Interview with the Pros: Jeg Coughlin
By NHRA Communications
NHRA drag racing has a reputation for being a family affair. One team, however, takes that theory to the extreme. The Coughlin family has been racing down the quarter-mile for a while now and if anything, they pick up momentum every season. Jeg Coughlin is one of four brothers who race. John, Mike and Troy round out the family of drivers. Jeg, encouraged by his older brothers and supported by the entire Coughlin clan, has earned two NHRA Pro Stock championships (2000 and 2002) and is in the hunt for a third. Going into the Pontiac Excitement Nationals presented by Summit Racing at National Trail Raceway in Columbus this weekend, Coughlin is in fourth place in the standings with two final round appearances in his Jeg's Mail Order Chevy Cavalier. In this Q&A session, Coughlin talks about what it will be like to race this weekend at his home track, why the Coughlin's started the Jeg's Cancer Research Foundation and what he thinks it is going to take to repeat as the Pro Stock champion.
Q: What are the benefits of racing with your entire family?
COUGHLIN: There are many benefits. Being together is one of them. Having the ability to be together and work together and race together is exciting. We get to share a lot of our emotions with one another and I think that is a great thing.
Q: What are some of the key changes the team has made recently?
COUGHLIN: Not a whole lot. We've looked within to get back to some of the basic actions. We've seen some good numbers out there by some of our competitors. I think we've been trying to get similar numbers in our program. The bottom line is that we've got it all in there, but we can't get caught up in trying to chase anybody. A couple of races ago we just approached the situation as we have in the past and that worked for us. We just need to go out there and do our best. We've qualified a lot better and we are starting to run better. We are still working hard to get our engine development program to continue to ramp up. Ultimately, power is king in our sport.
Q: There were some stellar performances in Englishtown, N.J., last month, including the national record set by Greg Anderson. Did you expect to see such low numbers there?
COUGHLIN: Looking at the forecast during the week leading up to the race we certainly knew that if Mother Nature cooperated, we would have cool temperatures and high pressure. That is what we saw Saturday. We had decent humidity and as things continued to clear up, the temperature went up, the barometer went up which was great. So going into Friday, if we corrected our best run off of that air, we felt like we could run a 6.69-second pass. We came out and ran in the low 70s. On Saturday we ran a 6.71 and we were pretty excited. We were talking on Thursday night (before the race) and we thought there would be records set in Englishtown and that certainly was the case. It didn't shock us that Greg Anderson set the record. We race with him week in and week out and their program has taken a leap of positive faith in the last year and a half, no question about it. He has added some key personnel to his team and brought everything in-house. That is a trend in Pro Stock. We've done that here, going on two years now, and we are continuing to improve. Our tolerances and expectations get even tougher to match as we raise the bar. When you win a championship, you want to come back and do it again, but you have 20 other engine builders with the same thing in mind. It's tough.
Q: Why was it necessary for your team to bring the engine program in-house?
COUGHLIN: It certainly was not a necessary thing. There are a couple of engine builders out here that aren't racers themselves. You don't have to have your own program. Ideally, to come out here and rent a motor from one of the prominent teams can be more difficult to compete week in and week out. There is no doubt you can show up and rent an engine from Warren Johnson, Reher-Morrison or Jeg's or anyone and be as competitive that weekend if you have the rest of your operation right. Having more known variables was our point. We're competing for race wins and championships each year and we thought we would be more competitive if we brought our program in-house. We were very successful with our small block program with the trucks and that led us further to believe that we had the right idea. Ultimately it happened.
Q: How tough is it to defend a championship?
COUGHLIN: It is very tough. Probably the biggest challenge comes after winning a championship. Once you win a championship, the biggest problem is not sitting back to enjoy it, which would be so easy to do. You conquered 30 other teams for a year and the bottom line is that you won and it would be natural to want to celebrate and enjoy the championship. That is the challenge with every team and you see that a lot. Our team won the championship last year and our team was excited going into the winter to work on our R&D efforts. Had we not won the championship, would our efforts have been different? We'll never know. When you get to the top, there is only one direction to go and you have to continually work smart and efficiently to stay up there. In our game considering how much competition there is, I don't think you are going to see the same people winning. This year might be a bad example because we've only had a few winners of the events so far. But I don't think any one team can dominate the series championships.
Q: What are the chances that the Jeg's Mail Order team will win back-to-back championships?
COUGHLIN: Obviously we feel like we are still in the hunt. It really is just a matter of getting some momentum going. We're capable of that. I think we are a top three car. But you also need help from some of the other competitors to help take out the Warrens, the Kurts and the Gregs and go rounds. Our sights are set on a repeat title and until they tell us we can't do it, we are going to keep pushing.
Q: Why do all of the Coughlin brothers get along so well?
COUGHLIN: We do get along real well. We grew up in a happy, family environment and I think that was great. Both of my parents created a household where we were all together, all the time. We have all been around each other a lot. As we worked on my dad's racing team, he gave us all responsibilities and I think that built a lot of strengths that came out when we moved into the business in later years. We just continued to do more of the same. When we have issues, we try to talk through them and move on. We can't afford to stumble and not continue to move forward. We've got a lot at stake. Our racing organization has really grown in the last five or six years and our business has done the same. We have a lot of people who look for us to lead the ship.
Q: Because you run a full-time business, would racing be considered your hobby? Or is racing equally part of the business?
COUGHLIN: The business comes first. Some weeks you work 50 hours on racing; some weeks you work very little on racing. It all depends on what's going on. When you balance out the two of them, it's a full-time career and then some. The business is first, but the racing we do because we enjoy it. My hobby is actually bracket racing when I hop into my dragster. I really enjoy that. That is very peaceful and very challenging. The good thing is that we all turn to each other for different tasks. There is no question about that, we are able to lean on each other.
Q: What do you think about the Cavalier that you now drive?
COUGHLIN: I love it. I think it is a great looking product from Chevrolet. When you see one of the souped up ones on the street with the wing and the graphics, it looks great - not to mention they have a factory color that is nearly a Jeg's yellow. I think it is a real nice car. I think the rules really have dictated the last three or four years the stability of cars. I think we have seen the Fords come into play. They have a very aggressive package, body and aerodynamics. We hope that GM and teams like ourselves can continue to work together to make the Cavalier brand a better car and have an equal platform for all makes.
Q: Your family is now involved with a program that is aimed at increasing awareness and raising funds for cancer research. Why did the family decide to create the Jeg's Foundation?
COUGHLIN: I think as a family we participated in a lot of charities over the years and we continually made a comment that we would like to make a larger impact with a charity. We've talked about it for years and continued to support a lot of different areas. More recently, how we got on this, was when my wife Karen - a survivor of cancer - made a trip to the doctor's office. My father is also a cancer survivor. Karen came up with the thought of the checked ribbon for racing, to illustrate how we want to speed up the cure for cancer, racing for cancer research, all those things. We talked about it on the way to the James Cancer Center in Ohio for one of her six-month checkups. While we were waiting, we started sketching out ribbons and kind of really started to talk about putting something together. I went to my brothers and my dad and asked them what they thought about moving toward this direction and using our racing and our visibility in racing to help spread this type of a message. We wanted to emphasize early screenings and using prevention as a keyword. That was what we all talked about and everyone thought it was a real neat idea. We played with the ribbon and we got it to where we felt as though it fit the motorsports world. We have a young populated audience that we generally communicate to. We have a broad audience but the younger audience doesn't think about having cancer, certainly not within their own body. A lot of people have friends or family members who have battled cancer, but they don't think it will ever happen to them. We wanted to get the message of prevention and awareness out to the audience that doesn't think about it. That is how the concept got started. We all agreed that it would be a great thing to stand for. We partnered with two great facilities in the Ohio region, the James Cancer Center and the Ireland Cancer Center. We have committed our family to helping support those two facilities through race winnings or profits from our business, whatever has to be done to help. I think this is just an outstanding program. Over my lifetime, I hope we can make a positive impact on the two facilities with the family foundation. As important, we hope the dollars that we raise will generate research and save lives and help to find cures for the various measures of cancer. That is definitely what our goals are.
Q: What do you like about racing at your home track in Columbus, National Trail Raceway?
COUGHLIN: I love it. Everything is great there. I really enjoy it and I think I enjoy it so much because I watched my brothers race there when they were younger and before I was old enough to race. Seeing some of the Jeg's associates come out and support us from the beginning was neat. I saw the pressures my brothers were under with all of the people around and the customers and fans from the Columbus area and I got to take a lot of that in. I remember my dad telling me somewhere along the line - and we all know he is known for throwing something out there that is very generic but it makes sense - he told me I could handle this race as a burden or I could can handle it as something that is fun and a good opportunity. That always stuck with me and I try to make it a great opportunity. There is no question there is more people and more traffic, there are just more demands on the entire family. To me those are excellent opportunities to make positive impacts and when you do finally get to the race track you just have to be focused and do your normal deal. Our team is versed in that same manner. They have more people coming for one-on-one questions and we try to make sure everyone has a good time and we try to appease everyone. I think the fact of the matter is that it is a zero tolerance world and we need to perform in that arena. When it gets to that point, we are focused and we have goals and we do our best to make it happen. I love racing at National Trail Raceway. It is a historical landmark for me. I get excited every time I pull through that gate. I have visions of me swinging on the swing when I was little, wading through the water when it was raining, winning my first race in Street Eliminator when I was 15 years old, getting my license to race there in Super Gas. There are just so many positive things that have happened at that track that in all honesty, when I pull through the gate, I am energized.
Q: How important are reaction times now and how do you make adjustments for competing at the line?
COUGHLIN: It is very tough. Racing over the years I have been in various classes and I have raced in the classes where you could red-light. The difference is that you have electronics that could help delay your reaction so you wouldn't have to delay that on your own. Ideally that is what you work on. I have been accustomed to working with very tight starting line tolerances. I think obviously with the new LED bulbs on the Christmas Tree has created a new situation for a lot of teams, including our own. We can red-light just about every time we go out there, so it is back to having to adjust and manage your reaction times now. That makes it more difficult because we are not dealing with putting two or three-thousandths in the timer to delay the clutch pedal from releasing because that wouldn't be legal. We're physically working on many areas of the car to get it to soften up as it leaves the starting line. Case in point being (at Englishtown) when I fouled by one thousandth in the King Demon Crown event and we had another qualifying run that afternoon and we made adjustments and I was fine. We were pretty happy with that and away we went. It has really come down to management. Out of those 16 guys who qualify, how many of them could go red? I have no idea. But it seems like everyone on Sunday is packed like a bunch of bees and I think everyone has it pretty well under control.
Q: Why are you a good race car driver?
COUGHLIN: I don't know. There are probably many reasons starting with growing up around it. That certainly would be at the top of the list. I enjoy racing. I understand the vehicles, the classes and the electronics. I think you have to understand everything about the sport. You have got to understand track conditions, clutch conditions, drive train conditions, the electronics, the starting line, the 60-foot clocks, the 330's, etc. Probably being around the sport, which in my case being around as long as I have, it would be hard not to have a good library of information about the sport. I don't know if that fits in, but I am sure it helps along with having three older brothers who are very competitive. When there was one last piece of garlic toast on the table, you had to be quick. It all boils down to those things. I think my love for the sport and drive to exceed helps me.
Q: Are you having fun defending your championship?
COUGHLIN: Of course. I really enjoy this. We have been in this position once before and there is nothing better than defending a title because obviously you made it to the top and your goals are to remain there. It is much easier said than done, but that is our plan.