Interview with the Pros: Austin Coil
By NHRA Communications
Go ahead and try to imagine a John Force interview in winner's circle without hearing the name "Coil" mixed in the conversation. Can't picture it? Neither can Force nor his championship winning tuner, Austin Coil. The two joined 'Forces' in 1986 and they have been all but unstoppable from nearly the beginning of their relationship. Force had raced sporadically between 1978-'85, earning just five final round appearances, always finishing second. Coil and Force went to the final round three times in 1986 without snagging a win. That was the first and last season in the Force-Coil era that didn't include a national event victory. The outgoing and social Force and the quiet, thoughtful Coil have earned 12 Funny Car championships, including the last 10 straight, as well as 106 national event victories. In this Q&A session, Coil talks about what it is like to work with Force, what it takes to make the "Brain Trust" a constant success and whether he would ever start over from scratch with a new team again.
Q: Are you a better tuner than John Force is a driver, or is he a better driver than you are a tuner?
COIL: That is a good question, but it is kind of like asking if red wine is better than white wine. They are two different things. Obviously we are both very good at what we do. The only thing I have to admit is that when the drivers are out there on the starting line racing, getting ready to run, John is all alone. When we are here in the pits, I have Bernie and John Medlen and Jimmy Prock and Dickie Venables to consult with. For that, I would have to give John a nod on the level of difficulty. He has to do his job all alone.
Q: Have you ever thought about what would have happened if you and Force didn't pair up in 1986?
COIL: I don't think my house would be paid for, that's for sure. Both of us getting together and staying together over some fairly rough times has been amazing. It has been something that has been very good for both of us. I guess having the talent to do well at this game is probably something a lot of people have, but they never find the right opportunity. I realize that everyday and I thank God the circumstances fell the way they did because I am mighty happy that it worked out this way.
Q: Do you ever get job offers? Do other teams try to lure you away from Force Racing?
COIL: I used to, but probably in the last four or five years no one has ever talked to me. They know the kind of machine we have here and the kind of loyalty it breeds. They don't want to be embarrassed by being turned down. However, if there is somebody out there that can put another zero on my income, you never know.
Q: What was it like taking over the operation and working with Force in the beginning?
COIL: Well, it was starting from scratch. They didn't have anything here that I wanted to use. He expected that. John's job, when I first got here, was being busy all the time trying to sell everything he had. He never expected me to use anything he already had. We went shopping and got what I was used to running and we put a car together. We started from scratch and worked our way up.
Q: Would you ever consider starting in the same position all over again with another team?
COIL: I don't plan to, but you never know. I'm figuring that if this operation isn't racing, it will probably be because of World War III or something else that would mean that no one was racing. I can't imagine any need to ever have to do that again. I guess it is a possibility, but I doubt it.
Q: What did you do before you began working within NHRA drag racing?
COIL: I ran my own team and actually that started in 1967. We ran the Chi-Town Hustler with my partners John Farkonas and Pat Minick and we exclusively match raced around the country for a living. We did that from 1967 up to 1981. In 1982 we decided to start running in the national events. In the first year that we ran in all of the races, we won the championship in 1982 and '83. In 1984 we were kind of running low on sponsorship and money for the next year and about the same time, John came up to me and made me a really attractive offer. (Driver Frank) Hawley had given me notice that he was not going to be available for the 1985 season because he was going to go out and open the drag racing school. It all just kind of fit. That is when this all happened. In the '60s I was a dealer auto mechanic. I did that ever since I was old enough to hold a job. Since I was 16 years old I have always had some kind of race car as a hobby toy.
Q: Was your family involved with racing before you?
COIL: Nope. My dad never went to a race and was very much against it. His famous last words were, 'I can't believe a son of mine would want to make a living out of making someone feel bad.' I always told him I thought it was an interesting thought. Someone always wins and someone always loses, but oh well. My dad owned a small taxicab business for a while and he was a machinery mechanic. He was 53 when I was born. He was fading by the time I got to the point where I appreciated him. He was very mechanically minded. He never had anybody work on anything for him. Period. He fixed his own television sets, he did his own plumbing, he painted his own house and he fixed his own cars. He did all the repair work on the taxicabs when he owned that company. He did everything. I used to be the same way but now I am far too busy just doing this job and fortunately I am able to afford to have somebody fix my plumbing or air conditioner.
