Coil one of racing's top mechanics

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   BRISTOL -- The most famous mechanic in NHRA Drag Racing history, Austin Coil, has helped car owner and driver John Force rack up a record 109 National event wins and 12 Funny Car championships.
   Three years ago, Force became the first driver in NHRA history to score the magical number 100 wins. The tandem have been together for 18 years now since Coil moved to Yorba Linda, Calif., near the Force Racing shops.
   The 58 year-old was born and raised in Chicago and started his career some 37 years ago.
   "I was partners with John Parkonis and Pat Minnick in the Chi-Town Hustler," said Coil. "I started racing in 1967 and I came over here to race with Force for the season of 1985. The Chi-Town Hustler continued to race after that as a match race car.
   "Little-by-little I left that operation where I was no longer connected with it. From '85 on here, we took a few years to get together and build a team and learn how to get along with one another."
   Despite future success, the tandem didn't start grabbing trophies in the beginning.
   "We didn't win any races until 1987," said Coil. "We won our first with John in Montreal, Canada in '87. From there we got better and better. 1990 came along and we came across a motor combination that was really fast. We were the top qualifier at least 10 times. We won a bunch of races and our first championship.
   "Then again in '91 it was about the same thing. In '92 we had some problems highlighted in Memphis when we had a pretty good old fiery crash. Fortunately John wasn't hurt too bad. That was the year Bernie Federly joined the team. Although we didn't win the championship that year, there were a lot of changes necessary to keep up the pace."
   They more than kept the pace winning the next 10 consecutive Winston and later Powerade sponsored Funny Car titles. The two have known to have been a fiery mix, but Coil says many times they barely cross paths.
   "There's not much friction, especially during the week," said Coil. "John chases money. He oversees the buildings that he builds and renovations to the shop. Mostly he chases sponsors for the future. Me and Bernie and Medlen all work on projects on how to be fast. We may occasionally have a budget meeting, but it's not that much. John's not involved with what kind of camshaft or what cylinder heads we run. He's just looking to fund the project."
   Coil has seen a lot of changes in the evolutions of Funny Cars. It is ironic that he now is back working on a Mustang with Force's Castrol Ford team, since it was the car Coil raced in the formative years. The sport itself has also changed with an emphasis in the old days on match races as much as national events.
   "Back in the old days match racing was what paid the bills for our existence," said Coil. "From 1967 through 1984, match racing was what put food on the table for me and my partners with the Chi-Town Hustler. When I first came to work with Force, match racing was a definite part of our income as well.
   "What we used to figure was that we needed to run three match races to make enough money to go to a national event. Now there's a national event every week and sponsors are what you have to have. There are but a very few race tracks that can afford to have cars like his because of the cost of operations."
   The team's success over the past seasons still has quenched their thirst for more championship.
   "We have every intention of winning lots more," said Coil. "We have the technology, we have the sponsors. We have our own in-house technology shop where we build our own cylinder heads. We do our own supercharger modification. We do a lot of things that other teams don't do. It gives us a little more control over a few items."
   Winning a championship has become increasingly difficult with the competition between cars closer than ever.
   "That's the way the association wants it," said Coil. "Every year they make another handful of rules that prohibit you from doing anything innovative to be faster. Eventually everything that is out there becomes common knowledge and everything new is against the rules. That tends to close the gap between the different competitors."
   Coil himself has been a sought after commodity over the years, not only on the Funny Car side, but by several Top Fuel teams.
   "I've had offers to go to other teams but I've never thought that was a good idea because there is a couple of things I believe in," said Coil. "One is I believe in John Force, his ability as a driver and his undying pursuit of the best race team.
   "He doesn't have any way to earn a living other than drag racing unlike some of the millionaires that drag race as a hobby. He hasn't been able to get up in the morning and decide I don't want to do this anymore."
   With their combined success, Force or Coil could now walk away from the sport and retire to a simpler life. However, don't look for that to happen anytime soon.
   "John is probably capable of retiring comfortably if he wanted to," Coil commented. "I want to continue for a while. We have contracts quite a while in the future.
   "I don't have any desire to retire. I guess it's comfortable to know you could if you wanted to. I'm sure John Force is the type of person who if he wasn't on the pen every day, you would know he's dead. He runs wide-open every day. He is panicked right now that he doesn't have sponsorship for all three teams beyond 2007."