A show of Force

These days, John Force walks like an 80-year-old man. But that's better than being dead, which is usually what happens when you crash a car going 327 mph.

But Force, the most accomplished driver in drag racing history, isn't dead. In fact, a mere 18 weeks after the violent crash that left Force with a compound fracture of his left ankle, two broken hands, the loss of a finger tip, several broken toes, as well as ligament and tendon damage, he'll be back behind the wheel, doing what he loves – drag racing.

He'll compete in this weekend's National Hot Rod Association's season-opener Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. Sure, it sounds a little crazy, but after hearing what he has to say, you realize it's the opposite. It's something he has to do, especially with his daughter Ashley just starting out in the sport.

"If I'm going to talk the talk, I have to walk the walk," Force said.

The 58-year-old drag racing legend is talking about safety and the need for improvement. In the past four years, two of the NHRA's most promising young stars have died in racing accidents.

Force, the sport's biggest star, nearly became the third.

"I thought this was it, we had lost John when they helicoptered him out," said fellow dragster Ron Capps. "I thought he was dead.

"If we would have lost him, drag racing would have been in trouble."

Drag racing's Dale

Force is to drag racing what the late Dale Earnhardt was to NASCAR. Gritty and tough, Force, like Earnhardt, pulled himself from the depths of despair to become the icon of his sport.

His is a classic rags-to-riches story. Force grew up in a trailer park in suburban Los Angeles, graduated from high school and became a truck driver, like his father.

When it came to drag racing, he didn't have much money to back him, so he borrowed used parts from other teams.

Success didn't come easily. After a brief attempt to make it in the United States, Force ventured to Australia. There, he found moderate success, then returned to the states where he still struggled to win.

Nine times he finished second, which is how he became known as a perennial bridesmaid. He finally won at Montreal in 1987. Shortly thereafter his career took off. Since that first win, Force has won 125 races – 29 more than anyone else – and 14 championships, including 10 straight from 1993 to 2002.

Today, no drag racer is more popular.

"John's an icon in this sport," NHRA president Tom Compton said. "(He's) arguably the most popular driver in history."

Part of what made him famous is the number of crashes he's endured. Over his 20-plus-year career, Force has flipped, been on fire, you name it, but virtually never suffered anything more than a scratch.

When I sat down to interview him recently in Phoenix where he was testing for an upcoming race, he wore a brace on his left hand, another one on his left ankle and a pair of Frankenstein-esque boots made big enough to fit his still-swollen feet.

"Yeah, I was untouchable," he said, bowing his head. Then, with a soft-spoken lament, he added, "Yeah, I was."

The fight for life

On March 23, 2007, six months to the day before Force's accident, 33-year-old Eric Medlen died from injuries suffered in a crash during a test session in Florida four days earlier. Medlen was driving a car owned by Force. Doctors and engineers estimate that the violent tire shake and resulting crash caused Medlen's helmet to hit his roll cage between 100 to 120 times, Force said.

Prior to Medlen's death, the NHRA had gone 38 seasons without a fatality in a Funny Car. Medlen became the second professional dragster killed since 2004, when Darrell Russell, a Top Fuel driver, perished in a crash in suburban St. Louis.

All told, eight drivers have lost their lives in either Top Fuel, Funny Car or Pro Stock national event competition since 1967, with several more dying in test sessions like the one that claimed Medlen.

Immediately after Medlen's fatal wreck, Force became a man on a mission, spearheading one of the most ambitious safety initiatives the sport has ever seen. He immediately scrapped eight race cars and ordered eight new ones with reinforced chassis, wider and thicker support frames and thicker roll cages with greater enclosure to protect a driver's head, neck and shoulders.

"I have a picture of Vince Lombardi that says, 'Winning's everything,' " Force said. "So, I've got to change my deal. Winning is still in there, but maybe Vince never lost a man on the playing field. I did. And it makes you say, 'What good is it to win if you're going to lose somebody else?' "

Along with John Medlen, Eric's father and a longtime employee of John Force Racing, Force began the Eric Medlen Project in suburban Indianapolis – near where Eric is buried. The complex is devoted to testing and refining Funny Cars to make them as safe as possible.

