Safety fast

Times Staff Writer

John Force stood next to his redesigned funny car alongside crew chief Austin Coil at a test session in Phoenix two weeks ago, and the reality of the previous 10 months took hold of him.

As he looked at the reinforced three-rail chassis, the carbon fiber tub, the alterations inside the cockpit to accommodate his battered body, he spoke words he never thought he could say.

"If for any reason I should be killed," the 14-time champion recalled telling Coil, "I think you need to pack it in. Sell off what's out here. Take care of everyone who's been loyal. Pay them through the year. But pull the plug."

These were the feelings of a changed man. No more, he said, would it be "business as usual" in the event of a catastrophic accident. Not after the death of Force protege Eric Medlen, 33, in a testing crash last March, and Force's own crash in September that mangled his arms and legs.

He then climbed into his 7,000-horsepower Ford Mustang and made his third solid quarter-mile run of that weekend. His new car had proved it could get down the track.

He limps badly and uses a crutch. He has a brace on his left ankle and wrist. He lost the tip of a finger.

"I ain't Superman," he said, refuting a claim made by rival Ron Capps after Force ran the quickest elapsed time of the four-day session in Phoenix, 4.782 seconds at 327.51 mph.

He is scared for his life, for that of his daughter Ashley -- who is also a prominent drag racer -- and for those who share his passion for racing's fastest five seconds.

"I swear to you, I'm glad I crashed," Force said this week, his voice nearly breaking, humming along at about one-third of its customary speed. "I'm glad this happened to me. I'm glad I suffered the pain. Because if it hadn't happened to me, it was going to happen to somebody else."

Force dipped deeply into his retirement nest egg to build the Indianapolis-based Eric Medlen Project, which is headed by one of Force's crew chiefs, John Medlen -- Eric's father. With the assistance of the sanctioning body National Hot Rod Assn., Ford Motor Co. and chassis builder Murf McKinney, Force's focus is on a safer design, which is available to all teams. He credits changes to the roll cage after Medlen's accident with saving his life in the Texas Motorplex crash.

Force's crash also showed flaws in the existing chassis design, which was developed decades ago to accommodate a 2,500-hp engine, not the 7,000-hp, 330-mph monster that operates out of his Yorba Linda shop today.

The new car is making its competitive debut this weekend at the season-opening 48th Carquest Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona Raceway. Force, who smoked his tires for the second day in a row, and Robert Hight will try to lock themselves into the final four qualifying berths today. Force rookie driver Mike Neff was fourth with a run of 4.840 seconds at 317.64 mph, and Ashley Force is eighth.

Many have scoffed at the new design, because it adds an extra 100 pounds, which the NHRA implemented into its rules. Replacing existing cars with new ones could hurt smaller operations because of increased costs. Force has been accused of overreacting in what is an inherently dangerous sport. Force disagrees.

"I've made all this money, I've become this 'star,' " Force said. "I've become everything a man could dream of. Then one day you wake up and you want to walk through the bar and tell your buddies 'I'm the champ.' They'll say, 'Yeah, that's the guy, Eric died, and the guy got crippled, and he walked away bragging about his trophies and didn't do a thing.' That's what they would say about me."

Force, 58, is contracted to drive for four more years, and says he will continue beyond that if he can win races. His daughter Ashley, 25, is beginning her second season, and son-in-law Hight, 38, who is married to Force's eldest daughter, Adria, is beginning his third season.

The future of John Force Racing is in his now-fragile hands. He must continue racing to give feedback as the new car evolves. "The only way I can help this car to evolve is to drive it," he said. "I know these cars. . . . We're test pilots."

And every day, he is driven by the past toward the future. He listens like never before, to his crew chiefs and his family.

"It's been months since Eric, but it's like he's here every day," Force said at his desk, some loose photos of Medlen visible. "The pictures, I can't put anything away that's about Eric. Can I tell you something? I'm guilty that we lost Eric, but part of that is, and I'm ashamed to say it, but that could have been Ashley. She could have taken that set of tires. She could have ran into that hole in the race track.

"I got her in this mess. I opened the door to her, and I'm even guilty of pushing her when I always told everybody, 'I never pushed, it was what she wanted.' No, I pushed.

"I couldn't lose her. I'd just shoot myself. . . . That's why I'll fight any racer over this chassis."

And he vows to never give up the fight for safety.

"I thought I owned the world," Force said. "I won all the championships, I made all this money. I did it all. I thought I had accomplished what I wanted, and I built all these teams. And then it all didn't matter.

"I got a second chance to do something in the name of Eric Medlen, that he didn't die in vain, and that's to build a safe race car that saves somebody's life, even if it's only one guy, because it's already saved mine."

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martin.henderson@latimes.com

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NHRA WINTERNATIONALS

When: Today and Sunday.

Where: Pomona Raceway.

TV: ESPN2.

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