Drag racing is all the Coughlin family has ever known.
Now, T.J. Coughlin is taking his skills to the highest level as he will be driving the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster for Kalitta Motorsports in 2017. The phone call Coughlin received from Kalitta Motorsports, which is headed up by Connie Kalitta, is still fresh in his mind.
The offer to move from part-time to full-time rookie Top Fuel driver caught Coughlin totally off-guard.
“Well, first of all, wow. It was really just a big shock and a really easy decision to make between me and my family,” Coughlin said. “I’m extremely humbled to be chosen by not only a great crew chief, but a great legend and a great team. A lot of great people behind everybody there.”
Coughlin has competed in Pro Modified series on the NHRA tour, and he began in a Jr. Dragster and has raced – and won – also in the Super Comp and Super Gas classes and excelled in E.T. bracket racing. His grandfather Jeg Coughlin is the last member of the famous racing family to compete in Top Fuel.
Despite his success, he is still mentally preparing for the move to Top Fuel.
”I’m building. I don’t know I’ll be… I can’t say I’m 100 percent yet, but we’re definitely working toward that,” Coughlin said about being ready for the challenge ahead of him. “Asking questions and just learning how things work and how they do things there 100 percent. And trying to be the best that I can be for them. But yeah, it’s definitely going to take a bit of work between the practice tree and my fitness levels. The work has just begun.”
Although racing is all Coughlin has ever known, he acknowledged Top Fuel is a different animal to grasp.
“Probably just the raw acceleration and where it accelerates,” Coughlin said about the difference in piloting a Top Fuel dragster for him. “Everything just happens so fast. It tries to control you. You’re kind of at the mercy of not only your own control but the parts and pieces you have on the car. With the great people at Kalitta Motorsports, I have 100 percent confidence.”
Actually, the process of warming a Top Fueler in the pits is something that already has Coughlin’s attention.
“I think when you’re on the jack stands warming it up, and you just listen to it idle, it’s definitely intimidating,” he said. “It’s just so much power just bowed up in these things. You really have to respect what’s behind you and be as calm as you can and enjoy it. Opportunities come around like these very rarely.”
Coughlin will never forget the first time he sat in the cockpit with a nitro engine idling.
“Well, on the warm up, I just thought, ‘Oh boy, what am I getting into here?,’” Coughlin said. “As I am ear-to-ear pretty much grinning, thinking ‘Ok, this means I’m hooked.’ I remember looking at my dad (Troy) like, ‘Uh oh, I’m sorry.’
“But when I’m strapped in, and this was in Del Worsham’s dragster and his dad’s dragster, when you’re strapped in you’re just focused on the pass. And that’s just safely making a run. Gone over the routine with Del and his dad (Chuck) 20 times before that, and I was just kind of focused on that. I kind of blocked out the whole surreal factor.”
During the run, Coughlin was focused on nothing but the job at hand.
“Yeah, that’s more after the fact for me, like ‘Wow, that just happened,’” he said about his first Top Fuel experience behind the wheel. “But when you’re in the moment, you’re focused on the moment. Picture eating a bowl of cereal. You’re so focused and enjoying how good the cereal is. You’re in that moment, you don’t think about it as much.”
Coughlin said he believes it will take him 50 to 60 Top Fuel runs before he gets to the point where he’s reading the cereal box.
“Yeah, I mean I would like to do it in 25,” Coughlin said. “I mean, Rome wasn’t built in a day. You’ve also got to put your best foot forward and try and put your best effort out there, and that’s what we’re going to do. So, we’re shooting for less than 50 or 60, but that’s where I think it’s at.”
Fortunately for Coughlin, the Kalitta Motorsports team has veteran Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta and newly-appointed driver of the team’s DHL Funny Car J.R. Todd for him to lean on for advice. Todd most recently drove the SealMaster dragster for Kalitta Motorsports last year.
“That’s a pretty good toss-up between Doug and J.R. Todd. But they’ve both really said a ton of great things to me, and I think it will be a big honor to be rolling with Doug Kalitta next year as a teammate,” Coughlin said.
The switch by Todd to a seat in the team’s Funny Car surprised some people, but Coughlin wasn’t one of them.
“Not at all. I mean, he’s a left-turner guy, and he’s someone that can do pretty much anything on the face of the Earth,” Coughlin said. “So, if anybody can jump in and be really tenacious at it, he definitely can.” Moving from a class like Super Comp, Coughlin knows he will have the added pressure of people expecting him to cut perfect lights in Top Fuel, which is something he welcomes.
“I hope I do floor them a little so I can get them thinking about it I guess,” Coughlin said “I enjoy the pressure. It’s fun. It’s all within the sport and I embrace it. You can either do 15 percent worse or 15 percent better with pressure. So, we as competitors get to pick. I’d like to try and do better with it.”
Since getting his first Top Fuel experience out of the way, Coughlin returned and drove in his Super Comp dragster at some events, and he applied a simple approach to what he did in Top Fuel.
“Just keeping the dragster in the groove, and just making sure you’re in the groove 100 percent,” Coughlin said.
Reaching the winner’s circle in 2017 for Kalitta Motorsports would be phenomenal for Coughlin, but he’s keeping things in perspective.
“I haven’t won a national event since 2014 so really it would be more than words, especially at that level.”
Tracy Renck is a senior writer for CompetitionPlus.com, a leading independent online drag racing magazine, since 1999. For the latest in dragster news worldwide, visit www.competitionplus.com or follow on Twitter @competitionplus