Funny Car Chief Austin Coil on Drag Racing Today

Austin Coil, Crew Chief of John Force Racing If you’re a fan of NHRA drag racing, then there’s a great chance you’re a fan of John Force Racing and his team. As a Ford fan, (don’t forget, Pop’s was a Ford Mechanic for 25 years) I’ve been following Force for as long as I can remember so when I got the chance to interview co-crew chief Austin Coil, I jumped at it.

Meeting with Austin Coil in the small town the John Force Racing trucks make was awesome. Cruising past the beast Force pilots down the strip as his crew finished prepping for Saturday at the Firebird Race, then stepping into the trailer you often see on TV was unreal. I carefully tried to keep my grin from extending past my ears as I sat down with Coil.

Without his trademark toothpick, Coil smiled alot and seemed to be winding down from Friday’s session that saw all of John Force Racing cars in the top half of the field. Coil’s easy going manner and obvious passion for racing and technology made this interview a breeze. I just had to keep up…

WHAT’S CHANGED THE MOST ABOUT FUNNY CARS SINCE YOU’VE BEEN RUNNING THEM?
Everything! In the last few years, there’s been an extraordinary push for safety and these cars are tremendously safer then just a few years ago… and it’s a damn good thing cause we’ve lost a few of our brothers and it was necessary. John Force Racing has spearheaded a lot of this and Ford was instrumental in making those changes.

(When thinking about safety equipment…)
These race cars are really archaic compared to what’s on the road now. If you drive your Ford Flex in the rain and snow and ice there’s all kinds of electronic wizardry to protect you, let alone what’s being developed. Up until this campaign started (2009′s Full Throttle Season) we’re not allowed to run anything to protect you.

Currently, we have an electronic shut off system that can sense if we blow the blower off or it can sense a burning pistons or if the fire bottles have been activated and it automatically turns off the fuel and pull the chutes in case the driver isn’t able.

One of the questions I wanted to ask Austin was about a safety system that could remotely turn off the fuel and pull the chutes. He said that a team was planning a test of a system exactly like that at the Firebird Race. Testing during race day might a bad idea, but with today’s economy and the existing ban on testing during the season, there’s no other choice.

Things have to be tested during the race, but for the majority of people who were gonna race, they’d use their test days on something that’s going to help them win.

WHAT ABOUT NEW TECHNOLOGIES LIKE DIRECT INJECTION? (Injecting fuel directly into the cylinder instead of before the intake valve.)

No, it’s not allowed…
Everything new is prohibited unless it becomes approved. We’ve been racing under a moratorium for about 4 or 5 years now to prevent any technological break-thrus to help control cost. And the Association (NHRA) is vehemently against any type of closed-loop controls. It would be pretty simple to have clutch and/or engine controls that would sense tire spin and keep cars from smoking the tires or prevent tire shake, I mean, your Ford Flex has got it, so why can’t our race cars? Well, cause it’s not legal. It does add some drama and excitement to the sport, but by the same token, it keeps there from being as many side by side races as there could be. I don’t claim to know what makes the best show and the best popularity and the most likelihood that our vocation will be as successful as it could be throughout the years and the Association believes it’s better that even the best cars don’t go down the track all the time to give the underdog a better chance of winning once in a great while. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know.

THAT WOULD SEEM TO HURT THE BEST FUNDED TEAMS LIKE YOURS.

You know, our team is certainly very well funded, but everyone is feeling the crunch of the economy so you gotta be careful you don’t waste any money and it probably wasn’t like that a few years ago. You know, a number of years ago Force used to have meetings will the crew chiefs to figure out how we could spend the money we have effectively to increase our chances of winning. Now, we have meetings about how we’re going to survive this economic crunch because all of the income we had in the past years is not there now. We’re still in pretty good shape and all our major sponsors are all strong and with us and things look pretty good, but there’s lots of little affiliates that added the gravy to the team’s finances that have fallen by the way side.

AFTER DRAG RACING FOR 25 YEARS, YOU STILL LOVE IT?

Yea! Yunno, Its’ what I do. I’m 63 years old now, I’m not likely to pick a new career! I’ve been running a race car, soley for a living since 1968. I ran my own team for 18-19 years before I tied up with John, so that’s what I do. I don’t know nothing else. I make a really good living and I’m glad it all worked out!

With the Direct Injection or other engine TQ technology, the injectors wouldn’t stand up to the 15k lbs of cylinder pressure (we measured it!) and the volume of fuel needed would be prohibited. Many cars run 100 gal/min fuel pumps. Just idling on the starting line, waiting to go, the typical fuel car uses 5.25 gal/min… better not let it idle too long or you’ll be out of gas!

