Austin Coil was in no mood for conversation. The burly, plainspoken drag-racing crew chief simply swung open the door of John Force Racing, walked up to the receptionist’s desk, and handed her a letter of resignation, concluding a hugely successful 25-year relationship. He then turned on his heel and walked out, never to return.
On November 14, 2010, just two days prior to Coil calling it quits, John Force had won his fifteenth Funny Car championship at the season-ending NHRA Finals in Pomona. In the history of the sport, only Coil had more wins. Before taking responsibility for Force’s cars, Coil had already won two world championships with his own Chi-Town Hustler Fuel Coupe, putting him a pair up on his boss from day one.
Coil said nothing to Force when he resigned and has not spoken to him since. At 69, Austin is enjoying retirement with Lisa, his wife of 21 years, and has turned down numerous offers to work for other prominent teams. After more than 40 years of wrenching Funny Cars, the man who achieved more than any crew chief in drag-racing history says he is finished. This is his story.
In the Beginning
The tale began long before Coil and Force met. It began in a two-car garage off a dirt and cinder alley in Summit, Illinois, a working-class suburb on the southwest side of Chicago. There, in the space behind his parents’ home, John Farkonas had built a series of drag cars: Stockers, Super Stocks, and a supercharged, nitro-burning, altered-wheelbase 1965 Plymouth. Most were driven exceptionally well by longtime buddy, Pat Minick.
At the time, Austin Coil was a line mechanic who had just gotten his ears wet behind the wheel of his brand-new four-speed Super Stock 1966 Plymouth. Coil was a driver with marginal skills and a minimal bankroll, and his initial efforts had produced lots of missed shifts, bent valves, and general carnage. In an effort to resolve transmission and clutch problems, he contacted Farkonas, who had successfully campaigned manual-transmission Super Stock Mopars and was running a four-speed in his current Plymouth Funny Car.
Coil got to know Farkonas and would occasionally stop by the garage to hang out. “I could tell he was very smart, but he was also prone to forget little things like tightening the oil-drain plug,” Coil recalls. “I volunteered to help without pay. Dealership work had taught me that if you make a mistake, you get to do it again for free. We made a good team.”
“Coil was a diamond in the rough,” Minick recalls. “He didn’t know a lot about drag racing when he first came to work for Farkonas, but he was brilliant. Didn’t take long before the rough edges were gone and he was a full-fledged diamond.”
Farkonas, Coil, and Minick did well with the altered-wheelbase car, which never wore the Chi-Town Hustler name, but won 12 of 14 events that the trio contested toward the end of the 1966 season.
“It was an un-aerodynamic mess,” recalls Minick, “and I had to work the throttle to keep it from getting loose, but we ran well into the 8s on the better tracks.” By the end of that season, steel-bodied, altered-wheelbase Funny Cars were dinosaurs. “We wanted a flip-top car like Schartman and Nicholson were running,” Coil said. “Problem was, none of us had any money, but we formed a partnership and got to work building a car in the garage.”
Farkonas was an engineer and came up with a design and fabricated parts while Coil welded it all together. Minick made sure the offset cockpit—which placed the driver in a conventional position rather than in the center of the car—would enable him to get to the end of the track in one piece and started bugging track owners and promoters for match-race dates.
Minick unleashed their garage-built Chi-Town Hustler at the Funny Car Nationals at York, Pennsylvania, in April 1967. Pretty near every big-name Fuel Coupe racer in the country was there, and they watched the Hustler set a track record of 8.19, right off the trailer. The race ended with Minick nailing Low ET at 8.17.
The Hustler ran the Midwest UDRA Super Fuel Funny Car circuit that year, competing with Nicholson, the Ramchargers, Arnie Beswick, Gary Dyer, Roger Lindamood, and other hard punchers. On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, the Hustler became the third car to run in the 7s, winning a UDRA show in Muncie, Indiana, with a 7.92 elapsed time. One day previous, two cars competing in Comp Eliminator at the nearby NHRA Nationals had also broken that barrier.
The Hustler’s early success foretold the future of the Chicago trio and, in some ways, the eventual dominance of the Force operation. The big numbers weren’t the result of secret formulas or exotic fuel blends. They were the sum of what happens when meticulous workmanship and solid thinking come together. Farkonas thought like an engineer rather than a ragtag racer, and he inspired Coil to do the same. Coil brought perfectionist methodology to bear on the operation. The blend was unbeatable.
