Each dragstrip on the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series circuit is special to John Medlen, whose 33-year old son Eric died four days after his Funny Car slammed into the wall during a test run March 19 in Gainesville, Fla. He died from severe trauma to his brain.
Brainerd International Raceway was an important track in Eric's career as it was here that he won his first-ever Funny Car final in 2004 and defended his title the next year. He also would have celebrated his 34th birthday Monday.
"The hope we have is we will see each other again and we will be able to play like this for eternity -that is the only thing that keeps you going," said John of one of his ways that he has kept his strength since Eric's death.
John Force (left) and John Medlen held a photo collage Friday at Brainerd International Raceway commemorating Medlen's son Eric who died after a accident during testing in March in Gainesville, Fla. The young girl is Force's granddaughter Autumn, who Eric adored. Force had this collage on his motor home's trailer.
» Purchase reprints of this photo.Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood
John, sitting in John Force's motor home Friday at Brainerd International Raceway during the 26th annual Lucas Oils NHRA Nationals said returning to work for Force's team was the "hardest thing" he has ever done in his life.
"I come back because that is where (Eric) is," he said.
This was very evident before the second round of Funny Car qualifying Friday.
In the staging lanes, where the Funny Cars were lined up nose to tail in two rows, Medlen told Force's public relations representative, Dave Densmore, "We've got to do good because he is watching."
Force said watching Medlen's reactions like this has also given him strength.
"Seeing his dad so strong is what gets me through it," he said. "He lives it everyday."
Force said John also "got him in the mindset to race again" in a national event at Bristol this season. He said John told him that Eric would be ashamed of how Force was acting after Eric's death.
Eric Medlen had Funny Car wins at BIR in 2004 and 2005
So Force said he apologized to his team, God and Eric and ended up winning the final at Bristol. He said the reason for his win wasn't due to his longtime crew chief Austin Coil. Force had a terrible season before his Bristol win.
Medlen, who was Eric's crew chief, said his faith in Christ and knowing that Eric was a Christian also has given him strength.
"I don't have enough intestinal fortitude on my own to keep going," he said.
"We know we will see each other again and it's a short period of time. Because if you put some finality to it, I couldn't bear it."
Eric only raced his Funny Car for three years but he won six finals and became a fan favorite everywhere he went.
Force said he can remember after Eric's first BIR win how he told him he didn't want to leave winner's circle because of all the fans screaming for him.
He said Eric told him that "feeling was so great."
Eric Medlen won his first Funny Car final at BIR in 2004.
NHRA Communications/File photo
"We honor a person that was the leader of our next generation," said Force who still carries Eric's photo in his wallet along with all of his own family.
Force said John also told him that if he would have told Eric when he hired him that he could drive his car but in three years he would die in it that Eric "would have jumped in it."
"Eric believed when God takes you, he takes you," Force said. "He just believed God would take care of him. That don't mean you're going to stand out in a freeway."
Force said Eric also was a hard worker and he assisted him several times in different situations.
He said when Eric applied for a job with Force, he told him he would "wipe tires and do anything." Once Eric landed the job, Force said he would work from 7 a.m. until midnight.
Force said Eric also would get him to stop drinking his coffee fix in the morning by taking him running down the street.
Several times, Eric also gave ice cream to Force.
"He was just a big kid at 330 mph," said Force.
This "big kid" will be honored in Indianapolis too. A new 48,000 square foot building at Force's complex that will house a machine shop, chassis and fabrication shop and paint shop will be named the Eric Medlen project.
John Medlen will oversee this project as well as be the crew chief for Force's new team whose driver is Mike Neff. Neff is Gary Scelzi's former crew chief.
A large bronze statue of Eric also is being sculpted to be placed in the building along with memorabilia, including thousands of photographs and letters from fans.
"I never dreamed the depth that Eric touched the people," said Medlen. "Eric was a very real person. His sincerity that he expressed was absorbed by the fans and now they're giving that back."
Force said he also hopes to pay tribute to Eric this weekend by having one of his teams winning the final. His daughter Ashley and his son-in-law Robert Hight race for him.
But if John wins his 11th final at BIR, he said he will slide down the hood of his car as ice is poured over him just like Eric did when he won in 2004.
And Eric will be there smiling.
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