A FEW YEARS AGO, JOHN FORCE RACING DOMINATED. WITH ALL DUE RESPECT, HAVE YOU GUYS SLIPPED A LITTLE OR HAS EVERYONE ELSE CAUGHT UP?

You know, the biggest method that caused us to win over all the years… if you look back in time we’d win 10-12-13 races per year just with John’s car alone, not to mention the team cars, but the way we did that is we’d create something that everyone else didn’t have that was an advantage to get down the track more consistently… or just plain be faster! And every year, NHRA has made rules against something… the Association really dislikes any one guy winning all the time. Essentially, they’re out to get’cha! And I don’t blame them. The idea is to levels the playing field. When you go to the races knowing Force is gonna win, you’re not as likely to draw as many spectators as you might if the fans are wondering if Force is gonna beat Capps. At any rate, they continue to make rules and now there’re so damned many rules, your hands are tied in almost every aspect.

And then, in the last couple years, we’ve spent the majority of our time focusing on keeping our drivers alive and healthy and even the rest of the sport whether they like it or not. Everything you do to a race car to make it safer makes it slower. If you’re the one initiating all of that, for a period of time you’re running all that safety equipment before it’s required and you’re determined to run it cause you don’t want to see another Eric Medlen or John Force incident, and so you do those things. And many of the racers out there are not as concerned, they just believe in destiny where I tend to believe you can control your own destiny. The Association has worked well with us and many of the safety things that have come along are being required, more every year, and it’s getting closer to being a level playing field.

But for instance, right now, our cars are 50 lbs heavier then legal weight. We have every titanium, magnesium, carbon fiber, light-weight component that money can buy! But because our cars have a number of safety features that everyone else is not yet required to have, they’re heavier. That’s a little disadvantage. That’s certainly not everything, the biggest thing is, as I said, innovation has been stymied by the rules so the only way you can be faster than everyone else is to be better at every-single-facet of the hundreds of points of running the car and that’s very hard. The way we played it in the past decade is we’d create something that everyone else didn’t have that actually mattered and put it to use and waltz through the field. All those days are gone now cause they actually have rules on everything where they didn’t 10 years ago. You used to have the freedom to create a lot new things.

WHAT HAVE THEY RECENTLY TAKEN AWAY?

It’s not that they’ve taken anything away, they just prevent new technology. Eventually, everything leaks out to where you will not have anything in drag racing that everyone doesn’t know about in a couple years. For example, we did development on supercharges a number of years ago where we improved them 10% over the winter. It’s all legal, to go further is easy but not legal! (he said with a smile) The pro-mod guys run blowers similar to ours but they were allowed to move ahead where we were forced to stop. For a year, no one knew what we had, but now everybody has it, if they want it, its out there you can buy it, that was the most recent development.

Going back 15 years ago, no one had any adjustable timing controls on their motors… you just set the timing when you started the motor and that’s how it’d run down the race track. Well, we developed a system with air cylinders that you could move the timing around. To have it and to learn how to use it was a real big thing. Within a couple years everyone had it and then it became electronic and got better and now the box that controls the timing is state of the art where you draw maps and put it in there and not only can you have it, everyone has to have it, it’s part of the required ignition system. Years ago when we all had like 5 amp magnetos. Well if you can figure out how to build a 10amp magneto, you’d have an advantage. Well, not any more, you must run a non-modified MSD ignition system of this part number period, if you’re not you’re cheating. They’re very good and in a way it’s kind of a nice thing, but MSD says, ‘boy, we could make one twice that powerful!’ NHRA says, ‘No you can’t we don’t want anything better.’

So it goes on and on and on to where the potential development is halted by the Association as it is in NASCAR. They have the brakes on virtually everything. Just ask any of’m… those Cars of Tomorrow ain’t any-wheres near as quick around the race track as they used to be, but they all gotta run’m, and you know what? When they crash, they don’t die. So it’s a good thing and we’re undergoing all that. But it’s not as conducive to having a situation where you can dominate the way it was 10 years ago.

DO YOU SEE DRAG RACING GOING TO A ‘CARS OF TOMORROW’ LIKE NASCAR?
I do see that. We’re undergoing constant development on building better, safer chassis with driver’s tubs and compartments. The cars we have here have tubs in them but they’re not a total driver’s capsule. The next iteration will probably be a total driver’s capsule to where even if the chassis were to break apart the driver would still be protected.
KIND OF LIKE A NITRO BOAT?
Something like that… but all that adds weight, weight adds the problem that you have to stop it at the other end, so there’s lots of problems with all that development. The cars we have right now, we believe, are 4-7 times safer then the car that John crashed at Dallas two years ago. We’re hoping that’s safe enough, but you never know. We’re doing all we can.

Special thanks to Elon Werner – JFR Public Relations – for the interview. Best of luck to all the John Force Racing Team for 2009!

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