National Hot Rod Association Media Conference
Topics: NHRA, John Force Racing
Ashley Force Hood
April 10, 2007
THE MODERATOR: I would like to welcome everyone to today's teleconference. Our guests on the call today will be John Force. Joining John on today's teleconference will be John Medlen, John Force Racing crew chief; Ashley Force, rookie driver; John Melvin, a biomedical research scientist and expert in auto safety racing who has been retained by John Force Racing, who works out of Wayne State University. We also have Graham Light, senior vice president of racing operations for NHRA.
We would like to get some opening remarks from John Force. John, we all know this has been an extremely difficult time for you. Can you tell us what your team's plan is for this weekend at Las Vegas.
JOHN FORCE: Well, we plan on going to Vegas. That's the number one plan. First I'd like to take a few minutes, if you'd give me a few minutes. John Medlen will address us in a bit, as far as my daughter Ashley, Graham Light and John Melvin.
I want to say that this won't be my typical interview that I do because I'm always guilty of trying to entertain you. So if you'll give me a few minutes, I'd like to go through this, then we'll open it up to questions for all of us.
Number one, we do intend at being at Vegas. But we do have some testing to do before Vegas. We'll address that through questions.
The first thing I'd like to do, why I called this call, was to apologize to the media, to the announcers, to everybody nationwide because in this time for John Medlen's family and our family and everybody involved, we needed time just to kind of get through this and get our ducks in a row. I know a few of you were a little angered at me, like the story needs to be said. But we were working on getting data together.
We spent a week in Gainesville with John Medlen and his family and Eric Medlen, Ashley, Robert Hight, a few others. We went to Indy, we returned yesterday, we spent two weeks there getting organized which direction to go. But I want to say the calls and the letters and the tribute by ESPN and all the announcers for Eric, I know it was felt by John Medlen and myself. It's just important I take a minute to thank these people. The only joking going around here is we compare it to Groundhog Day. Robert, Ashley and I get up every day, and every day seems to be the same until we can figure this out, how to move on, not just for ourselves but what we would want for Eric Medlen, what he would want us to do, and that is to move on.
I also want to thank Castrol and Ford and AAA and Brand Source, Mack Tools, Mach 1 and Nordic Boats. Those are people that pay me. When I chose not to run Houston, they all supported me. When we canceled dozens of appearances between the four of us, the four drivers, they were all very understanding. I just want to show respect to them because they showed respect to us.
But I want to say here right now, two statements I want to make, because I wrote them and I want you to understand this. I'm going to read this. This is written by me.
NHRA has a very high level of safety measures currently in place to make these cars as safe as possible. Given the inherent risks, the risks of the sport, we're all aware of it, but we believe that if we work together at John Force Racing with NHRA and with Pro, I've been on the phone every day with Kenny Bernstein, we can learn additional ways to improve the safety of these cars. NHRA will certainly consider to mandating these such changes. There's a lot of things that we're addressing. But we haven't asked anything until we get our data put together.
I want to go there. But I want to say one other thing here that has already caused us a lot of grief and problems and that's why we didn't respond. Internet gossip can provide nothing but negative results in these efforts. The Internet is a good thing. But a lot of times they go off half cocked because they don't understand what we're trying to evaluate, what we're trying to say. We're not sugar coating anything.
But JFR here is making great attempts, we're financing, and right now I'm supporting these recent safety evaluations. We need everybody to understand that we at JFR, NHRA, the people at SFI, other people in the related industry, because we've had dozens of meetings in Indy over the course of two weeks, and I got to say all the vendors from Goodyear, they took their time to fly in, the president of American and (indiscernible) Wheel flew in. So many people came to work with us so we could address what was going on. Melvin was brought on board. He works up at Wayne State University in Detroit. He's been on my payroll for three weeks. He's been giving us input. Graham Light, Dan Olson, Pro, Kenny Bernstein, his car went to McKinney's to be worked on for the changes necessary we felt for now to address these problems.
There were no answers at first. Then we started getting data, nothing like we've ever seen before. It's oscillation that takes place, and it moved on into harmonics in this race car. Things like this have only been seen never in racing history of any kind of motorsport. The only comparison they could make to me was a helicopter in the military when a blade came off. John Melvin can explain this.
What I want to say is, the steps we've took, is cockpit. We've not addressed the tire. In fact, there's a statement here. I'm sure Graham Light will read, that Goodyear made, that they feel the tire was punctured. We never said it was the tire. We could have ran over a nail. Somebody could have shot it with a gun. We only know that the tire, part of it, left the car, that set up the situation that has never been seen before.
Dragsters don't have this problem. But it was directly, even though a tire came off, we never said it was the fault of the tire. We believe Goodyear works hard. I'm not sugar coating it. I'm telling you what my crew chiefs, my generals, tell me that need to be said.
There's going to be a program headed by John Medlen. When we get this package put together, we're going to take it to NHRA. We're going to turn it over with Ken Bernstein through Pro to look for the future what we can continue to do to build a safer race car.
I think that pretty much covers it. I want to say that I really want to thank Ron Capps and his team and so many others, JR, for dedicating the race. Ed walked into our shop. We were having meetings with Goodyear, 10 people in the boardroom with my crew chiefs. Ed and Capps handed this trophy over from Houston. It was very emotional. Bernie and John Medlen, we know we're in a great family of racers. It's why with us to take our either and our time to do this for everybody, not just us, not for my family and not just because Eric Medlen would have wanted it, and because his father wants it, but because racers deserve to know the truth. If we all work together, we'll make it better.
