NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (Nov. 4) — Reigning world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. has built a reputation as a cool customer behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Cobalt, as witnessed by his dominating performance Sunday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But just across Las Vegas Boulevard at the home of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Coughlin admits his nerves just about got the better of him.

The four-time world champion drag racer became the latest NHRA professional to soar with the world’s top air demonstration team Tuesday morning but it wasn’t without some pre-flight trepidation.

“I’ll admit, I was pretty worried about this deal,” Coughlin said. “It was a long time in the planning and I was excited at the prospect but when they finally told me the date was set last week, that’s when it really hit me. Then we get to Vegas and all day long you’re watching those beautiful fighter planes zooming around and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to be riding in one of those real soon.’

“I went over and talked to Brandon Bernstein because I knew he had taken a flight with the Thunderbirds this summer. He prepared me for what it was like as best he could. Our buddy Bear (retired Lt. Col. Brian Lihani), who put this deal together, was also at the race so he was a good resource. They calmed me down a bit.”

After celebrating his most recent win with his team Sunday night, one that all but clinched the 2008 POWERade title, Coughlin laid low Monday and rested up for his flight. Tuesday morning, he arrived at Nellis Air Force Base for a pre-flight medical evaluation, a flight suit fitting, and a safety briefing by several Thunderbird personnel.

“After all that I met my pilot, Major Tony ‘Split’ Mulhare, who is actually the same pilot Brandon flew with back in July, and he used a model plane to show me all the maneuvers we’d be performing. Boy, that’s when your blood really starts pumping.

“We geared up and walked right out into the hanger and there was my yellow and black JEGS Cobalt all shined up and looking pretty right next to the No. 1 F-16 of the Thunderbirds. What a sight that was! Just awesome.”

Coughlin and his crew then got a first-hand look at the precision of the Thunderbirds’ ground crew as they prepared Mulhare’s F-16 for flight.

“Although we have different machines, the work ethic and what’s required of the support personnel is identical to what we have in drag racing,” Coughlin said. “These men and women need to be perfect for their pilot to perform and you could say the same about our Victor Cagnazzi Racing organization. Every person is vital to the success of the mission.”

Before long, Coughlin and Mulhare were strapped in and taxiing down the runway.

“What a rush,” Coughlin said. “It kind of felt like the start of an amusement ride in that once you’re rolling, you’re going for a wild ride no matter what.

“We took off and within seconds we were going straight up and I remember looking over my shoulder and seeing Las Vegas get real small in a hurry. We were at 15,000 feet in no time and the thing that immediately strikes you is how smooth it was. That plane is the ultimate hot rod.

“They have a flight zone over Death Valley so we streaked over there and started going through all the maneuvers. The plane is so precise and perfect; it was just unbelievable. We did rolls and eight-point turns and inverted dives. At one point we hit 9.3 Gs but I didn’t pass out! On the way home we hit 800 mph and then he pulled it straight up again and just started twirling. I lost my bearings right away but Spilt was in total control.

“I’ve always had the utmost respect for our military personnel and this only strengthened that feeling. Split is at the pinnacle of his profession. I have so much respect for him and the other T-Bird pilots and their crews. They are the best of the best. Spilt flew in the war and put his life on the line for this country and that’s just special.”

Upon their return, Coughlin was able to show off his racecar to the Thunderbirds. He then presented a special-edition Thunderbird helmet he wore over the weekend to Split and had a second replica helmet signed by all of the Thunderbirds to keep himself.

“I’ll treasure that helmet, the 9G pin they presented to me, and the memories of this flight forever,” Coughlin said. “To be honest, I could talk all day but words can’t describe how special this was for me. It was just incredible.”

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