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Drama at the Drag Strip: Why one NHRA driver, suspecting cheating, filed rare protests against two rivals

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When NHRA Pro Stock driver Chris McGaha approached NHRA Technical Department officials Friday at the CatSpot NHRA Northwest Nationals in suburban Seattle, he embarked upon one of the rarest actions in drag racing annals.

After more than 3 ½ years of watching chief rival Elite Motorsports achieve success that McGaha felt wasn’t always attained in a fair and square manner, the Odessa, Texas native filed a formal protest Friday against the Elite cars of Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Erica Enders.

MORE: NHRA Pro Stock’s McGaha files but loses protests vs. Coughlin Jr., Enders

McGaha and his family, who work side-by-side him in their drag racing operation, felt that something just wasn’t kosher in Elite’s success this year.

But it wasn’t just this year. McGaha told NBC Sports that he and his family have felt for a long time that Elite Motorsports has played fast and loose with NHRA rules – if not downright cheated.

Chris McGaha’s Pro Stock race car

So Friday night, after the second Pro Stock qualifying run was completed at Pacific Raceways, McGaha reached into his pocket, pulled out $2,000 in cash – the $1,000 filing fee per protest times two – and told NHRA Technical officials he wanted the engines of Coughlin and Enders torn apart.

After a number of instances over the last three-plus years that McGaha believed Elite was bending, if not completely breaking the rules, including alleging using untraceable tainted fuel, McGaha put his money where his mouth is, telling NHRA officials he strongly suspected – no, make that believed – that Enders’ and Coughlin’s cars had oversized engines under their respective hoods.

If that were the case and Enders, Coughlin and Elite Motorsports were found to be intentionally breaking the rules, they could potentially be in a great deal of trouble, from heavy points and financial fines to potential suspension.

The stakes were obviously very high.

As it turned out, however, McGaha’s gut feeling proved wrong, as NHRA officials – after more than three hours of tearing down and examining all aspects of Enders’ and Coughlin’s motors – announced that the cars passed with flying colors.

McGaha’s protest was overruled and, in a sense of adding insult to injury, 90 percent of the $2,000 protest filing McGaha paid wound up being split between the Enders’ and Coughlin Jr.’s teams, per NHRA rules.

To illustrate how rare McGaha’s protest was, consider this: Coughlin is a five-time NHRA Pro Stock champion, not to mention countless wins and championships in other drag racing categories over a career that has spanned 30-plus years.

But Friday was the first time Coughlin Jr. has ever had a protest filed against him in his entire racing career.

Ditto for Enders. She has been drag racing for well over 20 years. While she had protests filed against her during her early days in Junior Dragster racing and also in Sportsman racing – primarily because she had unheard of success as a female that prompted oftentimes envious and jealous male competitors to supposedly “know” she was cheating – she won every protest.

But like Coughlin, Enders – a two-time Pro Stock champion and the winningest female in Pro Stock history – has never had a protest filed against her in her nearly 15-year professional Pro Stock career.

Not until Friday, that is.

It’s unclear when the last formal protest was filed in NHRA pro annals because sanctioning body officials couldn’t recall the last time it occurred.

In an NBC Sports exclusive, MotorSportsTalk reached out to McGaha, Coughlin Jr. and Enders after Saturday’s second day of qualifying at Pacific Raceways.

All three drivers were asked a series of questions about Friday’s protest, and then all three gave their sides and reactions to the ultimate outcome.

Below are selected excerpts of the questions and their respective answers:

CHRIS MCGAHA

Q. Protests are very rare in NHRA annals. What prompted your actions?

McGaha: “It’s a deal that started for us in 2015. The team owner over there (Richard Freeman, owner of Elite Motorsports), point blank, admitted to me to my face that they were running illegal fuel at the time in 2015. There was controversy over the fuel at the time and he (Freeman) point blank told us he had not been running that fuel (legal fuel) at times and that NHRA couldn’t detect it. Right then and there, at that point, you lose trust in somebody. … It just seemed like it couldn’t pass the smell test.