Guys, I want to close here and we'll open for questions. I was guilty of being on the other side when these issues happened with the dragsters, and I gave my input. I was even told, You don't own a dragster. I was guilty of shutting my mouth.
But now I'm on the other side with John Medlen. Now I know the pain. We are going to address this. We're going to work with our partners.
We'll just open it right now. I didn't mean to drag that out. I just wanted to make some statements. We're open for questions. Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions from the media.
Q. John, how were you able to get through this? How are you and your family doing?
JOHN MEDLEN: Well, everybody asks me that question every day. They can he say, How are you doing? I wish I knew how to respond for that. We're getting by one day at a time. We have a very strong religious background. The Holy Spirit just gives us the power to take it one step at a time. That's the only way we can find the peace. The loss and grief almost seems to get worse every day, but we're doing the very best we can to deal with it.
Q. Graham, do you recall ever making an exception to the seven-day non-test policy before a national event?
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, this is unprecedented. But under the circumstances, and we had, along with John Force, lined up the use of Indianapolis Raceway park. Their shop is within a mile or so. Unfortunately, the weather was so cold back there we were unable to use it.
What John is testing is not the performance of the car. Under the circumstances they made some significant changes that we all want to learn from, the other teams and ourselves. One of the questions John has is whether or not the car is even drivable. Under those very rare circumstances, we allowed John to go out and make a 300-foot pass. There will be no data gathered. Dan Olson will be there to make sure the data recorder is not connected. There will be no times or anything. We just felt under the circumstances it was the right thing to do. Yes, it is in violation of our testing policy. Again, it's the right thing to do.
Q. You and NHRA really seem to be getting behind this research. It seems like you've really made a commitment to try to improve the safety.
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, since the beginning of our sport, unfortunately we've learned from accidents and people's injuries, so on in the past. You have to take every incident and review it and try and piece it together as to what happened and what can be taken to hopefully reduce those sort of chances again in the future.
We did it with Darrell Russell. We did it with Corey and a number of others over time.
Q. John Force, I guess you were talking about cockpit changes early on. What kind of things are being considered, being discussed?
JOHN FORCE: When we got to Indy and John Medlen was in the middle of all the emotion and the pain, we started addressing the car. We were on the phone to Murph McKinney. I have to say he spent two and a half weeks getting us prepared. In fact, I'm told they're changing Kenny Bernstein's car as of right now. That's why the information of what we're going to do was basically all we could do right now, was to change -- to work within the rules of NHRA, but change the cockpit area of the driver.
Trevor Ashline of Safety Solution, after the roll cages were changed bigger, because we didn't have enough protection in there. A lot of the teams were already changing them. They couldn't change the roll cages, but they were adding padding.
The problem is, there's no room to add the amount of padding you need. He was working on that. Another fella, ISP, Chris VanGuilder, worked in the cockpit with the seats, with the padding. The information we got from John Melvin, how we needed to secure the driver's head. I'll let them explain that. These things had to be done immediately.
We also addressed the seven-point harness. Simpson came in. A number of people. We addressed the seat belts. We did a lot in the cockpit. We don't know if it will be drivable. That's why even the neck brace with the R3 neck brace, another unit like the HANS device, they addressed different angles on it for side impact. These cars are meant for single impact. What you got here was a whole lot different. The doctor can explain that.
We had to jump into the cockpit now. I've got six cars. I think three of them are still in Indy. But my team was on its way to Vegas, should be there by now. All of the changes that were designed and made and put in, taken back to the labs and redone, will be starting to be installed in the morning so I can get in the seat tomorrow.
I don't know if it's drivable, what we've done. With that information we need to create a situation of tire shake. If we can do that, I'll know if my head will be able to see with what we've done to protect it. Maybe too much. But with that information, I can give it to Ashley. With that information, I can give it to Robert and Kenny, which is going to have the same situation.
You can't just make a big opening for the head because then you have no protection. What have you accomplished? It needs to be tested. NHRA was good enough to allow us to do that. We will receive no data from the runs. We don't want any data. We only need to go 200, 300 feet to get to the tire shake. We're going to try to create tire shake. Dan Olson will be there with us. He is a crew chief, so he understands exactly what we're doing.
Q. John, excuse me if this is an awkward question, but can you talk about the future of the team right now, where it's headed with the employees that you have on board right now.
JOHN FORCE: I have contracts with four teams plus my Super Comp teams. Those dragsters are out at at Victory having roll cages, padding, everything changed. There was a lot of good information that came out of this in a short period of time.
As of right now, John Medlen and his team are staying intact. We will take all four teams to Vegas out of respect for Eric Medlen and his family and for our own team. We want to be together. We want to stay strong. We will only run three of the teams. But I want to clarify: until I drive this car and test it, and we have considered running Indy, it was so cold. We looked at Dallas, we looked at a number of places, but as I told Graham Light, there's not time to get there, set up and test, then get to Vegas. I wouldn't go to Vegas without knowing whether it was drivable.
But if it does not work, I mean, I have issues with Ashley, she's here, I want to let her speak, but if it doesn't work, with what we've created, we have to go back to the drawing board, we may not be able to enter the race at Indy.
