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NHRA racing safer a year after Eric Medlen's death

Eric Medlen's death forced the drag racing community to adopt better safety measures.

At least two Funny Car drivers, Medlen's mentor John Force and Kenny Bernstein, have credited improved equipment for saving their lives in accidents nearly as horrific as Medlen's.

The John Force Racing team expects countless others will owe their lives to the developments of the safety arm of the company -- titled The Eric Medlen Project -- ensuring his death will not be in vain.

Today marks one year since the Oakdale native died from head trauma sustained during a test run in Gainesville, Fla., on March 19, 2007. Medlen was 33, a popular driver in the National Hot Rod Association who had won six events, including his final appearance at Sonoma's Infineon Raceway.

In the last year, JFR has worked with a number of researchers, engineers and auto manufacturers to stabilize the cockpit and cushion the drivers. The NHRA instituted new rules in its Funny Car and Top Fuel divisions. Many drivers credited their health to the changes.

The most notable was John Force, whose run at a 15th championship ended Sept. 23, 2007, when his Funny Car blew a tire and hit a wall in an elimination run against Bernstein. Pieces of Force's car hit Bernstein's after they crossed the finish line, and both drivers had to be pulled from their seats.

At 8,000-horsepower and at least 2,240 pounds, Funny Cars exceed speeds of 300 miles per hour. Force had reached 315.34 mph and Bernstein at 312.06 at the end of their run at Texas Motorplex in Dallas.

Force suffered a broken left ankle, broken left wrist, severely bruised right knee and multiple fractures in his right hand. Bernstein was able to walk away, in part because of padding added to the cockpits after Medlen's accident.

"If that had been the old pads, I'd have had a lot worse headache," Bernstein told the Dallas Morning News at the time.

Ashley Force said the same thing after she hit a wall in Seattle in July. Teammate Robert Hight was fine after an accident in Topeka, Kan., in May. Tony Bartone said better restraints protected him during an accident in Denver in June.

"So Eric Medlen is already doing his job, and we believe that," John Force told reporters in June. By that time work was nearly complete on a 48,000-square foot research facility near the Force shop in Brownsburg, Ind., outside Indianapolis.

A statue of Medlen holding a trophy stands outside the building, which includes a Medlen museum. His father John Medlen heads The Eric Medlen Project, dedicated to preventing another racing fatality.

Cars altered right away

Major changes were made to the cars immediately after Medlen's death. A list of changes from JFR outlined how thicker, more absorbent padding was installed to minimize head shaking.

A drive compartment tub was installed to protect a driver's legs and feet from bearing the brunt of equipment force in the chassis, or frame, should break. A steering support bar was added to strengthen the area that supports the frame and acts as a barrier directly in front of a driver.

Special attention has been paid to the chassis. It was redesigned in the off-season, and a significant change was made in the width and diameter of the tubing to make it stronger. The teams moved from a 13/8-inch diameter to a 1½-inch tube and used thicker tubing material.

A third rail was added to both sides of the driver cockpit just above the shoulder for added protection. The new cockpit is 100 pounds heavier than the previous one, featuring lightweight parts, but more of them.

The Force team supplied all Funny Cars with a Ford Blue Box "data acquisition system" that will give crew chiefs information on what happened in the event of an accident. Turning to technology is one of the few things members of the Force and Medlen families said they can do to honor their son.

The tribute video shown at every NHRA event last year was shown for the final time last weekend in Gainesville, Fla., where Medlen had been disqualified in the second round of eliminations at the NHRA Gatornationals the day before his accident.

John Medlen summed up the goal of The Eric Medlen Project last summer.

"We don't want to look at a similar crash in the future and say, 'You know, that's the same thing with Eric, and we didn't address it,' " he said.

For the children, in his name

Two annual scholarships have been created in Eric Medlen's name. His mother Mimi, of Oakdale, said she couldn't decide between Eric Medlen's passions of mechanics or rodeo. He was a champion calf and team-roper in high school.

A $500 automotive scholarship will be awarded to a graduating senior from Oakdale High who plans to pursue an education in automotive engineering. A $1,000 agricultural scholarship will be awarded to an Oakdale senior going to a two- or four-year college and majoring in an agricultural field.

Scholarship deadline is April 1. Applications are on file at the Oakdale High School counseling office. Completed applications can be dropped off at the Oakdale Cowboy Museum, or mailed before April 1 to 355 E. F St. Oakdale, CA 95361. Donations for either scholarship are still being accepted and will be awarded next year.

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Kelly Jones can be reached at kjones@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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