At the Route 66 Nationals – the NHRA race at which his family’s company shines with the JEGS Allstars countrywide competition-within-a-competition – a pessimistic fan harassed Troy Coughlin Jr.

The Top Fuel rookie was in 10th place in the standings with just four round-wins in 12 races. He was on a slide of what turned into eight straight first-round losses. And as he walked past some fence-hangers, one of them blurted out some ugly accusations: “Hey, Coughlin! You’re terrible! Why don’t you learn how to drive?!” And he kept it up.

Naturally, it bothered Coughlin. He’s human. But it especially bothered Brenna, his longtime girlfriend who since has become his wife. Her instincts made her wish she could put the heckler in his place. But Coughlin urged restraint. He told Brenna, whose dad happens to be a pastor, “Remember what Jesus said to the people who were mocking Him when He was on the cross?” He was referring to the scripture in the Gospel of Luke that tells that Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Coughlin got rid of this enemy – by turning him into a friend. He spoke with the man in his trademark gentle and easygoing manner. Before long, the man was a Coughlin fan.

That wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows the enthusiastic third-generation drag racer. But the critic at the fence at Joliet, Ill., and negative individuals who agreed with him missed some key traits in Coughlin: his tenacity, his humility, his love of drag racing, and his uniqueness.

Although he said he wanted to finish the 2017 season in the seat of the Sealmaster Dragster, Coughlin was dismissed at Indianapolis, with Richie Crampton replacing him. Coughlin tackled the Top Alcohol Dragster class for the first time, driving for the McPhillips Racing team from Phoenixville, Pa., and earned the North Central Region championship and a fourth-place finish. He won three of four races toward the end of last season, including the McPhillipses’ hometown race at Reading.

Don’t be surprised to see Coughlin back in the Top Fuel class in the not-to-distant future.

“We’re soliciting sponsorship. We’re trying to talk to companies that we feel that make sense to come out here and spend this kind of coin for this type of value,” he said. “It’s challenging to sell. I’ve never been one to really sell anything like this. I’m learning marketing as I go. But I love the process. I love the struggle. I see it as an opportunity, as a stepping stone. Even in my driving it’s the same thing.

"I’ve always been very critical of myself and would tell you in a heartbeat anything that happened in the SealMaster car was 100 percent on me,” Coughlin said. “It’s just inexperience, and I can do a much better job the more I learn.

“Yeah, the right deal’s going to come. I mean, we’re going to work at it. We’ve got to put the hours in,” he said. “I’ve got Scott Woodruff and Brett Underwood helping me find the funding.

“We’re not trying to cheat anybody out of any money. We’re just trying to say, ‘Hey, here’s some value between the company of JEGS and these large Top Fuel teams with these large-scale crowds. Here’s what we can do. Here are our ideas to involve your company, and we want to make it happen. We want to show you return. We want to show you the ROI as we go throughout the year, that this is profitable to this specific market range of people.’ So it’s really exciting,” Coughlin said.

In the meantime, he has been in learning mode.

He attended national events, such as the Toyota Nationals at Las Vegas last fall, to observe.

“I’m here just kind of studying,” Coughlin said that weekend. “I really want to study drivers like Antron Brown. I like his aura. I like what he does. I enjoy what he says to people, how he interacts with fans, how he interacts with teams - his own team. The way he just pursues his passion and dream is so full of light and joy. It’s just, it’s right because it’s true. It’s actually real.”

SIDEBAR: COUNT HIM IN, HE'S A FAN - The women of NHRA drag racing just might be surprised to learn that their most vocal supporter is a male competitor: Troy Coughlin Jr.

In noticing that “Oh, there’s so many wonderful people out here,” the reigning North Central Region Top Alcohol Dragster champion immediately named four women he admires in the sport.

“I mean, look at our generation coming in. Girls like Ashley Sanford . . . She works so hard at marketing,” he said.

Ditto for Leah Pritchett, Coughlin said.

“What she brings in is huge because the attention she’s getting even working to get a sponsor is awesome. It’s great for the sport, and she works her butt off. So what she gets, she 100 percent deserves. That’s where I want to take my career. I want to work at it. But with the business of JEGS and working at it, it creates a pretty busy lifestyle. But I want to put it in. I love it.

“A lot of drivers have worked their butts off like Leah and Ashley,” he said. “Look at Pro Stock. Look at Richard Freeman and Erica and the Elite team. They worked to get Pro Stock going and get sponsors to look at Pro Stock. Their car is always full.”
He saw nothing either unusual or noble about the fact he credited women for their accomplishments.

“Look at how hard they have to work. I think it’s the coolest thing ever,” Coughlin said. “There’s no difference in man and woman, as far as competitors go. Every female I’ve raced I’ve taken 100-percent serious. I mean, Megan Meyer cracked me in the final in Norwalk. I get cracked all the time by the girls. They’re tough, but they work hard and they deserve the recognition that they get. They deserve respect.
“Regardless of the sex of the driver, the one that works the hardest and is doing their best to be the best they can be. Regardless of win lights or no win lights, that’s who deserves respect and recognition, that’s for certain.” – Susan Wade

That word, “joy,” resonates with him. It’s characteristic of his whole racing family – patriarch Jeg Sr. (his grandfather, or “Pappy,” to him); three-time Pro Modified champion dad Troy Sr.; and uncles Jeg, John, and Mike; and drag-racing sisters Meghan and Paige. 

