Eric Medlen, 33, who had emerged as one of the most popular young drivers in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, succumbed Friday afternoon to injuries suffered when his race car crashed into a guardwall during a Monday test session at Gainesville Raceway.
The talented Funny Car driver never regained consciousness. After being treated at the track, he was transported by ShandsCair helicopter to Shands at the University of Florida medical center where medical staff treated him for four days for a severe closed head injury.
"Eric suffered from severe traumatic brain injury with diffuse axonal injury, or DAI," said Dr. Joseph Layon, professor of anesthesiology, surgery and medicine and the chief of Critical Care Medicine at UF. "Survival rates associated with DAI are low.
"On Tuesday, UF and Shands neurosurgery team performed a cranjectomy and removed the front portion of the skull to relieve pressure and attempt to improve blood flow to the brain," Layon explained. "Despite receiving the most aggressive treatment, Eric continued to have uncontrollable intracranial pressure. His body lost the ability to manage its salt and water levels, and he began displaying the complicating factors associated with DAI.
"That is when Eric's family elected to honor Eric's wishes and remove him from the artificial life support systems. Our hearts go out to Eric's loved ones."
"On behalf of the family, I want to thank the medical staff at Shands not just for giving Eric the very best care he could have received, but for the compassion it showed for Eric and all those close to him," said his father, John Medlen. "I also want to thank the thousands of people who offered their prayers and support to us during this very difficult time."
As recently as Thursday night, more than 100 drivers and crewmembers representing every Indianapolis-based race team attended a prayer vigil organized by Kelly Bustos, team manager for Tuttle Motorsports, which fields Top Fuel dragsters for 2006 Auto Club Road to the Future Award winner J.R. Todd, one of Medlen's closest friends in the sport.
At Louisville, Ky., where BP/Castrol had set up booth space for the Mid-America Trucking Show, fans and well-wishers filled up two giant posters with get-well wishes Thursday. Moreover, more than 4,500 individual messages of support were left at a special e-mail address on the first day it was activated.
"Eric Medlen was the son I never had," said team owner John Force. "He was the leader of my next generation of drivers. Robert Hight, my daughter Ashley, and I were with the family throughout this very difficult time. This loss is a huge blow not only to the Medlen family, but to drag racing and to John Force Racing. I just want to thank everybody for their support, from Larry Smiley with Racers For Christ to the hospital staff to the whole drag racing community. Our prayers go out to the family."
Little more than three years ago, Medlen took over driving responsibilities in the Funny Car in which Tony Pedregon won the 2003 championship. He had distinguished himself as one of the brightest young stars on the circuit, winning six times in his first three seasons and never finishing outside the top five in driver points.
A graduate of Oakdale (Calif.) High School, where he was a high school rodeo champion in calf roping, Medlen trained under the watchful eye of two-time PRCA world champion Jerold Camarillo and had contemplated a career in pro rodeo before his father called in 1996 to offer him a mechanic's job at John Force Racing Inc.
After spending one season on the team on which his father was crew chief, he moved over one pit stall in 1997 to work on the car driven by 14-time NHRA champion Force. Serving first as the supercharger technician and later as a clutch specialist, he was a member of a team that crewed Force to 50 tour victories and six championships in seven seasons.
When Pedregon left after the 2003 season to form his own team, Medlen was Force's surprise pick to fill the seat, a move that reunited him with his father on the number-two team at JFR.
He was the sport's top Funny Car rookie in 2004, winning in Brainerd, Minn. He won three races in 2005 and two in 2006 including the race contested closest to his hometown, the Fram Autolite NHRA Nationals at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.