AUTO RACING | NHRA

Get set . . . Coughlin works hard on the ‘go’

Pro stock star’s goal is to get ahead early, and he usually does

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Tim May

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

In the recreation room of Jeg Coughlin Jr.’s sprawling Delaware County home are a pool table, a bar, several old-time arcade games and a tree.

But that tree is no potted plant.

A wire connects the tree to a steel-framed concoction across the room that’s outfitted with a seat, steering wheel, gear shift lever, three pedals (gas, brake and clutch) and a funny-looking light array at eye level for the seated.

And the tree? It has little yellow lights at the top, big yellow ones in the middle, then a green light and a red light.

It’s a working model of a modern-day starting tree for pro stock drag racing.

The whole setup, you could say, is Coughlin’s secret weapon.

Just when you want to believe his prowess for beating people off the line is because of a combination of good genes (his father, Jeg Sr., was running top fuel decades ago) and deep pockets (Jeg’s is a mega-million dollar performance auto parts supply company), Jeg Jr. takes you down into his rec room and flicks on the lights.

He’s good because he works at it.

All winter, before he heads to work at the Jeg’s headquarters in Delaware, Coughlin will slip into that simulator for some runs, leaving on the green and shifting through the five gears when the eye-level light array prompts him, just like it does on the track in his 1,200-horsepower Chevy Cavalier race car. He might do the same thing at lunch or in the evening, when the rest of the family is watching TV or just raising heck.

“In fact, I kind of like it when there are other things going on, like the TV blaring, because it makes me concentrate even more,” Coughlin said.

At 33, he has been the king of the starting line in the National Hot Rod Association’s pro stock since moving there six seasons ago. The NHRA has the statistics to prove it, including Coughlin’s two season titles in 2000 and 2002.

But to appreciate his talent, you have to understand how the tree works.

The top two yellow lights flare when the driver pre-stages his car at the start line. The next two yellows fire when he rolls in another foot and stages. In sideby-side elimination runs on Sundays of a national event, each driver can see the other driver’s lights. It isn’t until both have staged that the fun begins.

The big yellows come on, and exactly four-tenths of a second later the green will flash. That is, unless a driver jumps the start. Red!

So on a perfect start, a driver would have a 0.4-second reaction time. Last year, Coughlin averaged a pro stock-best 0.423. His next-closest competitor was Allen Johnson at 0.426.

The difference might seem miniscule, but in a division where a few thousandths of a second on quarter-mile runs sometimes separate the top 16 qualifiers, any advantage at the start is going to get the driver to the finish that much quicker.

Coughlin works hard for that head start. He beat his competitor off the line 63 percent of the time in 2000, 79 percent in 2001, 71 percent in 2002 and 65 percent in 2003.

He has never relied on a natural knee-jerk reaction.

“I’ve had a simulator in my hands since I was 13,” Coughlin said, “so I have always practiced the reaction time end of it. I think I developed that at probably a younger age than most my age.

“And then, having the opportunity to watch your father and your (three older) brothers race, and seeing their triumphs and their losses, I think that was good, too. . . . And then having the drive to want to do it and learn, I think that’s what has helped me over the years.”

To further hone his skill, when Coughlin started drag racing competitively, he did so in two different classes in the lower ranks, which gave him twice the shots at the tree compared with the majority of his competitors.

“Eventually that has to sort of add up in your favor,” Coughlin said.

Jeg’s Race Shop is the ultimate monster garage. From the huge car preparation area to the always humming engine shop, the search for better traction and more horsepower never seems to end. It has paid off again, Coughlin believes, with a car that should make him a threat for another title this year when the season kicks off this weekend in Pomona, Calif.

Coughlin said he wouldn’t be holding up his end of the bargain if he spent his idle time sitting in front of the television. Oh, he does sit back in retrospect now and then, in an alcove in his home where on display are his 33 NHRA pro stock national event win trophies and the spoils of those two season championships, plus his breakthrough title in Super-Gas in 1992.

Coughlin says his memories are not of personal glory but of the teamwork it took to gain success.

“Seeing those just makes you want to win even more,” Coughlin said. “You want to keep up the performance, and you know you have to because you know everybody else is trying to get faster, too.

“I think we as a team have had a good winter, and I think we’re all ready to get started with the 2004 (season). I know I feel really good.”

tmay@dispatch.com

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