“Farkonas taught me that if you can’t explain why something happened with science or physics, it didn’t happen,” Coil said. “There’s no magic involved.”
The Hustler team knew the variables that played in a supercharged nitro engine. Among them was the fuel pump. No two were exactly alike. Some California racers had their pumps tested at Hilborn or Enderle, and F-C-M did the same when winter racing drew them to California. But to maintain consistency of performance throughout the season, they had to be able to test pumps in the garage. They got a high-volume flow meter when a local sold off some equipment. But spinning the pump up to speed was a stumbling block. An electric motor couldn’t do it on the 110-volt current in the garage, so the team adapted a two-cylinder motorcycle engine and transmission to drive it. The test bench worked; they eliminated the clunkers and generated a full-range fuel-delivery curve for the best pumps. Research and testing would prove to be a fundamental building block for the huge success that would follow for both the Hustler and, later, for John Force.
“After building our fuel-pump test bench, I wanted a blower dyno,” Coil said. “I knew it would give us control of another variable. But we didn’t have the resources to pull it off.”
Nevertheless, the Chi-Town Hustler was among the most dominant Funny Cars of the sixties and seventies. The team rarely appeared at national events, opting instead for a guaranteed paycheck, and they kicked ass on the match-race circuit.
Hardest kicking of all the Chi-Town Hustlers was the 1969 Charger, a machine that some consider the greatest Funny Car of all time. Another Farkonas design, the Charger was lighter than the Barracuda it replaced, and thanks to some engine-calibration parameters inspired by the Ramchargers and perfected by Coil, it was more powerful as well. It was so powerful, in fact, that in early appearances, Minick had to lift before shifting to Second gear. If he didn’t back off, the transmission input shaft would snap.
“Minick’s skill behind the wheel was critical to the Hustler’s success,” Coil said. “Other teams were making plenty of horsepower with Black and Pink motors, but the teams were running those motors detuned to get the car down the track without smoking the tires or breaking parts. Minick could manage big horsepower with his foot. He controlled the throttle flawlessly at a time when most drivers were simply planting it on the floor and hoping for the best.”
Even with Minick lifting before pulling Second gear, the new Hustler ran 7.30s, as quick as the best of the rest. Coil, meanwhile, had become pals with Bob Stange of Strange Engineering, who had access to an immensely tough new steel alloy called Lasalle 300 series. Stange machined an input shaft from the material and so enabled Minick to drive the Hustler without backing off on the shift. The clocks said 7.10/ 207 mph. No Funny Car had ever run quicker than 7.25.
Minick’s throttle skill helped make the sport’s first smoky burnout possible. While match racing at a slippery Springfield, Illinois, track in the summer of 1969, Pat figured he could heat the tires by doing a high-gear burnout while feathering the throttle to avoid over-revving the engine. He did—all the way to half-track.
“I don’t know if it improved traction,” Coil said. “But the fans loved it. Next day we pulled into Byron Dragway for a match race, and track owner Ron Leek came running up to our truck. He said he had heard about the burnout in Springfield and wanted Minick to do it before every run.” Minick obliged, and thanks to the showmanship of the Hustler team and a wealth of other racers, supercharged Fuel Funny cars became the backbone of the sport.
In 1969 the NHRA had yet to admit that there was such a thing as a Funny Car, so the UDRA circuit hosted the major leagues of flopper racing. The Hustler dominated, wrapping up the season championship at the Grand Finale with a 7.02 at 209; the second- best elapsed time was a 7.24. That winter on the West Coast, F-C-M set track records at Irwindale, Orange County, and Fremont and won the Northern Nationals, the Orange County East-West Meet, and a 32-car show at Long Beach. High-compression fuel motors running lots of boost came to be called Coil motors, and in just their third full year of competition, the unlikely trio from Farkonas’ mom-and-pop garage came as close to domination as was possible at the time.
In 1970 they swung an even bigger hammer, setting 37 track records and winning another UDRA championship. Meanwhile, the NHRA had discovered the Funny Car and within a few years the organization was staging five-day, 32-car burn-downs. But the table had been set for F-C-M: they would earn their living on the match-race circuit, and they accomplished that in full.
Although Minick retired from the cockpit in 1971, a series of good shoes got in behind him: Clare Sanders, Ron Colson, Russell Long, Denny Savage, and, finally, Frank Hawley. Farkonas had taken a less active role in 1970, but continued to serve in an advisory capacity, often talking tech with Coil. Minick handled the bookings and worked with sponsors. Both Minick and Farkonas remained partners in the operation, but rarely traveled with the car.
