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NRA driver John Force knows the risks of competing at 300 mph

John Force, considered the Dale Earnhardt of the NHRA, knows the risks of competing at 300 mph. ENNIS, Texas -- The noise at the O'Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals early Sunday afternoon ceased for about 15 minutes. Silence during the biggest day of th...

John Force, considered the Dale Earnhardt of the NHRA, knows the risks of competing at 300 mph.

ENNIS, Texas -- The noise at the O'Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals early Sunday afternoon ceased for about 15 minutes.

Silence during the biggest day of the high-horsepower event at Texas Motorplex is unusual. But the sight of ambulances racing toward the car of John Force at the end of the quarter-mile drag strip quieted nearly everyone.

Afterall, as Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson told a television audience, Force is the Dale Earnhardt of drag racing.

Force, 58, was involved in a violent crash with Kenny Bernstein after they crossed the finish line in a second-round elimination showdown. When medics arrived at Force's partially disintegrated Funny Car, they found him alert and conscious. But his injuries wereserious. Fans stood and watched as a helicopter lifted Force to Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. Bernstein was uninjured, except for a mild headache.

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Doctors told Force's public relations representatives that Force sustained a broken left ankle and a severe abrasion on his right knee. He also broke his left wrist and had abrasions and fractures on a number of fingers on his right hand. But none of the injuries are life-threatening and CT scans showed no damage other than the injuries to his legs and hands.

It was another stark reminder that there's inherent danger in two cars flying down a quarter-mile track at more than 300 mph. Force knows the hazards all too well. The 14-time Funny Car champion made safety his top priority shortly after Eric Medlen, a young driver that Force considered the son he never had, died from injuries sustained during a March testing session in Florida.

Force poured money and resources into safety and it resulted in changes to the rollcage padding near the driver's head. Those changes helped Bernstein on Sunday.

"If that had been the old pads, I'd have had a lot worse headache," Bernstein said.

Replays showed Bernstein clipping a timing cone sending it toward Force's car and then the car making a sharp right turn and crashing into Bernstein. Force's chassis broke on that initial impact with Bernstein. The part of the car with Force strapped into the driver's seat appeared to remain in the left lane while the rest of the car hit Bernstein and drove him into the guardrail in the right lane.

Bernstein said he saw Force's car headed for him as soon as he crossed the finish line. Then all Bernstein could see was parts of his car and then Force's car flying in the air as he continued down the track.

Bernstein spoke to Force as he was taken by a stretcher into the helicopter.

"I went up and said, 'John, it's Bernstein. I'm OK,' " Bernstein said. "He was worried about whether or not he hurt me. That's John."

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Ashley Force, who was cheered loudly after advancing to the semifinals, withdrew from the competition to go with her mother, Laurie, to the hospital. For the Force family, Sunday was another tough day in a season full of them.

It took months for the Force family to deal with the grief of losing Medlen. Force blamed himself for putting Medlen in one of his cars. He would cry on his way to the racetrack and had trouble focusing on races. Consequently, he dropped to 15th in the standings in July and was in danger of missing the Countdown to the Championship, the NHRA's playoffs. But Force started to run better over the summer and won three events and advanced to the finals in two others to make the playoffs easily.

Then, Force didn't qualify for the biggest race on the circuit, the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis over Labor Day weekend, for the first time since 1984. That and a second-round loss last weekend in Memphis dropped Force to sixth in the standings.

Force actually moved into fourth place in the Funny Car standings. But it's not known whether the injuries will keep him from racing again this season. The next event is in two weeks in Richmond, Va. Whether he still has a chance to win his 15th championship doesn't really matter now. Force's fellow drivers just want to hear his loud and distinguishable voice at the track again.

"I was glad to hear he was talking," said Tony Pedregon, who won this weekend's event in Funny Car. "If he was swearing, that's even better."

Larry Dixon, who has been involved in some scary crashes, saw the replay.

"I'm glad he's alive," Dixon said. "It says something about the safety of the cars that he survived it. I tell people I'd rather crash going 330 mph than driving to the track going 55 because I'm prepared for it.

"He'll be back out here racing again. I promise you."

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