New Technology Keeping Nitro Funny Car Pilots Safe
Couresty of Ford Media and PCGCambell
Two years ago this month, the drag racing community lost John Force Racing Mustang driver Eric Medlen in a tragic Funny Car testing accident. In the aftermath of that accident, John Force Racing and Ford Racing banded together to form The Eric Medlen Project, with an eye on finding and improving safety innovations for the sport. Along with the NHRA, John Force Racing and Ford Racing have instituted a series of safety measures ranging from significant Funny Car chassis modifications to the instillation of the Ford Blue Box (crash data recorder) on all nitro cars. This important work continues and This Week In Ford Racing recently caught up with 14 time Funny Car World Champion John Force and with Pat DiMarco, Ford Racing Vehicle Dynamics and Electronics Supervisor, for an update on The Eric Medlen Project and ongoing safety developments.
JOHN FORCE – GTX Castrol Mustang– CAN YOU GIVE US AN UPDATE ON THE ERIC MEDLEN PROJECT?
“Our shop is out here in California, 50,000 square foot, but most of the race teams are out in Indy, the Ford Motor program is in Indy, the Eric Medlen project is in Indy, everything now is housed under 50,000 square foot. You can see everything that we have developed working with NHRA, working with Ford Motor Company and their technicians. You can go there because we built a virtual reality tour and you can walk through and see it, what we’ve done. If you don’t want to believe us you can read the documentation that Ford has provided us that you can walk through it and get an education. When we do our car shows that’s where we are going to educate the people, to show them what we created from the crash of Eric, the loss of Eric something has to come out of that, and it has, a better and safer race car and it will still run for the title.”
THE 1,000-FOOT ASIDE, WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHANGE YOU’VE SEEN IN THIS SPORT SINCE YOU’VE COME INTO IT?
“You know, in the sport, the biggest change was the technology of computers. That you can get the data after the car had made a run, that is, over my career of over 30 years. That was big, but to see the change to what made this car run faster. Now, the computer couldn’t run anything but it could to tell the crew chief what the fuel pump was doing, what the blower was doing, everything it was doing they could make that happen. So the computer was important, but the one thing we did wrong in the 50 years of our sport, as much safety as we evolved with, one of the biggest changes I believe is what we did with Ford Motor Company and NHRA. We evolved the chassis.
The chassis, if you look at the car I drove 30 years ago, was the same car that Eric and I crashed in ’07, and the new chassis evolved from a four-rail to a six-rail where the driver’s cockpit that protected the driver with the tub around him, and we got that through the Ford technicians and all of those guys were able to study those cars. This has been an on-going process since March of ’07, since we lost Eric, and all of ’08 and it’s not going to stop. We’re working on helmets with the impact and testing, all of that stuff is going to continue to grow. But Ford came up and got the idea to put a black box, we call it the blue box. They paid for it, it was put in by Delphi but it was put into every car. Ford said put it in the GM cars, put it in the Toyota, put in the MOPARS, let’s find out what happens when something goes wrong, and that is a big change. We’ve always been about horsepower, well, now, safety and that’s the biggest change in the sport.”
PAT DIMARCO, Ford Racing Vehicle Dynamics and Electronics Supervisor — IT HAS BEEN TWO YEARS SINCE THE PASSING OF JOHN FORCE RACING DRIVER ERIC MEDLEN IN A TESTING ACCIDENT FOLLOWING THE GAINESVILLE NHRA EVENT. THAT ACCIDENT REALLY TRIGGERED A NUMBER OF JOINT SAFETY INITIATIVES BETWEEN NHRA, FORD RACING AND JOHN FORCE RACING, MOST NOTABLY THE ERIC MEDLEN PROJECT.
“Yes, and I’d go as far as saying the NHRA has been involved in these safety initiatives as well. [The NHRA] has implemented a lot of things that we have started: the Ford Blue Box program, as well as the chassis changes, were all a combination of our work, John Force Racing and NHRA. Last year was the Blue Box implementation for all nitro cars, as well as the new chassis design. This year, we’re also moving forward with some of our production car technology and personnel. We’re modeling the occupant within the computer to simulate accidents similar to Eric’s, as well as a crash similar to Scott Kalitta’s. We can evaluate anything that the body can touch, as well as any vibrations that are put into the body on the computer, as well as a physical test, that’s being replicated as well.”
UP TO THIS POINT, THE CHASSIS CHANGES HAVE COME FROM EVALUATING NOT ONLY THE ACCIDENT WITH ERIC, BUT ALSO THE SIGNIFICANT ACCIDENT JOHN FORCE HAD AT DALLAS AND LOOKING AT WAYS TO REINFORCE THE CHASSIS. YOU’RE SAYING THERE ARE ADDITIONAL INOVATAIONS THAT CAN BE FOUND IN THE CRASHES?
“Definitely. Maybe not so much in the chassis itself, but innovations in the padding, the helmets, the surrounding areas and what the driver can physically touch. That is where we will be looking at for improvements. It’s things like that where the occupant model will help us evaluate.”
TAKE US THROUGH THE EVOLUTION OF THIS PROJECT AND HOW IT’S GONE STEP BY STEP.
“After Eric’s accident, the first thing we looked at was the area surrounding the driver’s head, which was the cause of Eric’s injuries. By widening the surround and putting more padding in there, it helped reduce some of the loads on the driver’s head during a similar accident. Those changes were instrumental in saving John Force’s life in his crash at Dallas. The next step was to look at the chassis and why it broke, and John’s chassis broke in the same places that Eric’s chassis broke. That allowed us to focus on looking at those hot spots and how to remove them from the chassis. Or, in the case that we have now, they’re completely out of the chassis for a torsional event that was seen in Eric and John’s accidents. In order to do all that, we needed data, and the Blue Box data that is running in all of the Nitro cars now was very instrumental in gathering data for all the chassis that have cracked on the track. The data collected from the boxes also helped us reproduce the accident from Scott Kalitta last year.”
WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP? WHAT DO YOU SEE ON THE HORIZON FOR THIS INITIATIVE?
“There’s various production car technologies that can be applied going forward. Although nothing is finalized, there could be things like automatic shut offs, seat belt pretensioners, air bags around the head … just about anything that’s already in the production car. We are working closely with the Ford safety office to see what we can physically put in the car, as well as what’s feasible from a racer’s standpoint with the NHRA.”
WHAT COMES OUT OF THIS PROGRAM THAT CAN GO BACK INTO PRODUCTION CARS?
“We’re pushing the limits on the models that we’re using from the standpoint of the head and the brain models. Production cars don’t usually look at vibration as significant as we’re seeing in the Funny Cars, so they’re evaluating their models using our data to improve our production car safety as well. That’s important for the racers, as well as for our consumers.”