CLAY CITY, Ky. — After losing his mother, father, and 19-year-old son in the span of 18 months, drag racing fan Keith Johnson of Franklin, Ohio, was feeling about as low as a person can get. But a secretly-arranged tandem ride down a local drag strip with NHRA superstar Jeg Coughlin Jr. provided Johnson a much-needed lift.
Soon after Coughlin entered his Jeg’s Mail Order Top Eliminator dragster in the Ultimate 64 Shootout event in Clay City, Ky., race co-promoters Kelly Estes and Randy Helton heard about Coughlin’s side project that involved a Chevy II wagon he was building to race later this summer. When he overheard Coughlin say his car was a two-seater, Estes summoned up the courage to ask the three-time world champion for a favor.
“I’ve been friends with Keith for a long time and he’s come to quite a few drag races with me over the years,” Estes said. “From time to time he’d say, ‘You need to give me a ride in your racecar.’ Well, when I heard Jeg say his car could safely carry two people, I decided to ask him if it would be okay for Keith to hitch a ride.”
When Estes told Coughlin of Johnson’s rough spell, which culminated recently with the death of his son Brandon Johnson from complications brought on by Muscular Dystrophy, Coughlin was quick to lend his support.
“His exact words were, ‘It would be my pleasure and honor to take Keith for a ride,’ ” Estes said. “Jeg Coughlin is the most class person I have ever met in my life. He was always Brandon’s favorite driver and now that I know him I can clearly see why he’s a hero to so many fans out there. He’s No. 1 in my book and that will never change.”
Estes and Coughlin waited until the Friday night of the event when the grandstands were full to let Johnson in on their plans.
“They got on the PA and asked everyone to stop what they were doing and direct their attention to the starting line,” Coughlin said. “They even called for everyone back in the pits to make their way up to the stands. They had Keith standing up there but until I wheeled that ol’ Chevy II around the corner and they said he was going to be taking a special ride with me, he had no idea what was up.
“It was quite a moment and I get goosebumps talking about it now, but when they made the announcement and he saw me driving up he literally fell to his knees in disbelief.”
Johnson donned a helmet and firesuit and was soon strapped in the racecar next to Coughlin. The grinning 47-year-old then enjoyed the sensation of doing a burnout, staging the car, and making the quickest and fastest quarter-mile run of his life.
“We made it down to the top end and I just turned ‘er around and took him right back down the strip. We had the windows down and we were high-fiving and waving at the crowd. Everyone was just going nuts because they all knew Keith’s story and they knew what the guy had been through. It was very emotional for all of us.”
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