Disgruntled Tuner Austin Coil Splits With Force
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Hall of Fame crew chief Austin Coil says his resignation from John Force Racing was largely a financial decision, augmented by “some animosities” lingering from Force’s winless 2009 NHRA Funny Car season.
“I had not been happy with the financial situation since the reorganization because of the economy,” Coil said during a phone interview on Wednesday, three days after Force won his record-setting 15th National Hot Rod Association world championship at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.
Coil said team-owner Force instituted across-the-board pay cuts following the 2009 season, one that saw son-in-law Robert Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock win the organization’s 16th NHRA Funny Car championship in 20 years. But Force went winless in ‘09 during a Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season for the first time since 1986 – first year of the Force-Coil collaboration.
“There were a lot of hard feelings over 2009 because our performance was suffering,” said Coil, 65, who has tuned Force to all of his championships and 132 national event victories. “The end result created some animosities that won’t go away. I’m too old to be sat down and told ‘how it is’ every other day. Overall, there’s no real terrible issues going on. It was just time to go. Kind of like when you’ve been married for 26 years and heard all the bullshit.”
Prior to the start of the 2010 season, Force opted to fold Mike Neff’s Ford Mustang Funny Car team because of lack of corporate sponsorship. Neff immediately joined Coil and Bernie Fedderly as the tuning braintrust on Force’s Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford, a move Coil said he still endorses. But Coil said the accompanying pay cuts “took a way bigger percentage from the top employees,” including himself.
“I don’t care if there were three cars or four,” Coil said. “My concern was my share of the pie. We all took (a pay cut) as most everyone in the industry. In a way that’s not to be unexpected. But I wasn’t happy how mine was. I still think I was paid fair for the job I was doing, but it didn’t turn out…it was a considerable surprise from what my previous contract was.
“Kind of a sign of the times, but it still doesn’t make us happy. It’s a situation where we’re told
we’ve got to tighten our belt buckles. Again, I’m not saying I was unfairly treated – the economy put everyone in a pinch. But if I still had a mortgage on the house and no investments, I would have had to deal with it. As a result I’ve been less than overly happy.”
As the 2010 season wound down, Coil said he began looking at various career options and met with his financial adviser.
“I’m convinced I’m (financially) secure, so I have no fear of that,” said Coil, who added he could return to drag racing as early as the 2012 season. “I’ve already received several job offers. I know I can go back to work, but for now I’m going to fill up my bucket list. The only racing I might get involved in is if I find a situation with a team with proper funding and that will give my wife (Lisa) a chance to drive a nostalgia Funny Car…and I’d come along. I’ve had a few nibbles but not made any decision.”
Force was blindsided by Coil’s decision on Tuesday. Coil sent out the following email to selected friends and NHRA officials: “Dear Friends, I have resigned from John Force Racing 11-16-10. I plan to spend some time with Lisa, my wife, as I have had very little for the last 26 years. I then plan to hang out my shingle to go racing again as I am nowhere’s near ready to retire. Regards, Austin Coil.”
Elon Werner, a public relations representative for JFR, said Force learned of the resignation approximately 15 minutes before he was scheduled to participate in the NHRA’s season-ending champion’s teleconference. Force did take his turn as the last of four professional champions to participate. At the end of his segment, Force remarked: “I know the rumor mills are going crazy, and I have to address it. But it’s part of what John Force does. My heart’s pounding today over some things that have hurt me real bad, and I don’t understand. I’ve got to go find out.”
Force undoubtedly will address the issue when he travels to Homestead-Miami Speedway Friday for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season-ending Ford 400 weekend, if not before.
“John Force Racing doesn’t have a comment at this time, but we’ve accepted it,” Werner said Wednesday. “We’re not going to stand in the way of a guy that wants to smell the roses. It’s hard to begrudge a guy who wants to take a year off.”
