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On Fire and On A Mission

Eric Medlen spent most of the 2005 season on fire.

Figuratively, he was one of the hottest drivers in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, directing the Castrol SYNTEC® Ford Mustang to three victories in the final 11 races and, over the last half of the season, out-pointing Funny Car champion Gary Scelzi - and everyone else - en route to a fourth place finish.

Literally, he rode out two of the biggest engine fires in the category and, in surviving the carnage, emerged as one of the favorites to win this year's $400,000 championship and return it to John Force Racing, Inc.

Medlen's do-whatever-it-takes attitude - and that of his crew - never was more evident than at the season-ending Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., where a semifinal engine explosion and fire sent the SYNTEC Mustang flying into the sand pit at the end of the track at high speed.

Despite catastrophic damage that included four complete breaks in the chassis, Medlen not only was back in the cockpit for the final round, he was able to fire the engine, make a burnout and bring the car to the starting line. It was a moral victory that will be remembered long after Tony Pedregon's triumph is forgotten.

"I've got a great team, a great car and a great car owner," Medlen said, referring to 13-time Funny Car Champion John Force. "And to be chasing the championship with my dad (crew chief John Medlen) is really special."

The 32-year-old gave up a promising rodeo career in 1996 to take a job as a mechanic on the same team for which he now drives. After a year, he moved over one pit space to become the supercharger technician on Force's Castrol GTX® Mustang. Three years later, he became the team's clutch specialist.

Ironically, he got his chance to drive when Pedregon left the team after winning the 2003 championship. Medlen responded to that challenge as he has to every other, winning a race at Brainerd, Minn., en route to a fifth place finish as a Funny Car rookie.

After building a rodeo reputation on a horse named Little Rock, he now is riding herd on a Mustang capable of zero-to-330 mile-an-hour acceleration in 4.6 seconds.

"It's all horsepower," Medlen said of the similarities between his current ride and his former one. "It's just a different exhaust system."Remarkably, his hope of making a career in straight-line racing seemed little more than a pipe dream just nine years ago. The former high school rodeo champion had been too often disappointed on the several occasions when it appeared that a job might open up in racing that would allow him to work with his dad.

As a result, in the winter of 1995, he was preparing for a rodeo career as the team roping partner of two-time PRCA world champion Jerold Camarillo.

That's when his John Medlen called from Southern California to tell him that a job was available on Force's second Funny Car team.

Unsure of what to do, Medlen sought out Camarillo for advice.

"I told Jerold, 'I don't really know what to do,'" Medlen recalled. "'I kinda want to stay here and rodeo with you but I've always wanted to work with my dad, too.' Jerold said, 'well, you know, 80 per cent of World Champions in roping are 30 and older, so you can always come back and do this.

"'If (a drag racing career) doesn't work out, you can come back and this will always be here, but if you pass it up, it might not ever come around again, so you've got to take your chance.' That meant a lot, because he wanted me to stay, too."

Of course, it's not like Medlen just climbed off a horse and into one of the quickest Funny Cars on the planet.

Building on the foundation laid by his father, who took him to boat races and auto races almost every week growing up, he studied mechanical engineering for three years at Terra Technical University in Fremont, Ohio.

Moreover, while he hadn't driven professionally before he climbed into the Castrol SYNTEC Ford for the first time, he had extensive experience in go karts and shifter karts and he went through Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School on several occasions, paying for the tuition himself by selling off his karts and a custom chopper motorcycle he had built from the ground up.

"I always had go karts," Medlen said, "and I finally got into shifter karts. Those are some pretty serious machines. I had a couple of 125 shifters and an 80. They're a lot of fun," Medlen said.

"In the off-season, the Indy Car guys, that's what they drive to stay sharp - 120 miles per hour on the straightaway. You don't really get a sense of (that) speed. You're concentrating so much on what's going on that you don't have time to think, 'boy, those trees sure are going by fast.' When I decided that I wanted to drive (a drag racing vehicle), I sold all that stuff, probably for 10 cents on the dollar."

Although he's still learning to drive the SYNTEC Ford, one of the most powerful race cars in the world, Medlen is comfortable driving anything with horsepower.

In fact, when he first started driving go karts, he was so small he needed two pillows and a pedal extender just so he could work the accelerator. Nevertheless, Medlen decided early-on that his best chance of earning a living in racing was as a mechanic.

"I liked doing the blowers (superchargers)," Medlen said. "(because) you got to be involved in development. (At JFR) we were the first ones to modify (the basic supercharger unit, resulting in the backset blower the team has run for three seasons).

"That was a little nerve wracking," he said, "because (Force crew chief Austin) Coil brings this $8,000 blower back to me and says, 'now, listen, I want you to cut the case out, (but) don't cut it too much because it'll ruin it.'"

Medlen definitely believes his background in mechanics was one of the reasons he was able to adapt so quickly to the cockpit.

"I think the more you know about the car itself, especially if you don't have a lot of actual driving experience, the better off you are," he said. "There's no substitute for physical driving experience, but I think the fact that I worked on the crew for eight years, the fact that I've done a lot of different things, has helped speed up the learning curve.

"Look at some of the other guys," Medlen said. "Larry Dixon (the 2002 and 2003 POWERade Top Fuel Champion) and Ron Capps (who drives a Funny Car for Don Schumacher) both used to work as mechanics. Del (Worsham), he used to do everything on his car, and now Robert (Robert Hight, second year driver of the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford and one of Medlen's former crew mates). I just hope I'm able to make the transition and do as well as those guys."

So far, so good!

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