Q: Do you have fun with this job? How long do you think you will keep tuning for a living?
COIL: Some days are fun. Some days are painful. But the days are never boring, except when I am in the office stuck doing paperwork. George Hoover was actively crew chiefing his son's car when he was 92 years old. I've got a ways to go, based on that.
Q: You have 14 NHRA championships to your name, 13 with Force. Are you still driven everyday at the track to win another one?
COIL: Hell yes. The more you've won, the more embarrassing it is to lose. You are expected to win, you have the resources to win and if you stop winning, people are going to say that you are too old to care anymore. Well, Hoover was still doing it, the Greek (Chris Karamesines) is still actively driving the dragster (at age 72). The handwriting is not on the wall of when we have to quit. There will be a day, no doubt, when Force gets up in the morning and he decides he doesn't want to drive anymore. However, that just means he will need to hire another driver to keep the team going. As long as he is alive, he will be a team owner. He has the gift of being able to manage the sponsors and being able to gather money from everywhere to keep the operation going. Even when the economy is tough, he gets it done. So it isn't likely that he is going to quit, whether his kids take over driving his cars at some point or whether there will be hired drivers. It doesn't matter; there will be a Force team for a long time.
Q: Do you honestly believe that Force is going to wake up one morning and decide he doesn't want to drive his Ford Mustang Funny Car anymore?
COIL: Well, it has happened to all of the other drivers I know except the Greek. The Greek hasn't decided he doesn't want to drive anymore yet. It happened to (Kenny) Bernstein one day. He got up and said it was going to be his last year. (Don) Prudhomme did that. So based on that, you have to think that one day Force is going to do the same thing. But you know what, when we are out here it is very obvious to me that Force gets more fun out of driving that car than anything else he does in his life. I don't think he is anywhere near thinking about quitting yet. I wouldn't be surprised if he was driving 10 years from now. That wouldn't surprise me at all.
Q: What is the key to keeping this operation together and successful?
COIL: To keep personalities from flaring up is tough in any big operation. In this team, it is pretty much treated like a great, big family. The key to keeping peace in this family is something they say about marriages. They say in marriages, 99 percent of arguments have to do with something financial. Well, when the money is rolling in good, it helps a lot. Every single person on this entire team down to the guy who mounts the tires on the C-team car, gets a share of the bonus money, no matter which car wins. That does a lot to keep everybody working together toward the common goal of success. It's a tough deal to keep the money coming in with this economy. Every year everyone expects a raise and everybody thinks they ought to get more time off. If they have been doing this for 20 years, they think their life should get better a little bit. Well, that's true but with the state of the economy the way it is, it is very hard to get more money from sponsors compared to how it was four or five years ago. Everybody routinely got increases and it is not necessarily that way now. There are some problems, but keeping enough sponsor support so there is enough money so we can all do our jobs to the best of our ability without the restriction of being too concerned with the budget is part of what makes it fun. It certainly has been a large part of our success.
Q: What has been the key to you and Force maintaining a successful relationship?
COIL: Not being together too much. I ask him to join me on motorcycle rides, but he never goes. He talks about it all the time. Force rode with me two years ago. We've got street legal dirt bikes and we rode them up through the fire trails up to the top of Saddleback Mountain. That was big fun, but that is the last time we've gone. We are absolutely opposite personality wise. Force has the same personality as my wife. John's wife has said to me, 'I don't know how you stand it, how can you put up with two of them?' Force is always wide-open and ready to do something. I don't think he ever just rests. He can't just sit down, be quiet and do nothing. That never happens. If he isn't out running around doing something, he is on the phone trying to talk someone into or out of something. That is just the way it is.
Q: Force's daughter, Ashley, started racing last season. Does that present an additional distraction for him?
COIL: Not much. He is very interested in seeing his kid do well and she appears to have the talent for it. His goal is the big picture, which is to eventually groom her to drive a Top Fuel car. It remains to be seen whether Ashley truly wants to follow to that conclusion or not. The road is there and she has started down it.
Q: The combination of crew chiefs - Bernie Fedderly, John Medlen, Dickie Venables, Jimmy Prock and yourself - within John Force Racing is often referred to as the "Brain Trust." How does the relationship between five of you work?
