JOLIET, Ill – Who’s the biggest winner in Chicagoland sports history? At the moment, you might consider the Blackhawks who, for the fourth time in franchise history, have the Stanley Cup clearly in sight. Or, perhaps, the Bulls who, with Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, won six NBA titles. Or even the Bears, winners of nine pro football championships including Super Bowl XX?
However, if you checked the box marked “none of the above,” give yourself a gold star and take an extra $20 out of petty cash.
From the standpoint of winning major professional sports championships, you have to look outside the box, outside the traditional stick-and-ball mentality of middle America. You have to think extreme and we mean “8,000 horsepower, zero-to-315 mile-an-hour acceleration-in-1,000-feet” extreme. That’s where you’ll find Chicago native Austin Coil, winner of 16 – count ‘em – 16 world championships in the high speed, high intensity world of NHRA drag racing.
To be completely accurate, that’s 16 and counting because, entering this week’s 13th annual UA Route 66 Nationals at Route 66 Raceway, Coil and motorsports icon John Force, driver of Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, are back on top of the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car standings and in position to win yet again.
In an era in which professional coaches and athletes change their allegiances as often as they change their footwear, Coil and Force have been the heart and soul of Castrol GTX drag racing for 25 seasons.
A line mechanic at a now defunct Chicago Dodge dealership, Coil demonstrated an aptitude for speed and performance that ultimately led him to found, with Chicago pals John Farkonas and Pat Minick, a drag racing team that for 10-plus seasons fielded one of the most feared Funny Cars on the planet.
The “Chi-Town Hustler” was the best-known Funny Car from a bygone era, one that recalled aviation’s “barnstorming” era. It was a time when Funny Cars were paid a flat performance fee to compete in “match races” at drag strips from East Coast to West which today, wouldn’t pass even minimal NHRA safety standards.
Coil scoffs at crew members, crew chiefs and drivers who complain about the organized 23-race series that today crowns world champions in Funny Car, Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes.
“None of us had any money,” Coil said of his early days in the sport, “so when we took the car out to race, we had to come home with some cash. Keep in mind that, in the heyday of the ‘Chi-Town Hustler,’ if you didn’t run an NHRA national event, you could run three match race dates the same weekend for $1,500 apiece. So we’d go run our booked-in deals and know we were coming home with $4,500.
“Our busiest season was probably 1970,” Coil recalled, “(when) we ran 96 match race dates with one car. ‘Jungle’ (the late ‘Jungle Jim’ Liberman) ran like 142 that year, but he had three (different) cars on the circuit. He didn’t personally drive all those dates. All of our dates were run by us with the same car, driven by Pat Minick.”
When the match race market began to dry up in the early ‘80s, Coil and Co. baffled the experts by, not only making the transition to the structure of the national series, but by winning NHRA Funny Car championships in 1982 and 1983.
By late 1984, though, sponsorship had run out and Coil found himself without a race team at about the same time that Force decided that if he ever was to achieve his dream of winning a championship, he needed someone with Coil’s skills and reputation. They struck a tentative deal on the phone during Thanksgiving dinner in 1984 and, 129 tour victories and 14 championships later, despite a couple of speed bumps, like last year’s winless season, their first in 23 years, they’re still on top.
At 64, Coil still has a passion for the sport, one that was rekindled this season when Force added Mike Neff to the mix. Now, Neff, Coil and Bernie Fedderly jointly make the mechanical decisions on the Castrol Ford that carried Force to victory in three of the season’s first six races including the inaugural 4-Wide Nationals at Charlotte.