“We were doing darn well,” recalled Coil. “We were paying all the bills and banking money. Our philosophy was that running anyone’s race without a cash guarantee would be an insult to the track owners who were paying us substantial appearance money. So while we ran an occasional national event, sometimes with financial support from the track owner or other interested parties, our appearances at NHRA events were few and far between.”
But as the years rolled by, it became obvious that the match-race world was no longer a challenge. “For sure, you’ll sooner or later lose track of where you’re at in respect to the rest of the world when you’re match racing,” said Coil in a 1984 interview for Drag Racing magazine. “We were running the very best cars, but mostly on crummy tracks. It’s hard to tell if your mess is stout enough to win when it matters on a good track.”
If Coil had an urge to test his skill at national events, Frank Hawley was passionate about it. He had come on board at the end of the 1979 season, and by the end of the 1981 season, he had become a top Funny Car shoe. With Coil turning wrenches and Minick managing the business, a full-schedule national event test was inevitable. What’s more, Hawley probably would have walked had he not been given the opportunity.
“It’s not enough just to race. I want to compete,” said Hawley when interviewed for an early-1980s magazine article. “One of the neatest things about beating someone is watching him suffer. About halfway through the 1981 season, I beat Beadle at Englishtown on a Wednesday night, and he didn’t care! It was almost as though it didn’t count as a real win. I want it to hurt.”
The only way to make it hurt was to turn the Hustler loose on the NHRA Funny Car field. The team showed up unannounced at the 1982 Winternationals, qualified number one, and came within a thousandth of a national record before losing in the semifinals. Only those who knew Coil were not surprised when the Hustler ran away with the 1982 Funny Car championship and repeated in 1983—all on a budget dwarfed by that of other top teams.
Coil continued to explore the technology. In another experiment that foreshadowed the future, he began testing high-volume fuel pumps and billet supercharger rotors. He even dabbled with a short-stroke 10-cylinder engine, but the NHRA rulebook put that project on the shelf before it got started.
Coil is an innovator, but he is humble. Minick said he recently asked Austin to name his most important technical achievement from the Chi-Town days. “That’s easy,” he said. “Keeping our truck running.”
The 1984 season was not a success. A few bad breaks and some new-car woes led to financial difficulty. The car performed well on numerous occasions, but wins were elusive, even when they ran very well. At the World Finals on the last run that the Chi-Town Hustler would ever make with Coil as crew chief, Hawley set a record with a 5.67, but lost on a holeshot. Things were looking less than happy for 1985.
“It was October of 1984, and Rislone, our major sponsor, was opting out,” Coil said. “Hawley wanted to call it quits so he could field his own team. I was at home in Chicago trying to figure things out when I got a call from a Funny Car racer I barely knew named John Force. He asked me to come work for him and outlined an offer. I told him I needed a couple of weeks to think it over. He called me four or five times a day until I agreed to meet with him in Phoenix. We made a deal, and I started working for him the day after Thanksgiving. “
Just Like Starting Over
Coil’s employment agreement with Force was on a handshake; a written contract wouldn’t come until years later. But the informal agreement offered plenty, including a good salary, expenses, and air travel. It was surely enough to make Coil put the Hustler days behind him.
Force’s record in Funny Car competition didn’t convince Coil to make the leap. It was a minus. In the mid-1970s the California racer, who had already earned a reputation as a fast-talking salesman, had wiggled his way into a match-race booking in Australia, although he was ill-prepared to race anywhere—let alone on a faraway island with limited parts availability. He exploded an engine on his first burnout and trashed a bunch of equipment on subsequent efforts, while rarely making it to the end of the track. That set the tone for a string of subpar seasons, with Force driving trucks to support his hobby and family. When he did have mechanical assistance, Force would perform almost adequately, but those occasions were few.
In a YouTube video that Castrol, a Force sponsor, produced to promote the race team, Force’s wife, Laurie, said, “He was in a ball of flames or some catastrophe every single run, and he didn’t know what he was doing, and his crew was free…he was absolutely horrible.”
By all accounts, Force was desperate for fulltime, top-notch technical help. Coil provided it in abundance, and in just a few years elevated Force from outhouse to penthouse. With Coil calling the shots, the car that had been called a leaker for the prodigious puddles of lubricant it left behind became a top contender.
