Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit with Jeg Coughlin, Jr.: How Much Can You Cram Into 11 Seconds?

Jeg Coughlin, Jr. is a five time champion in the NHRA’s Pro Stock class, but he’s also busy off the track with his family business. Most automotive enthusiasts are familiar with the JEGS catalog, and in more recent years, JEGS.com.  It’s a go-to supplier with just about anything you need in your garage on hand and ready to be delivered to your door. Toni Montgomery and Mike Neff talked with Jeg last month at the Carolina Nationals and learned about what it’s like to drive a Pro Stock car, the most easily identifiable class for fans coming over from the stock car world, and also about how the family business meshes with the business of racing.

Toni Montgomery, Frontstretch.com: We’d love it if you could introduce our readers to the Pro Stock class. Talk about driving a Pro Stock car. When people tune in, you see the drivers in the Nitro cars hanging on to it but essentially just steering and then you see the in car of the Pro Stock drivers and there seems to be a lot more going on in there.

Jeg Coughlin, Jr.: There is. There’s a lot going on in the Pro Stock car from the time you fire it up, to pulling in to the burnout box, trying to accomplish a good, efficient burnout every time, backing up and pulling forward. What goes on in a typical Pro Stock run, once you’ve done the burnout, you’ve backed up, you place the car back in first gear, you’re inching forward toward the prestage light. Typically we stop right before the prestage light and our crew chief will check our wheelie bars, make sure, typically the right wheelie bar is the one we’re really really concerned with to make sure it’s the correct height. Once I get the go-ahead on the radio then I’ll just inch forward just until that prestage light lights up on the Christmas tree. At that point I’ll depress the brake pedal to about 300 pounds of brake pressure and hold the front line lock which holds the 300 pounds of brake pressure. At that point I can rev the motor up just a little bit and slowly let the clutch out to let the motor drag through that 300 pounds of front brake pressure. It’s not front and rear, just front. The car will just slowly creep forward. You want to be really smooth. You want to be shallow every time meaning as soon as you light that second light or the stage bulb you don’t want to roll any further than you have to. We want to be just that perfect every time. So as soon as that second light lights I’m all the way back to the floor with the clutch pedal. If I’m the first one in I’ll wait for my opponent to stage, if I’m the second one in then as I’m pushing the clutch down I’m also going full throttle on the gas pedal. We go on to a rev limiter anywhere from 6500 to 7500 rpm. As soon as I see the tree flash yellow. I’m looking within one bulb. There’s three bulbs on my side, amber bulbs that you can look at. I usually try to pick the best one that looks to me with the sun and the conditions that are out. I’ll try to look as best I can within that bulb. There’s about 20 little LED lights inside each bulb and you really just try to focus on one little area of one LED light and as soon as you see that light up you’re coming off the clutch pedal as quick as you can. As you’re doing that, you’re letting off the front brake pressure. As the clutch pedal’s coming out, there’s a switch on the clutch pedal that allows the engine to go off in a two step. So now you’re full throttle. First gear is about a second to a second twenty in duration. About eight tenths of a second into that gear though the shift light lights up. By the time I see the shift light and I pull it into second gear it usually takes about a half a second, four tenths of a second in first gear. We’re about 3 ½ Gs. A lot going on. Your tail’s trying to figure out, is this thing going perfectly straight, is it going left, is it going right? Is it spinning the tires? Is it dead up on the tire? Because there’s real little minute things that you can kind of multiprocess very quickly to try and make the run more efficient. If you feel the think just bleeding left a little bit you can just tip the wheel a little bit as you’re pulling second gear and the front end’s coming down. It’ll just gradually bring you right back into the groove. In drag racing if you make an error you want to make it in the last foot, not the first one. You’re really just trying to be efficient.

I know you’re asking what goes on in a Pro Stock run and we’re like three minutes into it already. It’s kind of crazy, I realize, but after first gear I pull it into second gear. Two, three gear changes in under a second. It’s very very quick. The shift light illuminates, as soon as I see that illuminate I’m putting it into third gear and then third to fourth gear stretches out a little further, fourth to fifth gear stretches out still a little further. By the time we get it into fifth gear we’re right at the half track mark so all that’s happened in just sub-second response times from 0 to 170 mph, we’ve changed gear four times, tried to make sure we’re going in an efficient manner to that point and in fifth gear you’re pretty much just at the mercy of your motor pulling you the rest of the way and praying everything stays together. A little bit before I approach the first light, there’s two lights on the race track, the second one is the finish line, but as I’m approaching the first light I’ve got a button on my steering wheel you’ll see from the onboard footage, I’ll push that button a little bit before the first light. That way with action, reaction, all that good stuff, the parachutes are just coming out about the time I’m passing the second light. I don’t want to run the cars any further than we have to. We have their tongue hanging out the last couple hundred feet without question. We’re ringing their bell. That’s a typical Pro Stock run. Again, I realize that’s very long winded. We go from 0 to 215 mph back to 0 in about 11 seconds.

