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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ John Force's crew chief Austin Coil on the lessons learned from the NHRA legend's accident

by Gordon Kirby
This has been a very difficult year for John Force's multi-car NHRA Funny Car team. In March, Eric Medlen was critically injured when he crashed heavily while testing one of Force's Funny Cars at Florida's Gainesville Raceway. Medlen was a talented young driver who had worked his way up with Force's team from crewman to driver. His father John is one of Force's crew chiefs and after winning the NHRA's Funny Car rookie-of-the-year honors in 2004 Medlen quickly established himself as one of drag racing's most popular drivers. In his accident Medlen suffered a severe head injury and underwent surgery the following day to relieve hemorrhaging and pressure on his brain, but he died three days later.

Medlen's death triggered a major effort by Force's team to design and develop a safer car. Then at Seattle in July, Force's daughter Ashley, competing in her rookie season in one of the team's Funny Cars, had a big accident that was eerily similar to Medlen's. Thankfully, Ashley was uninjured, but then just eight days ago at the Texas Motorplex the 58-year old Force had the worst crash of his long and legendary career, plunging the team into an even deeper examination of safety in drag racing.

Force's car was torn in two when something yet to be identified caused a rear tire tread to separate from its casing. The front of the car flew into Kenny Bernstein's rival lane while Force and the rest of the car crashed into the retaining wall before the wreckage slithered to a halt. Bernstein jumped out of his car and walked away but Force was taken to hospital with a compound fracture to his left ankle, a deep abrasion to his right knee, a broken and dislocated left wrist and breaks to the fingers of his right hand. Force underwent surgery that evening and has been recovering at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

Meanwhile, Force's team has been working flat-out with Ford engineers and chassis builder Murf McKinney to re-engineer and rebuild all of its cars before next weekend's NHRA race near Richmond, Virginia. Force's crew chief and overall team boss Austin Coil has been in drag racing for more than thirty years and has run Force's team since 1985 and the series of accidents the team has suffered this year have been very sobering for Coil.

"Before this year, I've never been involved with a car where anybody was hurt bad enough to stay in the hospital overnight," Coil remarked. "I went drag racing when I was a kid because people don't get hurt drag racing. The sprint car and circle track guys were forever getting wounded and I thought I didn't want anything to do with that. Throughout my whole career, up until this year, the worst it's ever been is somebody went to the hospital for treatment or bandages and was back at the track or the hotel in a couple of hours."

Coil disputes the theory that a foam block kicked up by Bernstein's car flew into and punctured one of Force's rear tires, triggering the wreck. "I've heard that observation, but I certainly think we don't know that," Coil commented. "We don't even know the tire was punctured. All we know for sure was that the tread came off the tire. The casing was intact, at least visually.

"There are stories that people saw something come off Bernstein's car and go under our car. But I've reviewed every bit of video and I didn't see exactly that happen. All I can say is, yes, the tire tread came off and it shook the car so hard that it broke the chassis in two--a lot like Eric's--and I don't claim to know why the tread came off the tire."

© Jon Asher
Coil points out that a video shooting race cars at 300 mph will not capture much detail. "When they're shooting high-speed action video like that it's very common to use a shutter speed like 1/4,000th of a second, and there are thirty frames per second in the video," Coil noted. "So you would need 4,000 frames at that shutter speed to see everything that went on. There are many hundreds of theoretical frames missing for every one you see. If someone had shot the tire with a rifle for example, you would miss the bullet because it most likely wouldn't have happened in any of the frames."

Coil explained what he saw from his position at the start line. "The car was going down the racetrack doing everything normally and the next thing I noticed was pieces of tire started flying, followed by pieces of body, and then the chassis broke in two. When the parachute came out it stopped the part that John was in and the rest of it went on across the other lane, hit Bernstein and the wall, and skidded on down to the end.

"I don't know why the tire failed but I'm pretty confident that's why the chassis came apart because there's nothing else wrong with the car. The motor, transmission, rear end and all the rest of it was intact and normal."

When a tire fails or loses its tread on a Top Fuel or Funny Car the 'tire shake' that is unleashed is so ferocious that it can do untold amounts of damage. It was essentially 'tire shake' which resulted in Medlen's fatal injuries and tore apart Force's car in Texas. Force's team has been working with Ford engineers and the McKinney chassis-building company in Lafayette, IN, using finite element analysis (FEA) computer programs to reconstruct its cars.

"The FEA experts at Ford in conjunction with McKinney and John Medlen and others, some of those people have worked around the clock and come up with some interesting changes that should theoretically move what they call the 'hot spot' in the chassis," Coil reported. "That spot was at the front of the seat which is where the car broke and they've made some changes to where the FEA program shows it moves the 'hot spot' out to in front of the drivers feet so that if it did break it would break in a position where it wouldn't leave the driver unprotected. All of our cars are at McKinney's now and some of our handier fabricators are working with them to make sure all our cars get those modifications before Richmond."