Chris McGaha

“… Coming into this year, I saw some things at times and was tipped off on some stuff on fuel and we proceeded to start buying the fuel (for the entire Pro Stock class) and filling all the Pro Stock cars in the lanes to keep it a fair deal. I will say to anybody who’s watching, (Pro Stock competition) tightened up even more when we started doing that. Going through the years, there’s been some other things I’ve questioned and one of the ones that was probably the last year and a half was size of the engine. We knew that was probably one of the last ways you can bend the rules. We watched a lot of it through this year and there was something that didn’t feel right. It could be, but we don’t know.

“(Filing the protest) wasn’t something where we woke up yesterday and we’re going to do it. It kind of was, but it was something that had been planned for quite some time by us. … It had been something me and my parents had talked about for some time this year. This just doesn’t feel right and we need to know. Every year, they’ve (Elite Motorsports) done something, so what are they doing this year, and this was the last thing they could be doing. At some point, we said we need to do this before the Countdown (the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs to determine the 2018 Pro Stock champion), we need it to clear our mind. So we did it and obviously they passed the sniff test and here we are.”

Q. How do you feel now that they passed the test and nothing was found? Where do you go from here?

McGaha: “I can’t say I’m happy, glad, sad, mad, I don’t really know how I feel. I just came to the track today (Saturday) and had some stuff I wanted to try on my car and I still don’t know if I’ve processed it (losing the protest). We’ve been watching what we felt was an engine deal and we’ve been tracking it. Everybody has their struggles and things don’t make sense sometimes on some people’s cars, but you kind of get consistent. Like me, I’ve been consistently ninth. I’ve been ninth the last four, five races, I’m a nine car. If I start going back up, that’s fine. But they (Elite Motorsports) will be eight or nine one week and No. 1 the next week, and I’m like ‘What am I missing here?’ … We’d watch Jeg Coughlin (Jr.) seem like his car had no issues and that was weird. Then we’d go two or three races and it’d flip. His car would slow down and her (Enders) car would go up. It seemed strange. But in Richmond, Virginia (earlier this season), I raced her in the semi-finals, we filled the cars in the lanes, when we came back, me and my dad looked at each other and said, ‘That’s probably the fairest race they’ve given us in the last three or four years.”

Q. Where do you as a competitor go from here? If all three of you get into the playoffs and you still think something’s not right, do you do another protest?

McGaha: “You’ve got to have something to go down there to complain about. You have to know what they’re doing. That’s the first thing we knew. We’ve educated ourselves over time with this because we knew we had to come down with a legit complaint. And at times, I probably did have legit complaints, I just didn’t know what I was going to complain about (to NHRA officials). This one was one of those that we felt was kind of a cut-and-dry. It was a $2,000 crapshoot and that’s the way it worked.”

Q. You say it’s a $2,000 crapshoot, your protest failed and the teams you protested got 90 percent of the money from the protest (per NHRA rules), so the opposing teams got your money. Does that bother you?

McGaha: “Oh no. Richard Freeman was pretty fired up about it (Friday) night and started texting me and we exchanged some pretty hateful texts between the two of us. … At times, we talked about doing this (filing a protest) because we knew we’d get some backlash from it. One of the things we knew we’d get backlash on is they (Elite Motorsports) are going to protest us.

“So, at the time, when Richard was doing it (in Friday’s text battle), he called me a couple of names, what have you, and told me, ‘Thank you for the money.’”

McGaha than retorted with a mix of humor and a prophecy of sorts: “And I told (Freeman), ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re going to reimburse me (via a future protest he believes Elite will file against him). So there you have it. … It’s going to eat on him so bad that he’s going to come back and do it to me. I know he will, and at that point, I’m going to get some of my money back. It’s called an investment.”