NHRA 2014 4 Wides Jeg Coughlin
Jeg Coughlin, Jr. talks about all the details that go into just a few seconds of a Pro Stock run. Credit: Toni Montgomery

Montgomery: That’s the point we were trying to make—just how much is going on in your cars in such a short period of time. In Nitro cars, they try to stay straight until the pull the chutes and that’s pretty much it.

Coughlin: I’ve had a lot of opportunities to step into Funny Cars and Top Fuels in my career in professional racing. It’s in the blood. My father’s last ride was a Top Fuel dragster.

Montgomery: It seems that if you really want to drive the car though, Pro Stock is the place to be.

Coughlin: I love them. I love the smell, the flames, everything that goes around it. I love the team effort that goes into it, but those things can be animals. Anything can be, without question. Our little two wheeled scooter we’re riding over at the motorhome can be, but those cars sometimes dictate what is going to happen to you and that’s the part I just don’t get over.

Montgomery: Have you made a pass in a Top Fuel?

Coughlin: No. I’ve had many opportunities. I know I’ll love it so…it’s kind of one of those things I’ve steered clear of.

Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: Talking about staging, you said when you roll in you barely want to trip that second beam. I hear drivers talking about deep staging in other classes so they are closer to the line, thinking it gives them an advantage, a head start of sorts. Why do you not want to do that in Pro Stock? Is it easier to red-light?

Coughlin: Yeah, definitely. And your ETs are slower. Lane choice is important probably 75% of the time so the shallower you are, the longer your wheel stays in the beam, the longer you’re getting a run before the clock starts. There’s a couple philosophies on deep staging and not to go into all of it but it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. I don’t agree that being in deep is closer to the finish line. You’re just starting in a different rate. I suppose if you’re bracket racing it’s all about consistency and I use that mentality in the professional racing as well. In our case we can close to or red light being dead shallow. It’s all about being a robot, and being very consistent. And there’s no reason to give an ounce of elapsted time up, not in Pro Stock.

Montgomery: Pro Stock is probably the one that would be the most identifiable for a NASCAR fan because it’s the closest thing here to what they are used to seeing and yet from the description you just gave us, in reality it’s so much different.

Coughlin: Oh yeah. We do have a lot of the crew, crew chiefs, even a lot of the drivers enjoy following the Pro Stock because it is carburated or naturally aspirated horsepower so it’s similar to what they’ve been for years as well. We’ve met a lot of great friends throughout our career out here that enjoy Pro Stock.

Montgomery: How much horsepower do one of your cars make?

Coughlin: We’re making about 1500 horsepower. It’s about 3 horsepower per cubic inch which is pretty stout. For no power adders. No turbochargers, no nitrous oxide, no superchargers, no oxygenated fuels. We’re running a leaded fuel in the car. It’s 115 plus octane but, you know, we’re not getting a whole lot of help. We’ve got to deal with what Mother Nature has and like today we’ve got a much cooler day but a lot of moisture in the air so the engine team has to really work their magic on the timing curves and the jetting curves.

Montgomery: But everything you are explaining is what lends itself to the closeness of the competition in Pro Stock. And I think in this, more than any other division, driver does make a difference because there is only so much you can do with the car.

Coughlin: Yeah it definitely can. We look at yesterday I went a 6.60 and then number two in the program. Second run I came back, ran a low 6.61 and was sixth best for the session. I stayed number two, but you know you’ve got a 59, you’ve got a 60, you’ve got a 60, you’ve got a 60, you’ve got a 60, you’ve got about two or three 61s, all within two hundredths of a second here in the top eight. And that’s the difference of a real efficient run and maybe one that’s not as efficient. In our case, we made a really nice run in Q1. Today’s weather with the cooler temperatures, we’re going to surpass the 59 range. We should be in the mid 50s.

Montgomery: We’re in the Countdown now. Do you approach these races any differently than you do the races in the regular season?

Coughlin: Definitely, yeah. No doubt. I think from the time you start your race week on Monday, all the way through Sunday you just try to ingrain in everybody working on the car let’s double check each other’s work. Yes, we’ve had a great year, yes, we’ve won some races, but this is the Countdown and you really can’t afford any little mistakes. Let’s not take offense to double checking each other’s work because this is what we’ve worked all year for. This is the run for the championship and in our case we’ve been extremely successful at the Countdown format. We do approach it a little bit more methodically in that sense of double checking each other’s work. The crew chiefs are really making sure they’re happy with their setups. I think the engine team is doing the same thing. And that’s all before you stick the driver in it. From my standpoint it’s go time. You’ve had a fun year, you’ve navigated through some rounds, won some races, but you’re out here to make no friends and turn on some win lights.

