Force sees progress in drag racing safety
When budding NHRA star Eric Medlen was fatally injured two years ago it was seen as a tragic but isolated accident in a risky profession.
Then drag racing received another blow: the death of veteran Scott Kalitta in a crash last June.
That served as "a wake-up call," said 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, who owned Medlen's car.
"Even a few months after Eric, I was thinking maybe everybody was right and it was a one-time fluke," Force said in a recent interview. "Then, Scott was killed. We saw something called harmonics and oscillation and we couldn't figure out why."
Force said the resulting vibrations meant that Medlen hit his head many times, and received multiple concussions, during the crash.
Much like the death of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt in February 2001, the deaths of the 33-year-old Medlen and the 46-year-old Kalitta have become a catalyst for major safety changes in the sport.
In the aftermath of Medlen's crash on March 19, 2007, at Gainesville, Fla., Raceway, the site of this weekend's Gatornationals, John Force Racing and Ford Racing started "The Eric Medlen Project."
The objective was finding and improving safety innovations for the sport, and it has led to a series of safety measures ranging from significant Funny Car chassis modifications to the installation of the Ford Blue Box, a crash data recorder, on all nitro cars.
"If you look at the foam we had protecting the driver, it was made for two, three, four hits," Force said. "But no one talked about oscillation and harmonics -- a vibration so great [Medlen] hit a hundred times."
"We made mistakes in evolution during the first 50 years of this sport that we didn't see," he added. "If you look at the chassis on the showroom floor [of his California race shop], Brute Force, a car I drove over 30 years ago, and the car I drove two years ago, they were identical.
"Nothing changed. We always thought a chassis just held the tires up, gave the drivers a place to sit and, hey, we got caught."
In September of 2007, the then-59-year-old Force was in a 300-mph crash of his own in Dallas after losing a tire. He suffered a compound fracture of the left ankle, broken bones in his hands, fingers and toes, and ligament and tendon damage in his right knee.
"After Eric's accident, the first thing we looked at was the area surrounding the driver's head, which was the cause of Eric's injuries," said Pat DiMarco, supervisor of Ford Racing Vehicle Dynamics and Electronics. "By widening the [rollcage] and putting more padding in there, it helped reduce some of the loads on the driver's head during a similar accident. Those changes were instrumental in saving John Force's life in his crash at Dallas.
"The next step was to look at the chassis and why it broke, and John's chassis broke in the same places as Eric's. That allowed us to focus on those hot spots and how to remove them from the chassis."
Robert Hight, Force's son-in-law and another John Force Racing Funny Car driver, said the changes have worked.
"The car that we drove, all of us drove last year, is way safer," Hight noted. "It's wider, you have a tub around you, your knees aren't sticking above the frame rail. It's a lot safer. It's even easier to drive."
But Kalitta's death in a terrifying crash at a track in New Jersey showed that there is still work to do on safety.
"We built a better car," Force said. "Then the situation took place with Kalitta. How that ever happened, I've never seen that in a lifetime of racing. Something took place where everything went wrong. The brakes failed, the parachutes were burned off, the body collapsed, so there was no more down force to keep the car on the ground. It was catastrophic."
Kalitta's Funny Car burst into flames, continued at a high rate of speed and crashed and exploded at the end of the track.
Eleven days later, the NHRA reduced the length of Top Fuel and Funny Car races from the traditional quarter-mile to 1,000 feet, a reduction of 320 feet.
"The big decision at the time was to shorten the racetrack," Force said. "When you're talking about 300 miles an hour, you've got a runaway freight train when anything goes wrong. ... They've re-engineered the end of the racetracks, they've put in sand traps, they've got the poles out of the way. It's a continual moving process.
"It's not perfect, but we're going the right way."
And it looks like 1,000-foot racing is going to be around for a while.
"At the end of the day, safety has got to be there," Force said. "NASCAR, everybody's thinking now. We always did, but we just never thought it out to the max."