GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Sixteen-time NHRA champion John Force has so many victories that they run together.
This one surely will stand out.
Force won the Gatornationals on Sunday for the first time since 2001, doing so on the 10th anniversary of his worst day in racing.
His 148th career victory came a decade to the day after one of his drivers, Eric Medlen, crashed during practice at Gainesville Raceway. Medlen died four days later. Force helped Medlen’s father, John, spearhead efforts to make professional drag racing safer.
“I know he was in my heart all day,” Force said. “We don’t really get into big talks about it because it’s hard on the family. Love you Eric. Know you were with me there in the final.”
In the Top Fuel class, Tony Schumacher edged Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown for his 83rd career win. Leah Pritchett, who was trying to become the first Top Fuel driver to open a season with three consecutive wins, lost in the second round.
Shane Gray stunned four-time national champion Greg Anderson in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec won Pro Stock Motorcycle for the second straight year and fifth time since 2010.
Force, meanwhile, beat 27-year-old rookie Jonnie Lindberg in the Funny Car final for his class-leading eighth victory in 35 tries at the event.
“I showed you all this old man’s can still cut it,” Force said. “Age is not a limit. ... I don’t go to a race without believing I can win. The day I don’t believe I can win, then it’s time for me to quit.”
His victory came after making sweeping changes to his three-car race team. Force swapped crew chiefs and team members with fellow driver Robert Hight two weeks ago. The results were obvious: Force and Hight were the top two qualifiers entering Sunday, and Force cruised to the final.
“Don’t know if I’m smart or lucky,” Force said.
None of those changes compare to the ones that followed Medlen’s crash, which was the result of a violent tire shake that caused significant brain damage. The official cause of death was a diffuse axonal injury.
John Medlen, Force and others worked with NHRA officials, industry experts and even consulted with NASA to make dragsters safer. Modifications included a wider roll cage, thicker padding around the cockpit, improved helmets and more points of attachment for seat-belt harnesses.
“You can never replace the love and companionship that you had with Eric, but what we could do is use his accident to possibly save somebody else’s life,” said John Medlen, who was his son’s crew chief in 2007 and now works at Don Schumacher Racing. “We’re the only ones that can do that, those of us left behind that have a passion for making the car safer and know the intimate details of the accident and what happened. So we went about trying to fix those things that failed.”
Force credits Eric Medlen’s crash with saving his life; Force survived a similar tire shake three months later.
“You look at these people and how much you care for them,” Force said. “I know that Eric would want his dad to win. But if his dad can’t win, he’d like to see John Force, this old man, do it one more time.”