Coil said he waited until the morning after Monday night’s NHRA Full Throttle awards ceremony to break the news. “John runs his company a lot like an emperor runs a country,” said Coil, who attended the ceremony with his JFR teammates in Century City, Calif. “And if you tell John anything in advance, there is no delay in dealing with it. It’s immediate. I decided not to disturb anybody’s fun at the banquet. I don’t even know if I had made up my mind at that point.”
Force won his 15th title in dramatic fashion during Sunday’s 46th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, overcoming a 38-point deficit to Matt Hagan of Don Schumacher Racing. Hagan’s first-round upset loss to Bob Tasca III opened the door for Force to clinch the championship with a second-round victory over Bob Bode. Force also trailered Gary Densham, a former JFR teammate, and Melanie Troxel before defeating Jeff Arend for his sixth national event victory of 2010.
Force finished 42 points ahead of Hagan, 28, who was denied his first world championship in his second full season in DSR’s DieHard Dodge Charger R/T. Force is the oldest champion in all of motorsports at the age of 61 years and six months, outdistancing NHRA Pro Stock legend Warren “The Professor” Johnson, who was 58 years and four months old when he won his sixth championship in 2001.
Force posted his first world championship in 1990 by winning seven of 19 races en route to a 43-point advantage over fellow-Californian Ed “The Ace” McCulloch. Force repeated as champion in 1991, then strung together a 10-year stretch of titles between 1993-2002. He posted separate titles in 2004 and 2006.
Asked if he would have resigned had Force not won the championship Sunday, Coil said, “Yeah, probably. But there’s no real problem in the workplace at JFR. I really like all the guys I worked with. We had such an exceptional team and two or three guys doing the hard work will become crew chiefs one day, like Guido (Dean Antonelli). It was a pleasure to race with those guys.”
Coil reiterated he did not feel crowded by the addition of Neff to Force’s tuning team. “I hope to consider them best friends for life,” Coil said. “I don’t have a problem with nobody. They’re good people. But there needs to be a cooling off period, because I deserted them.”
A native of Chicago, Coil has racked up 17 Funny Car titles, including back-to-back crowns in 1982-83 in the famed Chi-Town Hustler driven by Frank Hawley. The Chi-Town Hustler, a car in which Coil was partnered with fellow-Chicagoans John Farkonas and Pat Minick, was one of the dominant Funny Cars on the barnstorming match-race circuit during the 1970s. When sponsorship for that team disappeared in 1985, Force hired Coil and brought him to Southern California.
Coil, who won seven races with Hawley, finished the 2010 season with 139 victories on his resume. He has been selected Car Craft Magazine Funny Car Crew Chief of the Year 12 times.
Force’s latest title marked closure following the devastating foot and leg injuries he suffered in a crash at Texas Motorplex during eliminations in September 2007. Force put himself through a rigorous rehabilitation program to return to the cockpit for the start of the 2008 season, when he recorded a single national event victory and a 23-19 win-loss mark.
Force’s 0-for-24 season followed in 2009, a campaign that saw him post a 23-24 win-loss record _ his first losing effort since going 5-8 in 1984. While those numbers had some observers questioning the wisdom of “Brut Force” continuing in the cockpit, Coil was not among them.
“Ya know…at times it was kind of inspiring,” said Coil, referring to John’s post-Motorplex crash effort. “He’d come back and go to the gym every day and work out for two hours to try to get into shape. He’s probably in the best shape since I’ve known him. That old fart can do 100 chin-ups. He was determined to get back. His lights (reaction times) have never been better and he’s been a good guy to deal with this year. That’s how it is when you’re winning your fair share. That’s part of the game of racing.”
Coil said his home in Yorba Linda, Calif., is about four miles from the JFR facility. “I think I’m not that interested in hanging out there if I’m not actively involved,” Coil said. “Don’t make a very good spectator.
“Right now, I’m going on vacation for the first time in 26 years with the idea of not being on any schedule to come back. In a few days we’ll be heading up the coast of California. I’ve done that on vacation a couple of times and it seemed it was too soon before I had to go home. I’m thinking I’d like to fill my bucket list.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments