The BMW M6 transmission and engine exploded into shrapnel, although the bulk of it stopped about 400 feet from the point of impact. The entire front end of the car was a mangled mess of metal strewn along the country road or wadded up in the ditch.

A vicious car wreck at age 14, in which he was a passenger but an accomplice nevertheless to blasting down a country road at death-defying speeds, taught Pro Stocker Jeg Coughlin respect for operating a vehicle.

The gas tank ripped loose and bounced down the pavement, a sort of bullet-speed Molotov cocktail. The windows were shattered, their million jagged puzzle-like pieces carpeting the ravaged landscape. And what trunk? It looked like an accordion lying there, bent and broken several feet away from the shell of the seating compartment. The radio, its loose wires resembling frayed nerve endings and symbolic of something that had become violently disconnected, was sitting on the asphalt against the backdrop of grotesque shapes.

And Jeg Coughlin was lucky to be alive.

He was more than grateful that he and his friend escaped physically unharmed from the vehicle they took joyriding at more than 140 miles an hour.

“We were out doing what we shouldn’t have been doing,” Coughlin, now 35 with a son of his own, said of the wreck he was in at age 14.

He and his Jeg’s Mail Order Mopar Dodge Stratus improved from 12th place at the Winternationals to seventh in the POWERade Pro Stock standings. But the two-time champion wants more.

A slight change in the grade of the road was all it took to trigger the spectacularly horrible accident that “sent us twirlin’ up in the air about 20-30-40 feet, about to the top of a telephone pole,” even though he (unlike his friend) had been wearing a seat belt. The sleek, high-performance beauty that his friend’s father had just received from Germany nose-dived into a ditch beside a draining pipe that ran under a driveway.

“He doesn’t screw around at all driving on the street — at all, zero,” said Jeg’s Director of Media and Motorsports Scott Woodruff, Coughlin’s childhood buddy who was a pal of the driver, as well.

“At a young age, I learned a pretty good respect for driving and speed,” Coughlin,the two-time Winston/POWERade Pro Stock champion, said. Being the passenger that scary night near Dublin, Ohio, was enough to make him aware of what reckless driving can do.

Coughlin said his team has gotten stalled on a plateau but said he has the right personnel working with him on the best equipment they could have, “It’s all here,” he said. “All the writing’s on the wall. It’s just a matter of performing.” He said is first victory of the season ought to come soon.

Reckless he’s not, behind a wheel or in the drag-racing business.

So it was no whimsical choice late last fall for Coughlin to join forces with the growing Don Schumacher Racing enterprise and work alongside the legendary Bob Glidden. It would be the two-time champion (three-time, if you count his 1992 Super Gas national title) driving a car tuned by the 10-time Pro Stock champion. It would be the professional marriage of Coughlin and Glidden — Coughlin, a man who in 1997 proved he can win in just about any kind of a race car by becoming the first driver in the sport’s history to win in four categories in a single season, and Glidden, who won 85 races and proved he can dial in a Pro Stock car and outrun just about anybody. Coughlin would be a teammate to Richie Stevens, who’s 25 now but began his Pro Stock career at age 16, set IHRA records at 17, and by 19 had earned the first of his four NHRA national-event victories.

Despite recent reports of a clash of wills between Jeg’s father, patriarch of the four-brother racing clan and the owner of the mail-order parts business, and Glidden, Coughlin said, “It’s working out all right. The whole team has made a lot of headway since last November.”

As the team headed to Brainerd for the 16th of 23 events on the schedule, Coughlin is seventh in the standings and Stevens ninth. “To have two Pro Stock teams in the top 10 and have enough engines on your bench for three-four-five races straight is outstanding.

While Coughlin’s main focus is on getting the Don Schumacher Racing-owned Stratus into the winners circle before year’s end, he said he enjoys bracket racing. He said it gives him a psychological edge and prepares him to have superb reaction times.

“I think Bob has done a hell of a job. He’s a great fellow. He’s definitely a talented guy who can give you some confidence. Bob heads up all the in-house research and development and all the on-track research and development.” He said Glidden even drove one of the cars during a test session at Denver in July. “We have an omniscient person to do anything and everything. He brings a lot to the table,” Coughlin said.

“We feel like we’ve steadily improved. We started off the season actually pretty decent, qualifying both cars well and qualifying both cars every race. I think that’s a tribute in itself,” he said, adding that tension “is normal. We all have one goal and that’s to win. We’re trying to lift our programs to the next level.”

He said the team seems to be in step. “Everybody has decided we’ll be there tomorrow. I don’t think there’s any disrespect in the team, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I think that whole thing was mainly really fabricated.”

“I don’t feel I have the right to be frustrated,” Coughlin said of his mediocre season. It’s a sub-Jeg showing but he knows its just part of a new team’s growing pains.

Coughlin, with seven first-round defeats through the Sonoma event, did admit that advancing to the Chicago final (where he lost to Jason Line) and the semifinals in Phoenix and Seattle just aren’t enough. “We reached a point where we just kind of leveled off,” he said. We realize that as a team. We need to pick it up if we want to contend for race wins and the championship. All in all, I think it’s very exciting, and I’m feeling great behind the wheel. I think once we get off this little ledge we’re on, we’re going to be pretty strong.

