memory was of Eric’s accident. I’m going to quit and let that happen again? Let’s make it better, make it safer.”

John Force sums it up like this: “John Medlen set me straight. He said, ‘If we quit now, Eric’s name is for nothing.’ What did it all mean? It means we have to fix these race cars. People say, ‘How can you put Ashley in the car that almost killed you?’ That car’s gone, man. This is a whole new animal. And I’ll keep working on it until I’m gone.”

From ESPN THE MAGAZINE Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate, licensed for use to AutoRacing1.com

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