My life has changed to where it's not just about winning the championship. My priorities are how to race and believe that what we are doing is right. And safety is my number one priority right now. If the cars are not right, then we will not enter the three cars. But we fully intend to. We're going there with the attitude that what we have done will work. My crew chiefs believe it. Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, Jimmy Prock, headed by John Medlen, they live it. Dean Antonelli, they live it every day. It's a sickness. We will come out of this, I promise you that.
John Medlen, God bless you. You're the strongest individual I've ever met. I know you got God leading you. I'm going to go where John Medlen tells me to go. We will be at Las Vegas.
Did I answer that, I hope?
Q. John, we've seen the family ties, the emotional ties, how you felt about Medlen. On this team right now, what is the emotion? What emotions are you going through in terms of getting back to where you need to be?
JOHN MEDLEN: Was that for John Force or John Medlen?
Q. John Force.
JOHN FORCE: Maybe John should answer that. I thought it would get better when I got to California. I'm being honest, it got worse for me. I need to get to a racetrack. I need to get out here with these people and do what I do. That's the only way I'm going to get well.
John, would you answer this, please.
JOHN MEDLEN: Yeah, basically I think John's earlier statement kind of outlines what we feel with all this. I wish there was a word to describe what our emotions are. There's nothing in my vocabulary that can describe the level of grief, all those emotions that would involve a circumstance like this.
One of the things we're trying to bear in mind is, I can see Eric talking to us and watching us. He would say, you know, Get back out there and race, guys. That's what I do. That's what he did. That's what he loved to do. You couldn't direct him in any other manner. I tried many times to get him to pursue his engineering degree. He loved that race car. He loved racing. That's what he wanted to do.
He would be very disappointed in us if we just tucked our tail under and continued on.
However, he would also be saying, Just make sure the cars are safe, dad. Once we tell him the cars are safe, he wouldn't question it. He'd get in it and go. We're doing everything we can in evaluating all the circumstances involved here that we're going to send the guys out here with a safer race car and we're going to keep right on going. That's just what we do.
Q. John, just wanted to ask you, how much harder is it getting ready to go back to the racetrack and putting your daughter into one of these cars?
JOHN FORCE: That's the hardest part for me right now. You know, if I didn't go back, then I failed Eric. But that's the hardest part for me. I always believed these cars were safe. I promised these kids they were 'cause I've driven them for over 30 years. I've been through every type of crash you can imagine.
I'd really like Dr. John Melvin maybe to address what he's gotten from the data and what he's found in the lab of what took place. Can't even explain how it happened. You live with it every day. But we also know, when I sat with Dan Davis at Ford, we talked about racing, you know. Race cars race. That's why we do it, the edge you live on that makes it exciting, that you're doing what nobody else does. Then you put your child in there, and it's hard.
Ashley is here if you want to ask her. Robert is mad at me because why I allow him to race Houston. He was in the points lead. He understood. Ashley is mad because I'm debating Vegas with her.
We owe to protect the drivers and we owe to protect our children. So I'm weighed between a father and I'm weighed between an owner that says you take that chance. I have to explain to the wife. My wife took Ashley from Indy and took them out of the country for a week, all my kids. Hell, I didn't know if she was going to bring 'em back. Went on a little vacation, tried to get away.
When Ashley came back yesterday, she's here with me now, still aggravated at me. But I don't care if she's aggravated. When I know it's right, with my crew chief's input, and with what I know, then we'll make that decision for Vegas, but we're not going to know till we get there.
We're headed there tonight.
Q. Ashley, what is your mindset getting ready to go back to race again?
ASHLEY FORCE: Well, first I'm not at all aggravated at my dad. It's not a situation that any of us have ever been in. I know that for each of us as drivers, we train, that's what we learn. We love racing. We know the dangers. We've lost other good friends of ours. This has hit so close to home because Eric is our family.
But I think the overprotectiveness that dad has, I feel that towards my sisters. But you have to let people decide. I think Robert and I, you know, you kind of have to go -- the week in Gainesville was tough. We were trying to get through with Eric. We were thinking he was going to come out of that, we were going to be joking with him.
Then the week in Indy, everyone was kind of in shock. You put everything on hold, your life, your bills, your worries, your list of things to do. Nothing matters.
But now that we've had a few weeks, we're getting through it, you kind of have to look forward to what is your next step. Me personally, I did a lot of thinking and thought, Do I love racing enough to climb back in the car? I can't be scared in the car. I can't get in it thinking something is going to happen to me. After doing a lot of thinking, and dad was good, he let me go off on my own. He didn't want to be a part of any decision I made.
I came back and I said, I still do love racing. If I were to quit, then the last 24 years of my life, what I lived day to day even when I was five at the races, would mean nothing. I don't think that's the path I want to take. I want to get back in that car. I want to do it.
I think the biggest thing for me is that's my family out there.
JOHN FORCE: We've got to give her a little break here, okay? We apologize here. She wants to finish. Hold on one second.
ASHLEY FORCE: I'm sorry. I'm the emotional one in this group.
Probably the biggest thing that I think we all feel is that you can't walk away from it. Racing really is our life. That's where we want to be. I didn't want to leave Indy. I wanted to stay there with our race team, with my crew chief, with Guido, with John. I think that's the only way to get through something like this.
