Tom Coghill never got a shot at the big time, so he's doing anything and everything to make sure his son, Sam, does. Through the years, he has designed his son's Sportsman class race cars, built the engines, and lined up sponsors while trying to hold down a job of his own. Now, he's trying to raise $2,650. That's how much he needs to get Sam a spot in the Nastrak Driver Search _ the Star Search of racing, if you will. Playing the part of Ed McMahon is seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty. He's backing the project that is offering 1,000 people the chance to get a foot in the door of Winston Cup racing.
The search works like this: 1,000 applicants, regardless of ability, will be sent to Charlotte Motor Speedway and given a chance to take a few laps in a Winston Cup car. The 25 drivers with the fastest lap times will be enrolled in a one-week driver training course in Melbourne, Australia. Then, another two-lap time trial determines the overall winner.
The champion driver will then be outfitted and entered in five NASCAR-sanctioned races in Australia, which could lead to a possible Winston Cup ride.
"This is what Sam has always wanted to do for a living," Tom Coghill said. "If people knew what a big opportunity this is for a race car driver, to go up there and get a shot on a superspeedway like that, well, very few people do. That would maybe open the door to get that boy a ride."
Sam Coghill has a firm grasp on the realities of the drivers search. "I'd like to see what it feels like, but who knows? I might get in the car and not like it," he said. "And even if we get to Australia and all that, you still have to hang out at the (Winston Cup) tracks and get to know them guys and I can't afford to do that."
For now, time is of the essence. Nastrak is accepting only the first 1,000 applications. The Coghills haven't sent their $2,650 in yet. They say they're about halfway there. "I can't believe how hard it's been to raise money," said Tom Coghill, who has gotten donations from places such as Sunshine Speedway. "I used to walk out of here and raise that kind of money in two days."
The Coghills, though, didn't get where they are by giving up. Sam Coghill has been a three-time high-points champion at Sunshine and Citrus County Speedways. And after finishing in the top 10 in last year's Street Stock division at Sunshine, Coghill is in the hunt for the Sportsman title this season. The 29-year-old Largo driver entered Saturday night's action 43 points behind leader Bobby Dixon of Tampa.
Despite his eternal optimism, Tom Coghill, 50, has been around long enough to realize Sam could win every race there is at Sunshine and still not ever get to bang fenders with the likes of Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip. It's not just about winning, it's about money. Sponsorship money. And the Coghills just don't have a lot of that.
Just about everything they have goes toward meeting the $10,000 operating cost of running at Sunshine each year. Sure, they've gotten some sponsorship help from local businesses. But as far as getting to the Daytonas and Talladegas, they're just spinning their wheels.
If it's going to happen for the young Coghill, his father says, it's going to happen through something like the Nastrak deal. So, Tom Coghill wants to take a run at this opportunity _ as much for his son as for himself.
"I never got a shot. I was never nearly as good as that boy is," Coghill said. "I've built all his cars, painted them and keep them up for him. I've built every piece by hand. I guess I'm kinda reliving my younger years through him."
Riding in style: Most teen-agers who are going to the prom ask to borrow their parents' car for the night. Owensboro (Ky.) teen Tish Garrett asked to borrow Michael Waltrip's Pontiac Grand Prix stock car.
Garrett and her family are fans-turned-friends of Waltrip, who is also from Owensboro. Garrett asked Waltrip's car owner, Chuck Rider, to use the Winston Cup race car to transport her and date Shane Oldfield to the Montgomery County High prom _ and he agreed.
Because the car isn't street legal, it had to be brought to the entrance of a private road that led to the school. There, Garrett and Oldfield climbed inside the 600-horsepower yellow machine and motored up to the school with the ground rumbling beneath them and exhaust spewing from behind.
"This is definitely something I'll never forget," Garrett said.
Join the club: NASCAR officials have made it a little easier to get a standing invitation to The Winston. Starting next year, not only will past Winston Cup race winners automatically be invited, but also all former Winston Cup drivers champions, plus the last five winners of The Winston.
Race: Budweiser 500.
Track: 1-mile Dover (Del.) Downs International Speedway.
Green flag: 12:10 p.m.
Distance: 500 laps.
TV: Live on TNN.
Defending champ: Derrike Cope.
Pole sitter: Michael Waltrip.
Notes: Lately, this has been a Bill Elliott/Dale Earnhardt track. They have owned victory lane in five out of the past six races there. Coca Cola 600 winner Davey Allison, who won here in 1987 but has finished in the top five only once since, tries to join Earnhardt as Winston Cup's only two-race winners this season.
Fry's pick: Mark Martin.
WINSTON CUP LEADERS
No. Driver Pts 1st
1. Dale Earnhardt 1,536 2
2. Ricky Rudd 1,500 1
3. Darrell Waltrip 1,423 1
4. Harry Gant 1,350 1
5. Davey Allison 1,342 1
6. Ken Schrader 1,331 1
7. Ernie Irvan 1,329 1
8. Micheal Waltrip 1,311
9. M. Shepherd 1,253
10. Sterling Marlin 1,220