Q. Jeg (Coughlin Jr.) told NBC Sports Saturday that he hasn’t spoken with you about the protest but probably will talk with you Sunday morning before final eliminations. Are you expecting that and what might be said between the two of you?

McGaha: “I really have no beef with Jeg. And really, Erica thinks I have a beef with her, but what I don’t think she understands is where my position is and where I’ve been on 2015 and some of these other issues. I don’t think she truly understands where I’m coming from this, and it’s a pretty serious deal to us.”

Q. May the best man or woman win Sunday. What happens if you meet either Erica or Jeg in the final round and how can you not let what happened Friday bother you?

McGaha: “Actually, I have to race an Elite Motorsports team in the first round, Vincent Nobile. The Elite team is almost like cockroaches, they’re everywhere (he said with a laugh). You turn the light on and they’re everywhere (another laugh). But I like to refer to my team as ‘The Silver Bullet.’ And in the movies, if you have a pack of werewolves, how do you kill them? With a Silver Bullet!”

**********************************

JEG COUGHLIN JR.

Coughlin Jr. enters Sunday’s final eliminations as the No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock (Enders qualified third and McGaha qualified ninth).

Coughlin Jr. is also coming off a win last Sunday at Sonoma, California, telling NBC Sports, “and hopefully we’ll challenge for another one tomorrow (Sunday).”

Q. Have you ever had a protest filed against you by another driver in your drag racing career?

Coughlin Jr.: “I’ve been in this sport for over 30 years and raced a lot of classes and a lot of competitors, and I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve encountered a protest from a competitor. They’re really not that common.

Jeg Coughlin Jr.

“It was a surprise, but the team just got to work and we certainly weren’t worried about our cars technically speaking. Off to work they went (during the engine teardown) and it just prolonged our dinner plans a little bit and probably kept us out of trouble (he said with a laugh).

“On one hand, it’s flattering. We’ve not been the fastest cars all year. We’ve been pretty quick the last 10 races or so and we’ve started to win some races as a team and I guess someone saw it fit to just go ahead and proceed with this rule that’s within the rulebook.”

Q. Is there bad blood between you and McGaha?

Coughlin Jr.: “I have not personally (talked with McGaha). I don’t have an issue with (the protest) per se. It’s more flattering to me than anything else. One, we’re running well and winning some races, and he’s been running well and has won some races. But if some of our competitors can focus on other issues other than their own, maybe we can keep turning on the win lights against them.”

Q. You said you haven’t talked to McGaha since Friday’s protest. Do you anticipate talking with him prior to Sunday’s start of final eliminations?

Coughlin Jr.: “I’m sure we’ll cross paths today or tomorrow morning at some point in time. I personally don’t have a lot of issues. We’ll thank him for his efforts and move on.”

**********************************

ERICA ENDERS

Q. What are your thoughts about the protest?

Enders: “We got back from our second qualifying run, serviced our engine and that’s when NHRA Tech came over to us, said we had been officially protested and we needed to pull the (motor) head off each car, which in Pro Stock is a lot of work.

“We don’t normally pull heads at a racetrack because it’s a lot and everything is so intricate. We pulled the heads off both cars and were there at the racetrack until about 11 or 11:30 at night, finishing up and obviously passed and got to collect the money (from McGaha).

“NHRA didn’t tell us who (filed the protest), but we figured it out that it was Chris McGaha. … He also thought we were cheating with fuel (earlier this season), so he (McGaha) supplies the fuel for the entire Pro Stock class, so we get fueled in the lane before every run, so we never use our own fuel because someone was cheating with fuel.”

Erica Enders

Q. Jeg (Coughlin Jr.) has been around for 30-plus years and in all the classes he’s raced and competitors he’s faced, he’s never had a protest filed against him until Friday. Have you ever had a protest filed against you in your drag racing career?