Neff: On the Pro Stock side of things, the advancements of technology that you’ve seen and had to deal with, how much has it changed just since you’ve been driving it?

Coughlin: It’s changed a ton. I think the first Pro Stock car I got behind the wheel of we were turning them about 9400 rpms. That was in 1997. We’re spinning these things well over 11000 today. That’s quite an advancement and we’re working harder to make the engines happier and want to sing even harder if you will. We’ve seen technologies change at the shop level with the equipment getting better that’s making the end products, without question then the end product’s tolerances tighten up a little bit which allows us to work in different areas of the car. We’ve seen new technologies where we’ve gotten from some of the NASCAR world, with the Spintron technology and different dyno technologies that they’ve used for years have migrated into our world. I think you’ve seen Jason Line and KB Racing do one heck of a job coming from his Joe Gibbs background into Pro Stock. He’s a drag racer at heart without question but I think a guy like him that is within an organization that might have a 5 to 10 million dollar plus engine development budget with a top tier NASCAR team, you see a lot of things that are above ground, a lot of things that are below ground, a lot of things that work, a lot of things that don’t work. I think he and his talents revolutionized Pro Stock in a real short period of time when he joined in with Greg Anderson and then later formed a two car team. We all had to get off our asses and work. That’s the bottom line. It’s made the price of poker go up without question. It’s been a fun 15 plus years to watch that technology trend change and see the cars get quicker, better, and more efficient.

Neff: From a durability standpoint, when I grew up I remember seeing Bob Glidden running and dominating in Pro Stock but you had oil downs every round in eliminations because motors were detonating all the time and rear ends and now you almost never see an oil down in Pro Stock anymore. Is it just the technology of the materials or the tolerances or does it all play together?

Coughlin: I think there’s a ton of things that play together. We’ve got onboard data recorders that we’re allowed to take data from a run. We’re not allowed to have that data manipulate the current run at all. That’s about the only thing we’re not allowed to do. But I think that technology has allowed us to fine tune engine issues. I think the better equipment, the better fluids have helped, you know, make better rear end gears, make better fluids to keep them spinning, keep the transmissions working more harmoniously, keep the engines happier at the RPMs that they’re running. Probably the biggest thing we go through from what I understand is valve springs. There’s a lot of good manufactures that we work with and that Allen’s (Johnson) group works with to try and come up with a better mix and also getting your camshaft happier and getting the dynamics internally, the engine happier that would make the valve spring happier but the problem is then once you get that a little more solid than you start raising the RPM band a little bit more and then the next week you find it’s the push rods or the valves. It’s so important these days to keep an accurate account of cycle times on everything within the engine, everything within the car, from ignition boxes, to pinions, to driveshafts, to U joints, of just how many cycles are on these things and how many runs are on the batteries and let’s just make sure we’re keeping the maintenance side of this thing ahead of the curve because it’s way too expensive to have a failure.

Montgomery: This talk of parts and durability lends itself well to the next topic of conversation, your family business. It’s a great relationship between the JEGS store and what you do on the race track.

Coughlin: It has been. Fifty plus years ago when our father, Jeg, Sr., started JEGS, he started it from a passion. He was a hot rodder and he was in dentistry school at Ohio State University and he didn’t want to be a doctor. He was in to cars, but he was fulfilling what seemed like the right thing to do for his time and his family. Shortly after, about a year or so into college, he was working on cars, he had a fast car, and others wanted theirs worked on and that’s just kind of the American story that evolved from working in a small garage to needing a little bit of space to needing to buy some product to needing to warehouse some product to OK, now that we’re warehousing it, who else can we sell this to. He went into more of a wholesale side of the business, selling to other speed shops around the country like JEGS and then later in the 80s we transitioned into more the direct to consumer or catalog, and then in the late 90s the dot-com world set in and we’ll forever change our shopping habits. That makes it so convenient for someone in Australia, California, it doesn’t matter where you’re at. One of our biggest states we send product to is right in Ohio. We’ve had retail locations. We send product to customers who are within a couple miles of our retail store because it’s just more convenient for them and that’s really and truly an interesting fact. I guess long-windedly again, it’s been a business that’s grown from the passion of our father. It’s grown and evolved to giving the utmost in customer service. Used to be win on Sunday, sell on Monday and it’s win on Sunday, sell on Sunday nowadays with the catalog business, with the JEGS.com business. That’s been a really neat transition just that I’ve seen since professional racing in the late 90s to today is when we’re on the ESPN coverage you can see our web traffic start to spike up.

Montgomery: They see that yellow and black JEGS car and it makes them think of things they wanted to buy? Where did the yellow and black come from?