“It was hard to pick up right where I had left off with the Hustler,” said Coil of his early days with Force. “Our budget wasn’t unlimited and there were distractions that I didn’t have to deal with when I had my own car, but I eventually got his mess sorted out. We had some runner-up finishes in 1985 and 1986 and won our first NHRA national event at Montreal in 1987.”
Early on there were clues suggesting it might be difficult to maintain a normal relationship with a person as tightly wound and driven as John Force. “Force was a wild man in the early days,” Coil said. “After the races, we’d drive from saloon to saloon in a station wagon, and he’d want to ride up top, hanging onto the roof rack. It all seemed good fun at the time.”
In 1990 Coil tuned Force to his first NHRA championship and then repeated in 1991. After finishing second to Cruz Pedregon in 1992, Force, Coil, and their ever-expanding team would claim the next 10 NHRA Funny Car championships.
“When we were winning all the time,” Coil said, “life was good and John was fairly easy to live with. He had faith in my ability to innovate, to develop something that would give us an advantage. When things didn’t go as planned, Force would yell and carry on, but Bernie Fedderly, who we had hired as co–crew chief in 1992, was usually able to calm him down. Bernie is a good mediator. Without him, I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did.”
But the Force/Coil relationship was strained. For example, there were times when the boss’s angst became personal. “When we didn’t win,” said Coil, “Force would sometimes blame my wife.”
Coil’s wife, Lisa, can be frank about how she feels married men should behave on the road and found the womanizing of some team members offensive. Force didn’t like that one bit, and at a race in 1990 he ordered Coil to put her on a plane for home. In later years, he came to Coil with an agreement drawn up by a lawyer that banned Lisa from any event where Force employees were in attendance. The guy who had barhopped on the roof rack of a station wagon decided that Lisa’s behavior wasn’t acceptable, so he made her an outcast. The wives of other employees were sometimes shunned as well.
But overall, Coil and Force managed to get along through the good times. “In the early years, when he would calm down, I found him to be an honest and fair guy,” said Coil. “One year when we were going over my year-end bonus, he realized that a sponsor had provided extra cash for the Second Place finish of Tony Pedregon, who drove one of our cars, so Force told the accountant to pay me for that. He then asked if he had paid me a bonus for the previous season’s Second Place finish. The accountant said he had not, and Force told him to pay me.”
As Force’s financial position improved, he added cars, drivers, and a crew chief for each of them. Although it would seem that Coil should have had special standing in the organization, Force did not always acknowledge his leadership role. According to Jimmy Prock, a Force crew chief who worked alongside Coil from 2001 to 2010, the reality was different.
“Coil ran the whole deal when I was there,” Prock said. “He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met in the business. I learned more from him than anybody.”
“Austin ran the show,” said John Medlen, another Force crew chief. “Austin was everything that had anything to do with the performance of the Force cars. He wrote the book.”
Success brought sponsorship money, and Force plowed some of it back into a quest for improved performance and reliability. Coil spent long hours in the shop, developing and testing parts and theories, and that led to engineering advances and an advantage on the track.
“Almost all of the stuff Coil came up with is still used in this business,” Prock said. “Coil is responsible for numerous innovations, from tune-up programs to hardware. Others have contributed as well, but no one has done more for the development of fuel drag racing than Austin Coil.”
One of Coil’s development efforts that paid big dividends was a new intake manifold design. Early on, he’d built a dyno that could test superchargers, fulfilling an aspiration that dated back to his early Hustler days. The dyno proved advantageous, but then Coil took it to the next level.
“We made fixtures for the blower dyno with windows and lights,” Coil said. “We watched to see where the air came out of the bottom of the supercharger. We designed a manifold that captured the air at that point and engineered runners that directed it to the intake ports.”
The team’s cash flow allowed them to prototype manifolds at a cost of $19,000 per copy. The technology proved very effective, increasing engine power and reducing dropped-cylinder problems, which can occur when high fuel volume quenches the flame. It gave Force a performance advantage that continued for at least 18 months before other teams copied the design.
NHRA eventually made the Force manifold and a similar one designed by Alan Johnson mandatory components for Funny Car engines. While Coil was pleased that his manifold became a standard for the class, he didn’t like to see NHRA exercise more and more control over innovation. Eventually, all cars had to conform to strict technical specifications and no modifications were allowed unless it could be demonstrated that they enhanced safety. That made it impossible for any team to gain an advantage through technical development, and while the Force fleet of Funny Cars continued to do well, total dominance was elusive.
