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John Force Says: It Took A Death To Save My Life

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 9 2011

It is not winning 15 Funny Car championships that John Force, about to be inducted into Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame, is most proud of. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – When John Force climbs out of a Funny Car for the final time, his legacy will extend beyond his record multiple NHRA world championships, his powerhouse organization and his over-the-top personality.

“I wasn’t put on this earth to win championships,” Force said Tuesday afternoon during a discussion of his latest lifetime achievement award. “I was put on this earth to create safety.”

Force insists that his ongoing commitment to The Eric Medlen Project – launched in the aftermath of the young driver’s death in March 2007 – allowed him to return from his own life-threatening crash at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis six months later. Force completed his comeback last November, when he overhauled Matt Hagan of Don Schumacher Racing in the season-finale at Pomona, Calif., to claim his record 15th world championship.

“Brut” Force, 61, will become only the fourth National Hot Rod Association Full Throttle Drag Racing Series driver inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame during ceremonies on Thursday, April 7.  Force will be honored during the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame Gala in The Speedway Club’s Grand Ballroom as leadoff event of the Samsung Mobile 500 NASCAR weekend.

Force’s induction will highlight an evening recognizing the accomplishments of some of the biggest names in motorsports while benefitting Speedway Children’s Charities at TMS. Others being

John Force says forget the championships and remember the safety. (File photo courtesy of Elon Werner)

recognized are seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty; Sprint Cup Series regular Denny Hamlin, defending race winner of TMS’ Samsung Mobile 500 and AAA Texas 500; five-time/reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson; four-time Cup  champion Jeff Gordon and veteran motorsports reporter Terry Blount.

Force will become the 13th member enshrined in the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame. He will join inaugural Class of 2003 inductees A.J. Foyt Jr. and Johnny Rutherford, Terry Labonte (‘04), Lee Shepherd (‘04), Kenny Bernstein (‘05), Jim Hall (‘05), Eddie Hill (‘06), Mark Martin (‘07), Jim McElreath (‘07), Bobby Labonte (‘08), O. Bruton Smith (‘08) and Joe Gibbs (‘09).

Force will join Shepherd, Bernstein and Hill as the only NHRA drag racers in the Texas Motorsports HOF. The Lone Star State has provided many of the best, and one of the most terrifying, moments of Force’s career. Entering the 2011 season, Force has logged 13 of his 132 career wins in Texas.

“Being inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame is a great honor,” Force said during a telephone interview. “I have a lot of great memories racing in Texas. I won my 100th race in Houston (Houston Raceway Park in Baytown) and that was a huge milestone. When you think of the other great Texas drag racers like Raymond Beadle, Kenny Bernstein, Eddie Hill, Lee Shepherd – to add my name to that list is amazing. It’s an honor and I want to thank all the people who voted for me.

“We’re coming in there with guns a-blazing. I’ll be wearing my cowboy boots, and if I’m wearing a tux, I’ll have my championship jacket over it.”

Despite his successes in Texas, Force’s career took a dramatic turn during the final day of eliminations at Billy Meyer’s all-concrete Motorplex in September 2007. Racing against Bernstein, a four-time Funny Car champion, Force was involved in a near-fatal accident that began when a tire blew at speed. The chassis of Force’s car broke in half, leaving him with serious foot, leg, arm and upper body injuries.

After six hours of surgery and several months of rehabilitation, Force returned for the 2008 season- opener as promised. “The fans in Texas have always been some of my best,” Force said. “When I was

John Force won his 15th Funny Car championship last year. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

in the hospital after my crash, they brought cakes to Baylor (University Medical Center in Dallas) for me and waited outside for days. I’ll never forget that.”

Force struggled through a winless 2009 season but rebounded in 2010 to win six national events in 11 final-round appearances, including a pair of victories in the six-race Countdown to the Championship.

Force said none of that would have occurred without the safety advancements emanating from The Eric Medlen Project. Medlen, 33, died nearly four years ago of head injuries suffered during a crash while testing at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway. Force and John Medlen, Eric’s father and crew chief, quickly collaborated with Ford Motor Company engineers to establish The Eric Medlen Project in Brownsburg, Ind., with the goal of developing a safer Funny Car cockpit and chassis.

“When we lost Eric, I said we’ve got to build better race cars,” said Force, owner/driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang fielded by John Force Racing. “I should have died from that crash. Eric saved my life, I believe that. It was like what happened after Dale Earnhardt was killed in NASCAR. Sometimes it has to be a big name that creates that fear that something has got to be done. Why didn’t the Lord take me, and take Eric? Maybe it’s because I had the money to do this.

“But everything finally made sense to me. I couldn’t have been here without Eric Medlen. His dad hates for me to bring it up all the time, but it’s true. He saved my life. When I was in the helicopter going out (of the Motorplex) and I looked down and bones were sticking out of me and they said, ‘Don’t look at that’ …I wanted to look. I wanted to know what this race car did to me.