Coughlin: It came from our father. His dad was a merchant with a local department store called Lazarus which was later bought out by Macy’s. He was one of the vice presidents there and my dad worked with his dad in an art firm in New York that Lazarus used for some of their work and just asked a few questions like what are the best colors at speed? They ended up coming up with yellow and black were the best colors for someone to visually capture and retain an image at the speeds he was going at the time which were well over 200 mph, 250 to be exact. He ended up going with the black and yellow. Later we kind of spun that in the early 1990s into yellow with the black and we had red and orange on it and from 1990 until now everything has just migrated to more yellow with the black JEGS, no pin stripes around. It’s funny how that works.

Montgomery: Keeping it simple?

Coughlin: Yeah, keeping it simple. I remember five or six years ago seeing one of the Home Depot cars in practice. It didn’t have many decals on it if any, it was just one of their test cars and I was impressed with just how much that popped and we talked internally and just continued to just go more yellow and it’s become an iconic color associated with us. House of Color has a JEGS Yellow number in their palette of options. It’s a chrome yellow more or less.

Montgomery: How does a product make the cut to get in the JEGS catalog? Because JEGS guarantees all the products they sell.

Coughlin: Yeah, pretty much. We’ve got a team of buyers who review new product every single day every single week. Being out here we see a ton of new product come by the back of the ropes and we talk with a lot of the vendors and then we take that back with us to our team and take a look at it. We’ve grown to over 600 different product lines that we offer on JEGS now. The goal is to have what the customer wants, when they want it, and at a price they want to pay and back it up with 100% customer service. We’re the only ones in the mail order world that you can call or go to JEGS.com and order up to 11 PM and it’s shipped same day. It’s amazing. We’ve been very fortunate and we’ve been very aggressive in the logistics world just to continually raise the bar within ourself and of course competitors slowly follow and that’s flattering to see as well, but it’s all about at the end of the day providing the best customer service. When you’re sending out over 2 million boxes a year you do have errors. You do have mistakes and I promise you we work equally as hard on the miniscule percent of errors that we have as we do on 100% what goes out the door. We really don’t like making errors.

Neff: Have you been watching and do you have any thoughts about Amazon’s idea of using drones to deliver things?

Coughlin: We’ve kept an eye and an ear on that. Actually it’s something that’s tickled our father’s fancy. He’s kind of semi-retired. He’s worked with us forever, since the early 90s, and he says ‘hey, check this out’ and of course you Google it, it’s real simple and you’re watching a video of it and within seconds of getting a text or a phone call, it’s a really neat technology. Is it far-fetched? It could be a bit far-fetched at this point. In their case they’re looking at just major markets within so many miles of that major distribution point of which this could be available. If it’s an option it’s going to be utilized. In our case, we have one warehouse in Delaware, Ohio. In that same day world we’re getting to, we’re going to need to partner.

Neff: You mentioned having retail stores. Is that something you are looking to expand? Do you see a day when you might have more stores nationwide?

Coughlin: You know the way we looked at it is we have a JEGS in every mailbox or every IP address. Can you touch and feel it? No, but the technologies of the product photos are getting better and the product how-to guides and the product videos are getting better and that’s bringing the customer almost right to the real experience. No matter how many stores you put, it’s not convenient for everyone. That’s obviously a very vague statement because there’s so many giant retailers that are successful with brick and mortar stores but we feel like we can be everywhere with those two things and that’s our catalog and JEGS.com.

Neff: You still do a print catalog but so many other places are doing away with the print catalog to save money. Do you see that happening for JEGS or do you still see the catalog as a viable option alongside the JEGS.com?

Coughlin: We’ve tried to push it. It’s an extremely expensive form of advertising for us in printing, maintaining and mailing that catalog but we’ve looked at different ways to try to get our customers who are grabbing the catalog out of the mailbox and using it to buy to use the JEGS.com. You know, a little more friendly, it’s on every mobile phone now, it’s on every tablet nowadays and the responsive websites transition really well from a 5 inch screen to a 7 inch screen to a 22 inch screen. Ours is continually upgrading at this point, but I think the point I’m getting to is there will come a time when that catalog is not put in the mail anymore. It’s available on JEGS.com today, you can click on it, it opens it up, you can flip the pages on it, unlike many millions of other places you can actually click on the product and you can go the product and then you can add it to your cart. It’s more of a user intuitive flip page catalog method. I guess you could ask yourself one question though-how’s Amazon doing without a catalog? The neat thing about JEGS, in all honesty, is you have powerhouses from Amazon all the way down to dot-coms you aren’t as familiar with all selling the same product pretty much at the same price but no one of them from those two extremes can give a service like ours where we have the product in stock. We’ve got passionate people on the telephones to help you, we’ve got passionate people on live chat that are ready to talk to you. That’s the service that we continually push and continue to fine tune because that’s going to be what separates us as the world continues to evolve and change.

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