But Coil’s tuning programs, the skill of the drivers, and the team’s expertise kept them in the winner’s circle. When time and rules allowed, they tested equipment and perfected their act between race dates. The good times rolled on. Then, at a testing session on March 23, 2007, a disaster altered everyone’s perspective. Young Eric Medlen was killed at the wheel of a Force car when extreme tire shake caused fatal head injuries. His father, John Medlen, a longtime member of the Force team, was Eric’s crew chief. Despite the devastation, the team soldiered on. Later that year, Force blew a tire near the finish line and crashed into the guardrail. The car was ripped in half at the firewall. Force was severely injured and numerous operations were required to save his legs.
He recovered and was back for the 2008 season, but things were not the same. “When you have to attend a funeral for a young guy you cared for, a kid who drove one of our cars, it’s crushing,” Coil said. “And to watch John almost die in the Dallas crash was wrenching. Our focus changed from how can we create wins to how can we make the cars safer.”
Part of the answer was a Funny Car with three framerails rather than two and a carbon-fiber tub that provided driver protection. But the cars were heavier and more rigid than those of the competition. That rigidity was penalizing, because without chassis flex, the cars didn’t transfer weight as efficiently, so traction was a problem and one that couldn’t be solved without a performance penalty. Only a few other teams adopted the Force chassis technology, and although NHRA did effect rule changes that made the cars safer, it chose not to mandate three-rail construction, so the Force safety chassis proved a handicap for several years.
The Force team has since returned to lighter, more flexible cars like those of the competition. “After I left, the focus pretty much reverted to let’s win,” said Coil. “The cars are safe enough, but not as bulletproof as the 2008 cars.
“When things didn’t go well, Force would call a meeting of the entire staff. He would never show me the respect of talking to me in private. He’d get red-faced and scream and belittle us. It was almost certain to happen when one of his cars didn’t win. And sometimes he’d erupt even when his car won but another of the team cars didn’t do as well as expected. It was ugly and it got worse when the economy took a dump.”
Force was understandably concerned about the impact that the recession of 2009 would have on his operation. Ford Motor told Force that his sponsorship money would be cut, and the severity of the situation became apparent. “It all hit him,” Coil said. “He realized he could be in trouble.”
That led to less pay for all Force employees. “When the first cuts came around, I assumed Force was telling the truth about his finances, so I said, well, I’ll work with you,” Coil said. “But as time went on, it became obvious he was pinching pennies for everyone but himself. He started construction of a 19,200-square-foot home with marble staircases and the like. Bigger pay cuts for all team members came at the end of the 2009 season, but he kept buying new equipment for the shop, and the house construction continued. I felt betrayed.”
It was team finances that Coil cited as the tipping point that finally prompted his resignation. “When my accountant told me I had enough security that I could go fishing any time I wanted, I packed it in,” said Coil.
While financial issues were the last straw for Coil, he must have felt some pain when, in 2010, Mike Neff was elevated to the crew chief position on Force’s car, leaving Coil to play a somewhat ambiguous role. Coil, being the gentleman he is and a friend to Neff, never voiced displeasure over that move, but many saw it as an egregious error on Force’s part, a blatant show of disrespect. Neff stood at the starting line with Force where Coil had held forth for a quarter of a century, but it was Coil’s technology that remained the backbone of the Force team.
Jimmy Prock, when asked why Coil finally walked away, said, “I feel it was both an emotional thing and a financial thing. I understand why Coil was unhappy. But none of that matters in the end. What matters is that without Austin Coil, Force would never have gotten to where he is. Force understands that. I believe that Coil is one of the greatest to ever do this. No one has more wins or fuel championships.”
“Throughout the years, Austin has been a cornerstone of fuel drag racing,” said John Medlen. He is one of the most innovative, clever, and meticulous people I know. There’s not going to be another Austin. He’s the best there’s ever been. Anyone in the industry will tell you that.”
Perhaps even John Force. Medlen saw Force and Coil as “like brothers,” but added that Force “had a different personality, and what he said verbatim wasn’t always what he meant.”
Is Coil bitter? Those who know him best say “bitter” is not an emotion he would ever harbor. He’s too logical and big-hearted for that. But he doesn’t sugarcoat or obfuscate. The truth is important to Coil.
“Yes it was difficult at times,” Austin Coil said in closing. “But I’d do it again. Truth is, I wish that whole operation well. There are so many good people involved who have devoted their lives to racing. I hope Force gets sponsorship money and they do well.”
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