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Medlen’s death might be impetus to improve safety

My first drag race was in the late 1960s at National Trail Raceway, about 20 miles from home in Columbus, Ohio.

It featured A/Gas Supercharged headliners Big John Mazmanian, Ohio George Montgomery and the team of Stones, Woods and Cook. A fourth car, either a Willys or Anglia, also was in the featured match race. Maybe it was K.S. Pittman.

Until then, I experienced the sport vicariously through Hot Rod and Car Craft magazines purchased with loose change I would steal from my older brother’s dresser. Despite my thievery, it was my brother who took me to that race when I was a young teen.

Since then, I’ve counted down the weeks, then days, until I could be part of a drag race — the power, the noise, the sweet smell of expended fuel.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reluctant to think about my next drags.

But I would attend this week’s NHRA pro tour visit to Las Vegas Motor Speedway even it weren’t part of my job.

Today marks the NHRA return of the John Force Racing team for the first time since the death of Eric Medlen, one of the team’s four drivers. Medlen died March 23 from brain injuries sustained four days earlier in a testing accident in Gainesville, Fla.

Sorry, Eric, but a big part of me wanted to skip this race, and that certainly isn’t what you would want anyone to do just because you won’t be there.

My sense of loss is nothing compared with John Force’s grief, which has been exceeded only by that of Eric’s parents. But Force’s approach to returning is what Eric’s would have been: “I need to get back to the racetrack with these people so I can get well,” Force said.

I hope that works for everyone this weekend. Seeing Eric’s Funny Car, which will be here along with his family and crew, is certain to be emotional. Maybe that will be good medicine.

Eric won six NHRA titles in a far-too-short three-year career. But in those few years, he brightened the atmosphere more than anyone. Kids flocked to him, and he flocked to kids.

Like the late Dale Earnhardt, Eric may leave a legacy in racing that is bigger than anything he did on the track.

Earnhardt won seven NASCAR Cup championships, but his longest-lasting and most important contributions to the sport were the countless safety improvements made after he died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Medlen’s accident might be the cornerstone for the most intense effort to improve drag racing safety.

The ongoing effort should be called the Medlen Project, for Eric and his father, John — his crew chief and buddy.

Force and his team are leading the safety charge, and, thankfully, NHRA is a participating partner.

Perhaps a new era in NHRA-driver cooperation has begun.

The quest for enhanced safety is one thing that has kept Eric’s father charging ahead, but nothing could be more difficult for him.

“Everybody asks me that question every day. They say, ‘How are you doing?’ and I wish I knew how to respond,” John Medlen said.

“We’re getting by one day at a time. We’ve got a very strong religious background, and the Holy Spirit just gives us the power to just take it one step at a time. That’s the only way that we can find the peace.

“The loss and the grief almost seem to get worse every day, but we’re doing the very best we can to deal with it.”

Spirituality isn’t in my fabric, and in times like these it’s easy to envy those with faith.

Regardless of religious beliefs, heaven is for those remembered fondly after death, and hell is for those who leave unpleasant memories or no memories at all.

In Eric’s afterlife, he certainly is in the penthouse.

And he’s the only one with a race-car shop and an adjoining rodeo roping arena.

And there’s an endless line of kids waiting to have their picture taken with Eric and his ever-present smile — images to treasure for eternity.

I wish I would have thought to do that when he was here in February.

But even without a photo, I see him every day.

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.

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