“That’s something I’m learning to bring out, at least, because inside of me that’s me. I’m just more reserved and shy. I’ve got a big family in drag racing and that’s what I’ve watched my whole life,” Coughlin Jr. said.

“But I’m a little bit different. I’d like to take my racing and my career in drag racing and take it to a whole other level. I want to train more in a gym. I’ve got a trainer at home at Peak Performance and I want to continue my vision therapy. I want to get better in so many ways that people might not think to get better. Whether it actually does help me or not, in my mind it’s going to propel confidence and keep me pushing because I love the process. I love the journey. Even if I don’t win another round, even if I don’t even get back in the fuel car, it’s just I love the process of trying. That’s what I have to do, and that’s what I want to do,” he said.

He explained vision therapy, this area of training he participates in at Riverview Eye Associates at Columbus, Ohio.

“Vision therapy is mainly vision exercises to enhance peripheral vision, to enhance quick vision under pressure,” Coughlin said. “It’s like where you would go if you had a certain eye condition as to where you couldn’t see that well. Vision therapy can help train you, but this is like a sports vision therapist that I see, and it’s really cool.

“It’s more fun than it is anything, because you’re doing games. You’re balancing on a balance board and a five-digit number flashes and it goes away real quick and you have to recite it. There’s all kinds of neat exercises that have a lot to do with kind of what we’re doing here. But really it’s just to enhance confidence is my whole position on it,” Coughlin said. “It’s enjoyable. I like it. They have a hockey net that the trainer will throw like a little plastic puck at you and you have to recite the number and the letter, grab it with your right, toss it in the left basket. The next one you grab it, recite it, and with your left hand toss it in the right basket. It’s strange. It sounds strange, but it helps your quick critical thinking skills, along with your ocular clarity.”

All that just might make Coughlin the most intriguing person on the drag-racing scene.

“I’m the strangest person out here,” he said with a laugh.

“I like thinking different. I am different. Even if it’s right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. I just, I’d like to be different,” Coughlin said. “I mean, look at my grandfather. He started a company in the cornfields of Columbus, Ohio, and took a Los Angeles hot rodding concept and brought it to this farm. And that’s why people told him it wouldn’t work.”

Jeg Coughlin Sr.’s JEGS was the second business in the state of Ohio to use a computer – and his own father, an executive for retail giant Lazarus, expressed doubts about the new-fangled machine.

“My dad said, ‘This is not going to work.’ I said, ‘It has to work. I’ve seen it work,’” Jeg Coughlin Sr., recalled of those days, in the 1970s, that proved to be a hotbed of innovation and vaulted JEGS light years ahead of most businesses and into the automated age. “I bought an IBM System/3 computer back in the ‘70s, might have been earlier, and I think that was another reason why we grew fast – because we had an opportunity to keep track of payrolls, sales, buying, and payables and receivables. We could do it so much faster than anybody else because of this IBM System/3 computer.”

Once he became curious about this technology, he took IBM up on its offer to attend a two-day seminar in New York. There he said he learned that the computer “should be a duplicate of my brain,” and he struck a bargain with IBM. He hired a programmer who fashioned a JEGS-specific system in exchange for the use of some of IBM’s equipment. “That took about six months. They made it and shipped it to us. We just plugged it in and it worked right off the bat fairly well,” he said.

He also traveled to Chicago to look at Motorola’s packing system when JEGS built its current mail-order facility. JEGS was the first drag-racing team to employ a fulltime chef and equip him with a state-of-the-art mobile kitchen. Ian Rough came from the Culinary Institute of America, then Nicky Morse followed before becoming a celebrity TV culinary personality. Coughlin Sr.’s latest successful project has been a reliable electric motor combination for Jr. Dragsters. For a baseline, he turned to engineers at Tesla Motors, the electric-car pioneers.

Troy Coughlin Sr., said, “He’s a smart guy. He just is. That’s just my dad. He’s a problem-solver/entrepreneur/you-name-it.”

And that’s what Troy Coughlin Jr., has inherited: a legacy of curiosity, of experimenting, of always wanting to be better tomorrow than he was today.

“I guess it worked out pretty well,” he said of his grandfather’s exploits. “We’re still enjoying each other to this day and that same concept.”

Coughlin Jr. said his Pappy “did it differently. Times were so much different then, and he had a company of his own that he could leverage himself. I’ve got three uncles and my Dad and all my family, so leveraging just that is tougher because there’s so many of us. But it’s interesting how Corporate America works today, how it sees value today. What they call value is really mind-boggling. It’s changing, and I think motorsports marketing in general is struggling. And it won’t be forever. It may seem negative now, but it’s a stepping stone for positive later.”

Industry observers say the NHRA is on a positive trajectory, and Coughlin agrees.

“They’re growing. They have wonderful ideas, and they’re a great sanction,” he said. “We hear a lot of negative things about them. Well, I want to do this the rest of my life. I’m not going to bash the sanctioning body, because I just, I love it too much. I can’t. I mean, I’m passionate, yes, and I disagree with certain things every once in a while, but they always fix it. It’s challenging. There’s a lot of us here. There’s a lot to do and it’s very expensive to do. It’s challenging to be all those guys. Everybody in the organization of the National Hot Rod Association, they’re doing the best they can, and it’s an ever-so-changing world. t’s changing, so we’re just having to change with it the way companies advertise. It’s just a little bit of a growing pain, and you kind of have to roll with it.”