The EMP is also working on designing safer driver helmets and recently opened a safety lab patterned after a similar facility operated by the famed Williams team in Formula One.

The total cost: more than $4 million and counting. But in Force's mind, it's the best money he's ever spent.

"That was going to be my retirement, but I had to do it," Force said. "If we can do something to save even one life, we'll have made a difference."

The crash

Medlen's crash might have saved Force's life.

On Sept. 23, 2007, Force went head-to-head against Kenny Bernstein for a spot in the semifinals of the NHRA Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex. Bernstein, in the right lane, got a jump on Force. But as the two sped down the quarter-mile drag strip, Bernstein veered slightly into Force's lane. The two didn't touch, but moments later Force's car exploded, sending him into a right turn – directly into Bernstein's car at 327 mph.

The two cars barreled down the speedway, with both cars blown to bits. The cockpit of Force's car remained behind, while the front wheels and engine continued down the track.

Ashley Force had just completed her pass at Texas prior to her father's crash and was waiting past the finish line for his run to be over when disaster struck.

"I remember I started running toward the car, got close to it and realized it was from the motor forward," said 25-year-old Ashley Force, who went on to earn Rookie of the Year honors in the Funny Car division. "My stomach just dropped. I thought, 'Where is my dad?' because the part he was supposed to be in was not even there.

"Then, I turned around and saw a race car body over there and realized it was Kenny's car. At that time, I just panicked and had no idea where to go. Then, the part he was in, you could barely even see it and it didn't even look big enough for a person to be in from where I was at."

The exact cause of John Force's chassis splitting in two remains a mystery. Some theories suggest that a bad weld or weak point in some of the steel chassis tubing was unable to withstand the 7,000 horsepower of the 4.6-second run.

Whatever caused the failure, the safety improvements Force made to his car since Medlen's death probably saved his life.

"When a race car breaks in two out from under you, it's fortunate that John is still with us," said Force's long time crew chief, Austin Coil.

"I've never seen a car break like that," said Bernstein, who was uninjured in the crash. "I've seen crashes that are just as bad, but not where it left the driver so exposed. That was a bad one, as bad as it gets."

Force doesn't remember everything that happened, but he does believe the wreck and his recovery were not without purpose.

"I'll tell you this: I'm glad I had the wreck, I'm glad I crashed," Force said. "Because if it wasn't me that day, it might have been Ashley the next day."

Force spent the next 27 days in the hospital. At first, doctors didn't know if he would ever walk again.

Today, he moves tentatively with a noticeable limp. Two of his fingers are still numb from the tips to the knuckles. He has six screws permanently implanted in his right foot so that his severely burned toes don't fall off.

To deal with pain, he takes 10 different medications a day. He has passed an NHRA physical and plans on racing the entire 2008 season.

Back to the future

On the last weekend in January, Force took his first pass down a quarter-mile track since his crash. His speed – 327 mph, the same speed he was going when he wrecked in Texas.

When he climbed out of his car, tears were streaming down his face. He was back, there not just to win, but to push the sport toward a safer future.

"It was heartbreaking," Force recalled the day Eric Medlen passed away. "I watched his dad sink to his knees when the doctor walked out into the room. You pick a man off the ground. What do you say to him?

"This man will never have his baby again. If that had been Ashley, I'd be history. I would have died right there on the spot."

At the foot of Force's bed is a plaque of Medlen. He kisses it every morning when he wakes up.

"I owe it to Eric and his dad and these kids that have dedicated themselves to me," Force explained. "I owe it to them to go out of here with these cars before I leave this sport and make sure (it's safer). I won a lot of trophies and championships and absolutely nothing for anybody. It was all for us, my team and me. But if I can build a better race car, then it will have real meaning.

"I owe and I can't ever pay that back. So for me to quit now, I'd be a piece of (crap)."