I think if we can all go out there and do what we've trained, I've trained for six years to race these cars, I trained with dad and with Eric, they were my teachers, and we all know he would want us -- he would be so upset with us right now that we're wasting one moment not out there on the track. We want to go out there and stay together as a team because I couldn't imagine, if I'm not racing, then it's just such a big part of our lives. It's going to be hard, but I think you work together and that's how you get through it.
Q. John Melvin, what happened? What do we know about this crash?
JOHN MELVIN: Well, it's a highly unusual circumstance. I've been involved in racing safety since 1992. We've never seen anything quite like this. In fact, as a head injury issue, we've never seen it anywhere.
When the tire shake and the tire failure with the blow-out, losing part of the tire, caused it to become extreme shaking, as far as we can tell, his head was shaken side-to-side so violently that it just terribly injured his brain.
We're studying this using math models right now because it's so hard to get such a thing to happen. We're hoping to understand it more. But what we've been able to do is, through our modeling of a race car driver in such a situation, evaluate some of the things that John has done. We think it is the way to go to try to control that head motion.
It was just an uncontrolled motion of the head back and forth in the car. We're going to still study this to find out exactly why the injuries occurred in that process and what it is that we can best do to solve it.
Q. Are you pretty sure you're going to get a handle on it, figure this out, and everything is going to be -- I don't know if anything is ever 100% safe, but are you pretty confident it will get resolved?
JOHN MELVIN: I believe so. There are short-term things that have been done, and our modeling shows that's the correct thing to do to try and control the motion of the head is with more padding close to the head. You do have to worry about the driver being able to see, though. When the padding gets touching the head, it's well-known that that causes a vision problem. That can cause another issue if the car loses control.
That's why John is doing the test to see if he can drive the car because we have moved the padding in and around the head closer trying to keep the motion more controlled.
But there are probably some long-term changes after a careful study we may effect. Until you understand the whole situation, if you just introduce something out of the blue without testing it, you may find that it makes things worse. We just need to study this more carefully in the laboratory both with testing machines and with math models so we can come up with a solid solution that we feel will really help.
Q. John Force, how are you different now than from a month ago? How is your organization different?
JOHN FORCE: I think my organization will be stronger because of this. I think it made my crew chiefs, I have seen Coil and Bernie, the other side of them, of what they feel we need to do. I believe we'll be okay.
I think over the years I wore a helmet just because it was free. Never read the data on it. Well, not any more. We had helmets from every vendor sent to us. We sent them up to Ford and had them crushed. I want answers about these things. This data will come back. I mean, from seat belts, how they were mounted, I want to know how they were mounted. I took so many things for granted that you just kept moving on. Maybe there is where I failed as the boss. There were so many things that I didn't address myself that I just accepted was okay because somebody told me.
Now, with John Medlen, the crew chiefs, we're reading the data, we're studying. We want to know about the foam, the different types of foam, what F1 uses, what NASCAR uses.
Let me tell you, I was a lot like Earnhardt: old school. Even when he was injured, you couldn't get me to put on a HANS device or an R3 because I was uncomfortable. I just spent the last three days up in Indy. I walked around the parking lot wearing this stuff 'cause I'm going to make myself get used to it. I got in the car, I told Coil, I'm so miserable. I can't even move. How can I drive this car? Coil said to me, Do you want a championship or do you want to be safe? You have to learn how to drive this car so you're safe and then we'll address the championship.
That's the way we're looking at it. That's the way my drivers are going to look at it. I'm hoping the sport will listen to people like John Medlen that have sacrificed, people like me that are trying to show them the better things. I know right now everybody can't run out and do it. But I hope the racers will address it. They're our family and I believe they will. Because I was one of the stubborn guys that wouldn't. Everything you gave me, unless it was easy, I wouldn't use it. But now I'm going to use it. I don't care if it costs me a race. I'm going to wear it, wear it, wear it, wear it until I make myself like it because you have no option. You have to do something to protect the driver. There's a lot of protection there.
I'm not saying this car wasn't safe, but there is room for improvement in anything, especially with me as an owner. That's where I failed. I'm not going to fail again.
Q. Has this season now become the most important season of your life, not necessarily for what has happened up to the accident, but because of what is going to transpire over the course of the next nine months?
JOHN FORCE: When I met this kid, Eric Medlen, and I saw him on the stage singing, and I heard him talk the talk, he was like me. You know, he was respectful like his father, always called me every Christmas, every holiday to tell me just thank you for the job. What I saw was that even though my time was running out, I saw that through these kids I could build the next generation. He was my lead guy. He was me. Robert come along, and he was a different type, but they all had the same drive. Ashley come along, and she's still learning.
But in the process I saw my future of where I could sit back one day and become a Prudhomme and enjoy it because I love these kids. Now I've been put into a position. It's funny, you wake up every day and you go down to the doctor, he digs a few polyps out of you and he tells you, You're at that age, it's starting. Okay, doc, I'll be back in six months. You start counting your days and wonder, Will I live to be 80? How long will I live? Then you get a wake-up call like this, and it makes you realize that a young person was taken from us at a young age that deserved more.
What I'm saying is, I'd be a piece of shit if I ever quit. I'm just going to keep fighting this fight. Will it make us better? We may never win a race again, but we will continue to do it. And John Medlen will be right in the middle of all of this helping us grow this organization. We will not stop here. We will not let this thing just go away. We have good partners with NHRA, working with Pro, all of these people that want to work with us. It's opened a lot of people's eyes. I want to thank 'em for that.
