Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – GAINESVILLE, FL – There was technically an off-season for the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but it hasn’t looked like Jeg Coughlin Jr. has skipped a beat in the new year.
After ending last season on a positive note, Coughlin has continued that momentum heading into this weekend’s 51st annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.
He has qualified No. 1 in four of the past five races, dating back to last year, advancing to four finals and winning two races, including the final race of 2019 and the first race of 2020. After announcing the “Breaking Barriers” retirement tour as Coughlin steps away from full-time Pro Stock racing following the 2020 season, Coughlin has been rolling in his JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet to start the year. That includes the NHRA Winternationals win and a $75,000 shootout victory in Orlando during the off-week before Gainesville, leaving Coughlin on track for another big weekend.
“We had a hell of a Countdown in ’19, and missed the championship by just over one round of competition,” Coughlin said. “That’s nothing to dwell on. What’s exciting is we were in a lot of final rounds, we won the World Finals in Pomona, slept well and hibernated for the winter and came out and won the Winternationals. We had a little mishap in Phoenix, but we rebounded well (in Orlando). We’ll try to keep on rolling.”
Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are defending winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including finals coverage on Sunday, March 15 at 9:30 p.m. (ET). It is the third of 18 races during the 2020 NHRA Pro Stock season, which is also celebrating its 50th season this year. Class legends Larry Morgan and Tony Christian will be honored during the race, while Coughlin, an active legend in the sport, will try to earn his third career Pro Stock win in Gainesville.
A number of class legends and standouts will also try to keep that from happening, including teammate and reigning world champ Erica Enders, four-time world champ Greg Anderson, Jason Line, a three-time champ who is retiring at the end of the year as well, Alex Laughlin, Kenny Delco, Val Smeland, Butner and Chris McGaha. But not many have looked as impressive as Coughlin this year, which he attributes to a talented Elite Motorsports team and his crew chief, Rickie Jones.
“We’ve been clicking really well as a team,” said Coughlin, who has 64 career Pro Stock wins. “The mindset has been very aggressive and it’s working. We’re doing everything we can as a group to win races. That same game plan is in place for this weekend. We want to be the last team standing come Sunday afternoon.”
Doing so in his final season of full-time Pro Stock racing would be extra meaningful for Coughlin, who has enjoyed success at all of NHRA’s biggest races. That includes the Gatornationals, which has always been seen as a prestigious race, and Coughlin will aim to go out a winner. He and Enders have split the first two races on the NHRA tour in 2020, but Coughlin knows this type of run won’t last forever. The key is ensuring to make the most out of the opportunities when they arise.
“We’re set for a big weekend,” Coughlin said. “The Gatornationals are always a special race, the first time the NHRA tour gets to the East Coast each year, and we’re coming in on a great run. It’s been a stellar start to the season for our JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro and the Elite team in general. The wins are already stacking up.”
Doug Kalitta has enjoyed early success in Top Fuel in 2020, winning in Pomona, but he’ll be challenged by the likes of back-to-back world champ Steve Torrence, who won in Phoenix, Brittany Force, Antron Brown, Clay Millican and Terry McMillen.
Hight used his fourth win at the legendary facility as momentum for his third world title in Funny Car last season. He’ll face off in the loaded class against Pomona winner Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., who won in Phoenix, John Force, J.R. Todd and Ron Capps.
Pro Stock Motorcycle makes its annual debut at the race, and Hines is the defending race winner. He won his sixth world title, but will be challenged by Eddie Krawiec, Matt Smith, Hector Arana Jr., Jerry Savoie and Angelle Sampey.
The event is also the season-opening race for the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series. The race is presented by FuelTech, and the defending winner is Todd Tutterow, who knocked off reigning world champ Stevie “Fast” Jackson in the final round. The races also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills, as well as the first race of the 2020 SAMTech.edu Factory Stock Showdown Drag Racing Series season.
After Nitro qualifying on Friday, fans can watch “The Quartermaster” Mustang Jet Funny Car driven by David Douthit. Jet cars are thrust driven propelled by jet engines with exciting pre-run flame shows.
For the first time, Tom Bailey and Rod Tschiggfrie will participate in an NHRA Street Car Showdown, making several passes throughout the weekend. Fans won’t want to miss the fastest street car versus the quickest street car showdown.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers with an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
NHRA fans can take part in the NHRA 101 walking tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Pro Stock School and Nitro School to learn how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Gainesville Raceway will also host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. New for 2020, the winner’s circle will be moved to the track surface, allowing fans a more intimate and up-close experience to help celebrate the event winners.
While enjoying the Gatornationals, fans who renew their tickets on-site will receive a FREE NHRA Legend mini replica helmet, commemorating NHRA’s historic 70th anniversary in 2021.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, March 13 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, March 14 at 12:45 and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 15.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call (800) 884-NHRA (6472) or visit www.NHRA.com/tickets. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.