“I know and respect this sport, and I know you go through stretches like this from time to time,” Coughlin said. “Last season one team won 19 races. There weren’t many left over for the rest of us. The years when we won our championships, we probably got more breaks than the other guys. It’s just the way it goes.”

He said he has taken some inspiration from the start of his pro career. He finished second in points in 1998 and 1999, then won a championship. But he got a rude awakening the following year, when he managed no better than fifth in the final standings. He rebounded for his second title. Since then he has ended the year third, then sixth, and he was 421 points out of first place before the Brainerd race this year.

He said the pattern of his career has taught him “not to be too down in the dumps. If you surround yourself with the right people, good things will happen. I think we’ve got all the right people here. It’s just a matter of getting to the next level, the level of the teams that are out here winning. It’s all here. We’re making power. We’ve got great cars. And we’ve got great backing with Jeg’s and Dodge and Mopar and Don Schumacher Racing and all of our associates. All the writing’s on the wall. It’s just a matter of performing.

Coughlin and teammate Richie Stevens benefit from the extensive knowledge of Pro Stock veteran Bob Glidden, who runs every facet of the Don Schumacher-owned team. Coughlin calls him “omniscient” and said he inspires confidence. He even got a kick out of the fact that Glidden even test-drove the car at Denver.

“I don’t feel I have the right to be frustrated,” Coughlin said. “My experience tells me that when you’re not winning, you just need to keep after it and be ready to take advantages of the good things that might come your way. There is no lack of effort or drag-racing intelligence in this group. We all know what it takes to win, and we know how to get there. It will come together soon.”

When Jeg’s got out of the day-to-day business of operating a Pro Stock team, it sold some of its state-of-the-art equipment to Victor Cagnazzi’s team for driver Erica Enders. Don Schumacher Racing bought the rest. With Glidden using and administering it, Coughlin said, “it’s capable of winning a championship.”

The 35,000-square-foot Delaware, Ohio, headquarters for Jeg’s got rid of an engine program and two-car Pro Stock team as Jeg switched over to Schumacher Racing and brother Troy branched into the Pro Mod world, driving a Mike Ashley-owned 1967 Shelby GT500E Ford Mustang. The Coughlin cousins — Troy’s daughter Meghan and son Troy Jr., John’s son Cody, and Jeg’s son, Jeggie — have taken over the space in the shop for their Junior Dragster concerns.

“It’s neat. They have their own benches with their own tools and their own areas,” Woodruff said of the third generation of Coughlin racers. “Their cars are up on jacks, and when they come in, it’s their area.”

Referring to his eight-year-old son, Coughlin said, “I’m more excited than he is.”

Coughlin was 2-5 against Greg Anderson this season through the Sonoma event. Referring to Anderson, he said, “Last season one team won 19 races. There weren’t many left over for the rest of us. The years when we won our championships, we probably got more breaks than the other guys. It’s just the way it goes.”

However, he and wife Karen have been careful not to give him too firm a push into the drag-racing world. “He’ll ramp into that at his leisure. We’re going to do our best to give him a great car and let him have some fun with it,” Coughlin said. “He’s eight years old, and his interests are in other sports and playing video games, and that’s the way it should be.”

This summer, Jeggie is getting an exposure to golf at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Muirfield Village Golf Club, the same place his dad learned the patrician but patience-testing sport. Different pros tutored Jeg years ago, but he said his son is receiving the same message, the same philosophies of respect for and etiquette of the game and competition.

Besides, the Junior Dragster that has been prepared for Jeggie isn’t quite right yet. “It’s way too fast,” dad Jeg said. “It runs about 60 miles an hour. It’s probably about three or four seconds too fast.” Junior Dragsters are governed by parameters for elapsed times in the eighth-mile, and this particular starter-car is a little off. And Jeg has been off on the road too much this year to devote a lot of attention to it now. He said he plans to work on it in late summer but said he isn’t in a hurry to see his son drive it.

“He can race anytime as he gets older,” Coughlin said. “I don’t want to live my life through him. You hear about soccer moms and soccer dads and all that. Karen’s and my goals are just to be good, sound parents, consistent parents, and do the best we can to support him in the directions that he can go and as parents, steer him at times.”

His own dad surely cautioned him about playing around with a dangerous and serious piece of equipment, such as an automobile. He absorbed the advice but didn’t obey entirely. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been on that — thank God — deserted road that had a nasty lesson waiting for him and his friend. Given an opportunity to walk away from a potential deadly situation, though, Jeg Coughlin adopted his own dad’s attitude of a healthy fear and respect for the power of cars.

Coughlin isn’t racing under the family umbrella like he did for years, but his Dodge Stratus still carries the family’s familiar black and yellow colors. Joyriding for Coughlin these days would be four rounds and into the winners circle at the drag strip.

“I never street raced,” Coughlin said. “There’s too much to lose.”

Still, he understands the inherent difficulties in trying to make young drivers understand the importance of safety and the frustration in appealing to a teeneager’s sense of self-preservation.

“It’s a tough message,” he said. “Kids are kids, and they say kids go through phases when nothing they do is wrong and they think they know everything. And we were probably in that stage at the time.

“We were just going too fast for the terrain we were on. We should’ve been on the strip.”

He’s on there now, battling for a third series championship, wiser and more patient, thankful to have the chance to compete in Pro Stock. How can he complain about anything or anyone? He knows he’s blessed just to be alive.

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