“My car was identical to Eric’s and mine was shattered worse than his. But I had no head injuries, so we fixed that. When my car started coming apart it was at 1,000 or  1,110 feet…and I was up  to 300 mph. Eric was at half-track, at 600 feet, and doing only 268 when his car come apart. His chassis was destroyed; mine was cut in half…and mine stood up on the parachute. If it had rolled over, I would have had no arms or legs. People looked at the video and asked, ‘How did it not cut him in half?’ The new technology from that (Medlen) crash went into my car. The Good Lord has got me out here for a reason.”

Force said his subsequent rehabilitation has given him a new appreciation for his profession. “It

John Medlen and John Force collaborated to save lives.

changed my life,” Force said. “I don’t drink beer any more. I’m in the gym every day. It was sad when John Medlen left me (for DSR in 2010) and now (crew chief) Austin Coil is gone (retired). But The Eric Medlen Project will go on. It will never end until I run out of money and have to quit.”

Along those lines, Force said winning another championship was one of his goals after recovering from the accident. “And I said I couldn’t walk away from the sport as a driver without winning at the Texas Motorplex,” Force said. “That’s the one I want. Yeah, I’ve had numerous crashes there, but I want to win at the Texas Motorplex more than anywhere on the circuit.  I don’t care if I don’t have a sponsor. I will come every year to Texas until I win.”

Petty, one of NASCAR’s iconic figures, will be honored with the Bruton Smith Legend Award. Petty has been synonymous with NASCAR since starting his career as a driver in 1958 under the tutelage of father Lee Petty. Since retiring as a driver with a record 200 victories in 1992, “King Richard” has remained active in the sport as one of its beloved ambassadors. He currently is owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, featuring A.J. Allmendinger driving the No. 43 Valvoline Ford Fusion.

Petty’s career is highlighted by his seven Cup championships (1964, ’67, ’71, ’72, ’74, ’75, ’79), tied for the most in series history with the late Earnhardt. Petty was among five individuals inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in Charlotte, N.C., last year.

Hamlin, who emerged as the spotlighted Cup driver at TMS in 2010, will receive the Texas Motor

Denny Hamlin to be honored in Texas. (HHP/Harold Hinson)

Speedway Racer of the Year honor. Hamlin, driver of the No. 18 FedEx Freight Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, became just the second driver in TMS history to sweep both Cup races in the same season by winning April’s Samsung Mobile 500 and November’s AAA Texas 500. His victory in the AAA Texas 500 marked him as a championship contender, as he overtook Johnson for the point lead with two Chase for the Sprint Cup races remaining.

Johnson, of Hendrick Motorsports, will receive the Texas Motor Speedway Sportsmanship Award. Johnson has dominated the sport in his No. 48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet Impala since 2006_ he is the first driver to win five consecutive Cup championships _ and done so with a modest and humble personality. Johnson also embodies the ideals of sportsmanship off the track. His contributions through the Jimmie Johnson Foundation have helped raise more than $3.5 million for charitable organizations.

Gordon, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate and mentor, also will be recognized for his contributions off the track as recipient of the Maj. General Thomas Sadler Award. Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, has championed the efforts of Speedway Children’s Charities through his contributions with the Jeff Gordon Foundation Corvette Raffle. Since beginning the raffle in 2006, he has helped raise more than $400,000 for Speedway Children’s Charities at TMS.

Blount, a veteran motorsports journalist and Houston native, will receive the second annual Excellence in Motorsports Journalism Award. Blount’s career has spanned more than 30 years with

Auto racing reporter Terry Blount will be inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame.

tenures at some of the largest newspapers in the United States. He has worked at the Houston Post, Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News and currently is a motorsports writer/columnist for ESPN.com. During his career, he has missed only one major race at TMS since it opened in 1997.

Blount has earned numerous writing honors, including the Citation for Writing Excellence from Hearst Newspapers and the Excellence in Journalism Award from the Houston Press Club.

Fans will once again have a say in the voting for the top moment of 2010 at TMS. The choices have been narrowed to three moments: Hamlin’s sweep of the Texas Cup events, Kyle Busch’s record fifth consecutive Nationwide Series victory at TMS, and Gordon’s and Jeff Burton’s scrap on the backstretch during November’s AAA Texas 500. Fans can submit their vote by visiting www.texasmotorspeedway.com.

The Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame, located in the outdoor atrium adjacent to The Speedway Club, is open year-round and free to the public. The Hall of Fame atrium features pedestals of the inductees, including their career highlights.

The Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame Gala benefits Speedway Children’s Charities at Texas Motor Speedway. The organization’s mission is to care for children in educational, financial, social and medical need in order to help them lead productive lives. Speedway Children’s Charities at TMS has distributed more than $7.5 million in grants to local children’s organizations in Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties.

A VIP reception hosted by previous Texas Motorsports HOF inductees will take place prior to the awards ceremony beginning at 6:30 p.m. (CT) on the ninth floor in the Grand Ballroom. The induction ceremony will begin at approximately 8 p.m.

Table sponsorships, beginning at $1,200, and individual tickets for $150, are available by calling the Speedway Children’s Charities office at (817) 215-8421 or by visiting www.scctexas.org.

– John Sturbin, who was inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame last year, can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 9 2011
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