And Tom Compton was on the phone to me every day. Tom Compton said to me at the funeral that John Medlen came up to him and held his hand and said that he was sorry that this happened. Compton said, I didn't know what to say. This guy is apologizing to me? We were there for him. Compton said, You have the best people. The best people is what will make my team come out of this and have meaning. It's not just about a championship. Other kids like Scelzi, they may win it. It's what we do as a team that is going to make any meaning out of any of this.
Q. Graham, in light of all of this, is the series considering any additional rules or mandating use of this padding or HANS devices or anything like that?
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, the HANS device already is mandatory, or a neck restraint. But, like John Force's team, we're analyzing what happened in Eric's situation. We're very interested in the changes that John has made to his car. We want to see how that works this weekend. John Melvin said a little while ago, the thing you have to be careful of is instituting change, a knee-jerk reaction, because that change could negatively impact something else that wasn't foreseen.
We're certainly working side by side with John and his team and analyzing exactly what happened and what can be done in the future, just like we do with all cases where we have serious accidents. We analyze that accident and we hopefully all learn from that and try to make it better in the future.
We are proud of our safety measures. These cars go 330 miles an hour. There is a danger in doing that.
Q. John Force, are the speeds in these things getting too high? This question is asked after every incident. Are the cars going too fast?
JOHN FORCE: There again I've been guilty. Different from NASCAR, any other form of racing, our whole identity in racing is speed and ET. But I fought for that. When NHRA put restrictions to slow us down, things that they wanted, yet we knew the racetracks from the old days. Some of them were too short. You know what I'm saying? But what is too short when this accident took place at half track. Wasn't like this car was down there in the lights and it had this problem.
Once again, you look at NASCAR building the Car of Tomorrow. The drivers ain't liking it. They're heavier, they're slower, whatever the issues are. But from the test results they're safer. I think that an organization, a sanctioning body, I believe in talking with NHRA that this will all be addressed sometime and we want to be a part of that. We want to work with them to look toward a safer car even if it is a little bit slower.
So, yes, if we had to slow 'em down, I was against it. Like I said, I'm on the other side of the fence now. I don't believe a race fan in the stands can tell if your car went 330 or 300. They can only tell by the scoreboard. It's still competition, and I think -- I don't want to say slow 'em down. But let me give you an example.
We brought in Ron Armstrong, the fella that started I think was Race Pack. The biggest thing that my attorney said and John Melvin said to me, Okay, you got all this data for going fast, what do you have that allows you to tell you what happened in a crash?
Well, we had nothing on board to tell us what happened in the crash because, number one, it's too heavy to add the weight. There's a lot of issues that there's things that you can have on board that could also allow you a way to cheat. So how do you police it? There's a lot of issues. Those are issues that we are addressing.
But Ford wants to put a crash box. They did it in NASCAR. They put it in everybody's car. They want to put crash boxes. So when we crash, God knows we may not crash for 10 years, but we will, that we would have some data that told us what happened.
We gave John Melvin nothing to go to the labs with except a chassis that was broken into a million pieces. NHRA came there, Graham was there, Olson was there, they know. There's things that need to be addressed. But you can't do this overnight. We do the best we can for now. The key is to not forget. That's why I'm going to keep John on top of this project and to get this moving before we even address the No. 4 car, what I'm going to do with it.
We need to stay on this.
Q. After Earnhardt was killed, NASCAR sprung into action. A lot of really good safety measures were implemented. Maybe it will foster in a new era of safety in the NHRA.
JOHN FORCE: First call I got was from Graham. Basically it was to say that he was sorry for what had happened, to say to the family. But then it was like, We want the information. We want to know what you find because we have everything in-house except for the tire, we turned over to Goodyear, and the wheel. But there was a lot of things that they were right there ready to work. It is important. They know this as a sanctioning body. We have been talking. Things will come out. We're going to get together after Vegas. We're going to have a meeting. We haven't set a time date on it. We'll get all of the people inventory.
We can't have a meeting until we have our data. We're waiting for all that to come in. We're giving it to NHRA in a form of what took place from that day and what took place two days before it. There's a lot of things that we're addressing. Not putting too many runs on a race car. There's a lot of things we look at. We drive 'em till they fall apart.
We don't want to make those mistakes.
John Medlen, if you would, would you give them what you felt took place.
JOHN MEDLEN: Well, basically in a nutshell, the tire came apart. We don't know why. There's several issues involved around the tire disassembling, that violent force vibrating the car, the roll cage. There again, we've never seen, as John Melvin mentioned earlier, we've never seen any kind of a failure of this magnitude and even of this nature. Had we seen even the remotest glimpse that something like this was on the horizon, we already would have made many, many changes that directed the driver into that area of safety and containment of the brain, trying to isolate the head from that violent oscillation of the roll cage.
This again, we had never seen anything like that before. So I think the key here is for our industry, have someone like John Force that's going to put a vehicle in motion that has a goal of a test scenario, whether it be at Ford in the test lab, but here is somebody that is not going to stop and just say, Well, we're just going to go on and race. He's going to change and mandate some of the changes that we need to do on these race cars for the long-term and the short-term.
I think that's the key to this whole thing: it would be a catastrophe in its own right, the largest catastrophe would be to not use it to better the sport and to ensure that this doesn't happen again. I think that's the single biggest factor that we all face.