Coil is pleased that the additional safety add-ons resulting from Medlen's accident saved Force from further injury. "The head pads on the roll cages and extra harnesses on the seat belts and all that stuff performed as hoped," Coil said. "It prevented John from having any head, neck, chest or torso injuries. But the chassis broke to where it left his arms and legs reasonably unprotected and he got beat up a bit.

"The chassis proper is unchanged from McKinney's design of several years ago," Coil added. "The bigger roll cage and additional padding and seat belt mounts designed by Doctor John Melvin were installed on all our cars right after Eric's incident. We've been working on chassis innovations to try to isolate the driver from whatever could happen but that's all still on the drawing board. Nothing's been produced yet."

Coil has been impressed with the hard work put in by many people, including Ford's FEA engineers. "We've been working real close with Ford and their former Formula 1 FEA expert, Niranjan Singh," Coil remarked. "I had to leave him a voice message and I called late one evening. It was near the middle of the night in Detroit and I called his office phone and he answered. I said, 'You're hard-core buddy!'

"Both he and the FEA guy who works with McKinney came up with essentially the same conclusion, so we're pretty sure it's got to be right," Coil went on. "The Ford guys have been working on this FEA program for a long time. They took a standard chassis, like we've been running, and put it into their computer drawing system. Then they took the chassis and put it in a machine they have at Ford where they stick about two hundred strain gauges all over the frame and twist it left and right, up and down, and back and forth, and record what the actual dynamic stresses are on the tubing. They then fine-tune the FEA program so they match each other. That should make it incredibly accurate. All this technology and Niranjan Singh came from Formula 1."

© Jon Asher
Coil has cast his net as wide as possible in gathering input to improve the safety aspect of the team's cars. "We're really snake-bitten with bad luck for our drivers and it's like we have to do something, or we can't go on," Coil mulled. "I've talked personally to seven metallurgists and four chassis builders looking for ideas in this situation and virtually everyone agrees that what we're doing is what we need to do. So I'm pretty comfortable with what we're doing."

Robert Hight and Ashley Force have been running their cars with Delphi's data system which measures g-loads and impact data in accidents. But Force himself doesn't like the ear pieces which contain the g-force meters. Force and Coil also decided the system added too much weight for competitive runs.

"We've been testing a Delphi crash recorder," Coil reported. "One of the more important facets of it is the g-meters they want in the drivers' ears. Robert and Ashley both use them, but John said, 'There ain't no way I'm sticking that thing in my ear.' So in the interests of saving a few pounds we only ran the crash recorder a few runs so they could get an idea of the resonant frequency of our chassis versus the others. It wasn't on the car so we don't have any chassis data from the accident and I'm kinda sad that's the case."

Coil has been agonizing over the trade-off between speed and safety often made by many racers. "The unfortunate truth is that in the case of running a racing team a guy like myself has to wear many hats, and the most important hat is the one that says, 'win'," he commented. "I don't seem to have the ability to focus on everything at once and many things that point towards safety are a deterrant to being able to win. You can't add anything because weight slows you down, and when you're in a maximum effort to win you don't really want to look too hard at how to make the car heavier.

"But when you get a wake-up call that you really can hurt people in this sport, then that doesn't matter. You'll find a way to overcome the weight."

Coil would like to see the NHRA write the changes into the rulebook that Force's team is introducing to Funny Car racing this year. "I've been spending a fair amount of time with the association (NHRA), trying to convince them that everything that I think is a good idea ought to be mandatory," he related. "They sound very cooperative in that area and I'm very happy with the way Graham Light, Tom Compton and Dan Olson have responded to all this because I do believe they have our best interests at heart.

"What I said to Dan Olson is you don't want to leave the rules in a manner to where the individual racer has to decide to die or win. If you can do this thing and it's more likely to win, but if you if do this other thing and you're more likely to survive , which one are you going to do? Well, it depends which hat you're wearing.

"But when we can show you something safer, you've got to make everybody do it so that my chances of winning aren't reduced because I'm trying to save the driver's life. We want to do everything we can to keep anybody from getting hurt."

Coil's admiration for doctors in general and for the emergency medical team at the races has taken a sharp turn upward after his unhappy memory of the scene following Force's accident.

"We've been racing together for twenty-three years and John might as well be my brother," Coil remarked. "I don't deal well with people who are wounded and he was in the car there in distress and I was trying to be there for support. All I've got to say is thank God for medical personnel because I certainly couldn't do their job. It's not in my makeup and having seen what they do, I really admire them."

He's thankful too for the high quality of the engineering support from Ford in helping produce a safer race car. "The resources we've been able to bring to bear on how we can make this better before the next race is far beyond what any other team would have been capable of calling on," Coil observed. "And that's largely because our FEA analysis of what to do with the chassis started the week after Eric's incident. I wish we had known we should do this a few months ago and maybe we'd be preparing for John to drive at Richmond next weekend. Certainly, without a doubt, Ford's capabilities and resources have come into play here in the best possible way."

John Force and Austin Coil have combined over the years to win a record fourteen NHRA championships and many years ago Coil won two more on his own. They represent one of the greatest teams in the history of drag racing and after six months of very hard knocks they're using all their resources, skills and motivation to stand up and start fighting again.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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