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Shifting gears: student by day, drag racer by night

Paige Coughlin performs a delicate balancing act between being a senior in college and a traveling drag racer.
Paige Coughlin performs a delicate balancing act between being a senior in college and a traveling drag racer.

Paige Coughlin sits behind the wheel of her race car, the engine revving under the hood. Hands on the wheel, she surveys her array of buttons and levers. 

She calls this her “office.”

The whole world goes still. She hears nothing even as the motor loudly purrs right in front of her. 

As she waits for the light to turn green, she feels the pressure weigh on her shoulders: she’s there to represent her sponsors, her family name and herself. 

She takes a few deep breaths. She only needs to focus for an eighth of a mile to get to the finish line.

“You know how to win a race, so why don’t you go out and do it?” she says to herself. 

Coughlin is a senior strategic communication and professional writing major at Miami University. She’s a member of Phi Sigma Sigma sorority and even showed with the equestrian team for a couple years. 

She’s also a drag racer. 

The concept of drag racing is simple. Two cars line up next to each other. The race starts when the light turns green. Whoever crosses the finish line first, wins. 

But to Coughlin, racing is more than just a sport. It’s a family tradition. 

Her family has been in the industry for about 65 years, and she’s a third-generation racer behind her grandfather, dad and uncles. 

In the 1960s, her grandfather, Jeg Coughlin, Sr., started JEGS High Performance: a speed shop that sold parts with a garage on the side. Now located in Delaware, OH, they ship high performance parts worldwide to people looking to restore old muscle cars or upgrade current vehicles.

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Coughlin started working there when she was a senior in high school and will continue to do so after graduation. 

“It’s been a family centered business,” she said. 

But even before then, Coughlin was involved in the racing world. 

“It’s really exciting because you can get pretty much almost every age involved [and both] guys and girls,” she said.

At just 14 years old, she started racing in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) under the Jr. Drag Racing League. By 16, she’d moved up to a bigger and faster car that she could race nationally but still stayed mostly in the Midwest. 

Now, she’s raced all across the country and is ready to move onto something that nobody in her family has done before. 

Coughlin decided to leave the NHRA and dragsters behind and transition to something completely new: no prep racing. 

This means an eighth mile race instead of a quarter mile one. The cars mimic street-legal vehicles, and the race happens on a surface that isn’t prepped with glue or rubber to make it sticky. 

This year, she’ll be racing a 1992 Procharged Camaro named Golden Child. In February and March she’ll start testing it out, and the official races will begin around the end of April, which will have her traveling all around the country while she finishes her senior year. 

Races run from Friday to Sunday and are nationwide with the potential for back-to-back weekends. This means she could be traveling across the country with only a week to get to her next destination. 

Coughlin’s dad is a three-time world champion in the NHRA, so she’s used to traveling and taking her work on the road with her. Now that she’s in college, juggling school work and racing has proven more difficult, but she’s excited to make it work. 

“To me it’s not like a hobby,” she said. “This is my career. I gotta show up.”

In addition to her classes, she needs a lot of time in her car and a lot of media training. Coughlin is working toward getting on the Discovery Channel show “Street Outlaws: No Prep Kings.”

To earn your spot on the show, you need to be good on camera and with social media, and even better in the driver’s seat. But most importantly, you need an offer from one of the teams on the show. 

Coming from a long line of well-known racers, Coughlin has received a lot of backlash from people on social media stating that her family name will be enough to make her successful. 

She disagrees. 

“You have to prove your worth,” she said.  

In fact, Coughlin has already received an offer from one of the teams but can’t disclose whether she’ll be accepting it. 

For now, she remains in what’s called the “future class,” showing off her skills both on camera and on the track while she attempts to catch the audience’s attention.

“It’s going to take time and baby steps, but I think it’s definitely achievable,” Coughlin said.