Q. A little bit of background, please. The gentleman, the university professor that has come on board, what is his name?
THE MODERATOR: John Melvin.
Q. Are you a doctor, sir?
JOHN MELVIN: No, I'm a Ph.D. engineer. I've worked over 40 years in injury biomechanics. When I was at General Motors, we started -- we were right first guys to put black boxes in race cars. We started that work in '93 in IndyCars. I'm now a consultant to NASCAR because I retired from GM, helping them on their safety issues. I'm doing this for John Force, as well.
JOHN FORCE: I'm the one that called him the doctor. I apologize for that.
JOHN MELVIN: They do call us doctors occasionally, but we're not medical doctors.
Q. Here is my question: Did the tire shake cause the tire to blow or in what order did everything happen?
JOHN FORCE: Basically I got a statement here from Goodyear because they found and they reconstructed the whole tire. There was a puncture in the tire. It assumes that by this statement that we just got today that we ran over something. That's all I know from what is written here. Which means the tire went flat, then came apart. Not that the tire was defective.
Q. John Melvin, did that cause the tire shake?
JOHN MELVIN: Well, it certainly would -- if the pressure went down, I'm sure that would cause it to shake more than if it held its pressure. We know that tire shake is a phenomena in these cars, but it can be handled by backing off the throttle and I guess it stops.
It might have been starting in that phase because of the low pressure. I don't know. We know that tires tend to destroy themselves when they get overheated from not having enough pressure in them.
JOHN FORCE: I hear what he's saying. I don't know if we want to get into all of this. The fact is, this wasn't a tire shake like we think when a race car leaves the start line. This was caused by -- whatever made the tire fail, it ran over a nail, let's say. Half of the tire went away, which caused an imbalance in the car. Every time part of the tire that was still held onto the rim went around, it created an oscillation. Through that oscillation, the situation of the driver being moved back and forth was created.
I may not be explaining it, but it's not tire shake as we know it.
JOHN MELVIN: It's an imbalance really that's shaking it at a very high level of force.
JOHN FORCE: We're not talking about tire shake when the car goes out. It shakes the tire on a Fuel car or Funny Car. We're talking about part of the tire was gone, which caused the car to drop, lift, drop, lift, from one side to the other at such a huge -- and the numbers we got, what were they, John, like 45,000 pounds or 60,000? Do you know, John?
JOHN MELVIN: Basically what they're trying to explain is that a portion of the tire that came out caused the remaining tire to come apart radially. However, it stayed attached to the rim. When you have a section of the tire that is still connected to the rim and just immediately following that section of tire, there is no tire left on the rim. The radius or distance that piece of the tire was from the center line of the axle that velocity produced a force somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 60,000 pounds, that's 20 to 30 tons worth of force. That outer tread of the tire was still attached to the rim. As it went around, it was intersecting anything in its path and removing that from the race car. Every time the tire hit the ground, you had a force of somewhere over 40,000 pounds. Then the next immediate area of the rim that rotated went straight down to the racetrack surface.
You have approximately an 18-inch movement up and down with the force of about 40,000 or more pounds.
Q. Have you made a decision yet, John, about what you're going to do with Medlen's team? Has his dad decided what he wants to do there? Are you going to run that car later this season or have you not decided yet?
JOHN FORCE: That is an option. That's something that I will take up with John Medlen. We kept the whole team on board. Everyone has jobs. We may utilize his car as we get the data for stuff that we want to test.
But the truth is, Eric Medlen was my driver. Would take a special individual, if ever, to replace him in that seat. That car may go away, but that car may not. I think a lot of my decisions and John Medlen's decisions will be made how we feel this week at Vegas.
But we do know this: that to jump right back and race when there are so many issues, that needs an individual like John Medlen to address, we need to address this because it's personal to him. That's why the car is not a necessity right now. Like I said, we will keep the team intact. They will travel with us. We will work together as a team until we figure out the direction that we want to go.
Maybe kind of just waiting for a sign, you know what I mean?
Q. John, some of the drivers in Houston addressed the issue in a meeting about safety concerns on testing days after events, that they felt like maybe not enough was being done to ensure the track conditions were the same on a test day on Monday that they were on a race day on Sunday. What is your feeling on that?
JOHN FORCE: It ain't going to be a perfect world, guys. Even though the guys are out there, you know the ones working have already spent four days there working all night, grooming the tracks, working in the rain. These guys are out there doing their best like they always do. We've always had complaints and issues. We all do the best that we can.
Can anything be improved? Sure. I'm sure that after this, we'll look at things, try to make it better. But that's what it's all about.
We can't find anything -- there was only one car that ran down that racetrack ahead of us. That was Warren Johnson. We're not looking to point the finger, myself or John Medlen. We're wants to fix what we can fix with the true data we have, not try to base everything off of just what we want to create, you know what I mean?
I ask each of my crew chiefs to give me a synopsis of everything they felt. I got three of those in. I have one I haven't. I want to compare what they think. They're all smart individuals. The racetrack on race day, because I'll never go to a racetrack again until I know, and I got to say, the workers that were there, NHRA's people, the helicopter from the local, they were unbelievable. They were there right on schedule. They did their job. But there are places that you might race where the hospital, even with a helicopter, can be an hour away. Well, we just can't quit racing.
But I'm sure going to address it, that if I got a situation I want to test, there's no helicopter on-site, you have to wait for it to get there, if it's 15 minutes away, I might go with it, but if it's an hour away, I'll choose not to test.
I have to make some decisions, too. We're going to address that. We're documenting all of this. So we don't just run around with a bunch of ideas. If we run out of time here, we're willing to keep going here, unless it goes on forever. We don't want to wear everybody out. But I would like the people that never got a chance to ask their questions.
Q. You're going to test at Vegas, when, tomorrow you said?
JOHN FORCE: Yes, tomorrow.
Q. If you find that the car is not drivable, you would not enter the race on Sunday, correct?
JOHN FORCE: If we've done a bunch of things that are wrong, we don't think we have, but we've gotten clearance from SFI to test these restraints with the R3 group from side-to-side impact. We're used to taking one whack against the wall. That's what we live with. Well, now in this situation of this imbalance, this oscillation, we're trying to build a cockpit so if you get 50 hits, you still got padding, you still got stuff around you that will protect you. That's what we're trying to address.
The problem is the cockpit is so tight that I want to see that it's even feasible. I mean, I put on the belts that are seven-way. They are so tight, I can't hardly move. That's what John Melvin says you need to not move. We'll only know when we test it tomorrow.
Q. The main changes to the cockpit, the bigger roll cage padding, and you're also going to use a different head restraint?
JOHN FORCE: We had to cut the roll cages off of six cars, actually seven, and we widened them. We were able to put mountings in to triple the head protection on both sides of the driver. We changed the seat belts not only to the seven belts but also in the locations that we mounted them. We used to mount them around the chassis, which meant they could slide during impact up and down the bar. We made 'em permanent where they couldn't slide. We have the R3 neck restraints that not only will protect you in frontal motion and reverse motion, but side-to-side.
These are things that are untested that SFI, we worked with Arnie down there, with NHRA to get approval to do this. I'm kind of doing this because I believe it, my crew chiefs, and these vendors believe that it's better. That's why we're going to test it. The problem is going to be, are you going to be so tied down that you can't drive your car the way that you're used to driving it? It will take some time.
Q. The head injury was caused by a side-to-side shaking, not actually when he hit the wall, correct?
JOHN FORCE: John, do you want to answer that?
JOHN MEDLEN: That's correct. Actually, it was more of an oscillating occurrence. Something that's pretty interesting, while we were in the hospital with Eric, the rest of the crew chiefs were back at the shop, each one of the crew chiefs independently observed the race car chassis, the body, all the things that took place at the crash. They wrote down a synopsis of what each one of them independently saw and what they believe took place.
When I got back from the hospital, with what the neurosurgeons told us about diffuse neuroaxial injury, I explained it to the guys, who created the synopsis of what happened. Without reading any one of those reports, it was identical to what they viewed as the occurrence of the roll cage activity that caused the brain damage.
That is it oscillated in a manner that was so violent, the head just -- it just oscillated back and forth from one side to the other. There wasn't a single-point impact involved. It was a relatively high-frequency attack to the brain.
Q. The injuries you described almost sound similar to shaken baby syndrome. Would that be a fair comparison?
JOHN MELVIN: It's somewhat like it, but much more violent. Normally shaken baby is front to back, not side-to-side. This is side-to-side, which involves the brain in a different way. It's still not well-understood exactly all the things that went on inside the head. But that side-to-side shaking is just not good for the adult head.
Q. John and/or Ashley, what is the status now of your television program? Has that been suspended with what you're going through right now?
JOHN FORCE: You know, it's funny, our TV show had addressed racing and things that can go wrong. One of the shows was actually pulled off because it was about addressing this very issue. The TV show A&E has dedicated the season to Eric Medlen out of respect for the family, and well-deserved, and his dad. We talked about where we go because the show was based on a lot of this, and then this happened.
But right now they will be up at Vegas because they have to finish out so many shows. They've given us a room, they're standing back, they're letting us work. They know that Ashley has a lot on her plate as well as Robert and myself, and that the show can take you away from your focus. They know that we need to focus to get back in the game and to correct these issues.
But the show will continue. It's just that some of the stuff, we may are he evaluate where we're going. I know they will do a tribute to Eric Medlen and all of this with John Medlen's blessing. We're looking forward to seeing that.
Q. John, how many runs are you anticipating making tomorrow?
JOHN FORCE: Well, they're going to try to create tire shake. If we can accomplish that, you know, as little as possible because it don't take me long -- I've driven these cars for 30 years, and no one knows 'em better than me. It won't take me long to know if it's drivable. One will be the seat belt restraints, the head attachment, to the shoulder, to the body with the R3 and the roll cage stuffing. They put me my head in a big bag of marshmallows.
If I can tell on one run, it goes out there, shakes hard, I know what happens during that shake period. But if it takes two or three -- in other words, if the car just goes and tries to move, I shut it off, back it up, do it again. This ain't about an ET slip, trust me.
I know those issues, a lot of people think, we don't want any data, we're not going to be looking at any data. We're strictly working with Dan Olson with NHRA. It's going to be there till we create this deal and give them the answers. Kenny Bernstein is coming with the same car. When he gets there, I want to be able to tell him your padding should have this much clearance. That is going to be the big issue, the clearance, because it's a wrap-around in the roll cage.
Q. Graham, have you considered the installation of SAFER barriers on some of our tracks?
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, we certainly look at what NASCAR is doing and so on. Their application is primarily in the corners, not the straightaways. In discussion with NASCAR, also the IRL, they were designed under a total different criteria than what our cars are, the speeds, the size of the car, so on. They don't think their exact application would work in our environment. But we are looking at that. We're looking at the possibility. Continue to look at everything. This particular incident was not -- soft walls wouldn't have changed the outcome unfortunately of this incident.
JOHN FORCE: This car hit the wall at about 120 miles an hour at such an angle that it just brushed the wall and went right down the wall. The problem wasn't there, trust me. It happened way before that.
Q. How do you want people to treat you this weekend as you sort of reemerge back into our little community here?
ASHLEY FORCE: I think it will be good to get back out there with our team. We've had lots of calls and letters. Each of us personally, I've had calls from Gary Scelzi, Capps. Fans have sent letters. In this situation, you feel better when you get out there. Those are the people that Eric loved. He loves his fans, his competitors, his crew guys, as the rest of us drivers do. We want to get out there, get back on the track, get back in the car. I think we're doing everything that we can do to make these cars safer. I know I've just been listening with dad and John Medlen and our crew chiefs, we do the best we can, not just for our team and Eric, but for all of our friends that we race out there with. We want our people that we've grown up with to be safe in their cars, too. If something good can come out of all of this, it can be that these cars will be safer, we can be back out there with the fans and other teams.
Q. Everybody is wanting to express their condolences and sorrow, does that wear on you or is that comforting to you to hear that over and over?
ASHLEY FORCE: You're sad always, but I think for me personally it makes you feel better to hear the stories. Fans will come up and actually when we were in the hospital, I visited a lot with Mimi, Eric's mom, I had told her that just that weekend on race day in Gainesville on Sunday, these two little boys came up to my pit, and they both had Eric Medlen hats on signed by him with their names on it. They were so excited. I asked them, You obviously got to meet Eric. They were, Oh, yeah. Obviously he was their favorite driver. They were so pumped up. They never saw any more races that whole day, they got to meet Eric. I told Mimi about that. It was so ironic that it just happened the day before.
I think it will be hard, but we have to remember those good times. It's hard to look at pictures, see videos, but it makes you remember. I actually have a digital camera. It has footage of Eric when we went to Sonoma last year and we filmed for Driving Force. He's loping bad actually on the horse. It makes you sad to see him, but you remember how much fun that day was with him and you're thankful you got that time with him. Even though it was too short, he touched so many people outside of his family and his team. So many little kids out there have already sent in letters and pictures and they're praying for the family.
Q. John Medlen, can you tell us something about Eric that maybe we don't know.
JOHN MEDLEN: Well, I think the one thing that I think that Eric would want to convey to everyone that maybe people didn't realize, Eric had a real compassion for people. He had a very great love for children. Anybody that was slightly physically oppressed or mentally oppressed, Eric had a large capacity for children. He was a very organized person. Just moved into a new home in Indianapolis. We were going through his business affairs. He had a folder in his file cabinet that had Fans written on it. In that folder, he had several hundred pictures of children, all the pictures that he kept were of children because he thought so much of them. In all the autographs, the fans at the ropes, you wouldn't sometimes realize that. I think he had that compassion for children because he realized and was very appreciative of an opportunity to live his dream that he had since he was a child. I think he saw that in the eyes of these children, and that's why he had such a capacity for the children.
Q. John Force, do you know if Courtney and Brittany will be racing in Las Vegas?
JOHN FORCE: They're under the same, as the rest of the drivers. Their cars are up at Victory being changed for the head padding, the seat belts reinstalled, going to the seven. There were so many things that we learned from the Darrell Russell accident of the protection around the driver's head. Yet on my own car, I took off half of it to save a few pounds. Yet we saw from the accident that a piece of the body tubing had pierced the roof of the car. NHRA saw it. If it had been off an inch more, it would have gone right into the cockpit with the driver. Here I'd been guilty of that myself.
So what we're doing is we're addressing every car. I don't care if it's Super Comp or what it is on roll cage protection and seat belt. I'm not saying the other people that already have it aren't already right. I only know that my cars worked. To the capacity we know about protection for the head, we're addressing it.
As of the plan right now my girls are going to Sacramento. But if my testing doesn't work, theirs won't work either. Five teams will leave Vegas. Trust me, we don't want to because we love racing. It's the only thing that is going to make us feel well. We want to be there. We'll have to go back and address what we're doing. I think we can do all of this in Vegas. I do believe we will make the show, all of us.
Q. Was Eric wearing a HANS device or R3 at the time of the accident?
JOHN FORCE: : Yes, Eric had the R3 on. Every safety precaution we could give him. Something that needs to be clarified, too, 'cause I've been asked this, this situation with the dragster, the dragster has about four foot of tubing between it and the driver's seat. The Funny Car sits right on the rear-end, the driver does. That's some of the things that we may address in the future, how to get the driver away from the rear end. Maybe that's not possible. But we're addressing what we can.
This situation I don't think could happen in a dragster. But that's only my opinion.
THE MODERATOR: That's our last question. That wraps up our teleconference today. Certainly want to thank John Force and all of the folks from his team for joining us on the call, wish them the best of luck as they head to Vegas.
|Connect with The Crittenden Automotive Library|