COIL: It works great. In the old days, most crew chiefs, like myself, had somebody that they could talk to a lot. You need someone to bounce ideas off of. Pretty soon if the guy you are bouncing ideas off of is confused, you will realize that it is going to be a negative situation for you. You'd be surprised how some people can talk you into the damnedest thing. The selection of who you are willing to discuss things with is really important. A long time ago, Keith Black was one of the guys I used to talk to a lot. I used to talk to other race car owners like Jungle Jim. He was a real good friend of mine. Now that it has gotten so competitive and there is a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and a whole lot of corporate money involved, you better not even get caught talking about race car science with somebody that runs an opposing team because you don't want to share ideas. Unfortunately the way it is right now makes you believe that every other team is the enemy. What can you do? That still left Keith Black, except not any more since he has been gone quite a few years now. Force's move was to hire another guy. Force said, 'Talking to nobody won't be the answer and talking to me damn sure won't help you.' So that is when Bernie came along. As much goes into sorting out the personalities as there is to assessing capabilities. There are a lot of people out there that are probably as good at crew chiefing as any of us, but they probably wouldn't fit into a team arrangement. (Budweiser dragster crew chief) Tim Richards is someone I have had the utmost respect for over the years and we have talked about things in general and he has told me that he doesn't know how we do it and that he couldn't possibly work with anybody the way we work together. But he can also see that by the way we work together, he doesn't know how anyone can take over the class for a long time. That is something you have to put some effort into when it comes to adapting to this system. That is Bernie's job. He is our "Brain Trust" moderator. He tries to keep each of us working well together. But in reality, the group we have here all fits in. The scariest thing is that we occasionally talk about adding another team and having a fourth car. Well, we would need more people. But hell, we have been lucky enough to find this many that can work together without destroying a team's ability to function and win. Is there anyone else who could do that? It gets tougher and tougher to find another guy who can go along with this system, so maybe this team is as big as it should be.
Q: What do you think about expanding and adding a Top Fuel team?
COIL: We're ready to do that but we haven't gotten the sufficient sponsorship support yet to make it a good idea. So we're not going to add another team. Someday maybe the sponsorship will come along and then we will add another team. Right now we have Dickie Venables and we believe he is fully capable of running a car on his own. We would leave Dickie with one of the Funny Cars and Jimmy would probably be the most likely one to take over a Top Fuel team. It would be fine. There isn't any budget for it right now, so I won't worry about that happening this year. You never know. Every time we have added something to the party, ultimately, it has been a plus. So far I can't see why having a dragster would be a bad thing.
Q: John Force Racing set the standard in operating multiple car teams. What was the original intention of having a two-car team?
COIL: More data. We also wanted the ability to have a bigger budget that would allow us to try more things. We wanted more good people in the group. It's worked for us.
Q: Funny Car competition has been getting tougher in the last few years and some say it is going to be tough to get into winner's circle in 2003. Do you agree with that or is it really just Force Racing versus everyone else?
COIL: You know, when you think about how close the Worsham's got at times last year and how little of a budget they operate on compared to us, I see a big likelihood that someone is going to step up and rule the roost besides us. It is a matter of luck in all of this. Can the same team go on and win forever? Probably not. But I don't know. (Force Racing driver) Tony Pedregon was awfully close last year. So maybe the biggest fight will come from within, which is OK with us. Our biggest fear is losing the championship to Tony, then to Gary Densham and then to the rest of the class. You know Prudhomme's cars are going to be in the hunt, you know Don Schumacher's cars will also be in the running. Will they all be in the hunt everyday as often as we have in the past? Time will tell.
Q: In 2002 the race for the Funny Car championship came down to the final race of the season. Force beat Pedregon in the semifinals, earning his 12th title overall. How did that situation work out between the tuners?
COIL: It is not an exact science because you can apply all the same principals and numbers to two different cars with two different drivers and they won't end up being exactly the same. That is kind of how it worked. The last two races we probably didn't work together as closely as a group as we do a lot of the time. We just decided that the best thing for public appeal was to not have team orders and for both teams to just go for it. As it turned out, when John beat Tony for the championship, it was on a holeshot. The driver got to wear the gold star that week. John talked about how it would have been his biggest nightmare if Tony's car smoked the tires at 60-feet, but you know what, these cars tend to do that now and then. We talked about it and we knew that no matter what, someone was going to be upset about the outcome. But so what? That's just racing.