Enders: “Yes, I have, twice in Junior Drag Racing and Sportsman Racing. … I won all the protests, 100 percent of them. We always had really nice equipment, won a lot, had our fair share of success. I was a young girl and a lot of those things add up to whatever you want to call it, be it envy or ignorance, what have you. But I’ve never had a protest against me in Pro Stock.”

Q. Jeg (Coughlin Jr.) said as far as he knows, there’s no bad blood between he and Chris (McGaha). Could Friday’s protest be the result of bad blood between McGaha and yourself or your team?

Enders: “We’re both from Texas, and are from the same division. Chris actually drove a few races (several years ago) for (Elite Motorsports owner) Richard Freeman. There’s a long history there. We all know who each other is and we race against each other all the time. Having said that, there have been a couple issues with sponsorship, but I don’t really care anymore, I really don’t.

“… From about 2007, I don’t know what went wrong (with McGaha). Before that, we’d always speak at the track when we’d see each other, but for some reason, that changed when our success at Elite Motorsports started. But I never had a personal bad thing happen with him that would have caused him to stop liking me.

“But he runs his mouth on the Internet, calls me ‘princess’ and all this crap. He, for sure, doesn’t like me, but I’m not sure what I did wrong. But, whatever.”

Q. Jeg (Coughlin Jr.) said he anticipates talking with McGaha before Sunday’s final eliminations. Do you plan on talking with Chris, as well?

Enders: “I won’t avoid him. I haven’t seen him in-person since he filed the protest. He did communicate with my team owner via text message Friday night and Richard (Freeman) invited Chris over to talk about it or do it another way, and he declined both ways. During driver introductions Sunday, we’ll be only a few feet away each other, so I’m sure that we’ll see each other. I’m not sure what will be said. He’s not a confrontational person in the flesh. He runs his mouth on a keyboard and behind a computer screen and in text messages, but he never says anything that he says to others to my face. So I doubt any words will be said during driver intro’s on his part.”

Q. If you face Chris in the final round Sunday, how do you block what happened Friday out of your mind?

Enders: “That’s something I learned how to do over the years. As a young driver, I allowed outside emotions to affect me in the car. Over the years, I’ve learned how to not let that emotion to get inside the cockpit. Having said that, you know who you’re racing, right? When I go up there to the starting line, it’s me, my car, my team, my lane and the Christmas (starting) tree. What he does has no effect on me. I just have to cut the light, hit my shifts and cross the finish line first. That’s how I look at it. I really like high pressure situations. I always say it, but I put my money on us. We excel in those situations and say, ‘Bring it on.’”

Then, before she ended the phone conversation, Enders asked NBC Sports to add one more comment:

“I always try to pull the positives out of every situation. We have to look at it (McGaha’s protest) as a compliment. Whether it (the protest) has malice behind it or not, our guys do an excellent job. We laid down two really great runs (during Friday’s qualifying), and if that’s the core reason why (McGaha) protested us, then hats off to our team. They do a great job. That’s a positive, we’ll take it as a compliment, take his cash and go have a nice dinner.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IMSA’s 50th Anniversary Celebration: Why Sebring is so special to Bobby Rahal

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Bobby Rahal has driven in some of the biggest races in the world, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rolex 24 Hours and, of course, winning the Indianapolis 500 as a driver in 1986 and in 2004 as a team owner.

But winning the 12 Hours of Sebring two years in a row (1987 and 1988), Rahal feels, is right up there in terms of his greatest accomplishments as a race car driver.

As IMSA celebrates its 50th anniversary, Rahal reflected on what racing at Sebring International Raceway has meant to him:

“To me, Sebring is the ultimate endurance race. Not as long as Daytona or Le Mans, but the demands put on a car and driver at Sebring are highly unusual.

“My father raced at Sebring in the late 60’s. To win that race two years in a row really meant something to me.

“While we’ve won a lot of other races, we’ve won just about everywhere, you name it. But for me personally, winning at Sebring those two years in a row was very special.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski