When drag-racing fans think about the sport’s modern-day characters and yarn-spinners, John Force immediately leaps to mind. Ron Capps and Clay Millican are highly entertaining, too. And Antron Brown and Michael Ray are no storytelling slouches, either. Shawn Gann produces some truly memorable quotes, although he might be in the John Force category for requiring interpreters or the use of subtitles.
Images courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
Who’d have thought serious-minded Cruz Pedregon might be one of the comedians?
But he is, with a well-placed wisecrack now and then.
“A lot of people ask me who my favorite opponent is. And I say either the slowest car in the field or the guy they’re telling to shut the car off at the starting line. That’s my favorite opponent,” the Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car owner-driver said in July at Denver.
At Sonoma last summer, when he outperformed rival Jack Beckman with a class-best elapsed time for the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot, the cayenne-laced conversation went something like this:
“If these guys want to throw tamales, we’ll throw down with them! We’re California Mexicans!”
A few minutes later, he said, “Aw, when I get out of the car, I get a little bit excited. Half the stuff I wish I didn’t say. But I was just throwing a little heritage around here and there. It was nothing I wouldn’t say to my mom.”
Really? He says, “Hey, Mom, want to throw down some tamales? Want to go? Huh? Huh?”??
A lot of people ask me who my favorite opponent is. And I say either the slowest car in the field or the guy they’re telling to shut the car off at the starting line.
“She’d laugh,” he said. “If we were Italian, we’d be talking about throwing spaghetti and meatballs. You know, as long as we keep it clean, I think [it’s OK.]. You know, you get excited. That’s what you should do.
“I wish earlier in my career I had been myself. I used to think I had to be this wind-up guy who thanked everybody, including my parents for having me. You got to let it hang out. I’m a Southern California guy. I’m glad I finally figured out that we don’t have to be wind-up toys out there,” he said. “We try to thank the sponsors, but the fans, they want to see what the guy’s really like. I’m 48 years old, and I’m going to let it hang out a little bit for the rest of my career.”
He even has spoken at both Sonoma and Pomona about “throwing down some chingas,” which in Latino slang refers to an old-fashioned whoopin’.
So Cruz Pedregon has had his flashes of feistiness.
But this season, maybe because he still wants to “let it hang out” or because he actually is trying to separate his tuning mindset from his driving approach in this pursuit of a third NHRA Funny Car championship, Pedregon has concocted a quirky and comical story.
It’s about Juan Mota, the mysterious Juan Mota.
No one ever has seen him at the racetrack, in the Snap-on pits, in the staging lanes. Or have we? Rumor has it that he’s about six feet tall, roughly 200 pounds, is from the Gardena/Torrance, Calif., area, has an easy smile, confident gait . . . a lot like Cruz Pedregon.
What’s that you say? . . . Well, no wonder . . . Juan Mota IS Cruz Pedregon. It’s Pedregon’s alias, his pseudonym, his alter ego, his mechanical-minded clone.
“Juan Mota” is Pedregon’s name for the tuning side of himself. John Force Racing crew chief Mike Neff also has worn both the tuning and driving hats and might have been less stressed if he had invented a self-styled version of Star Trek’s “Scotty” or James Bond’s “Q.”
…the fans, they want to see what the guy’s really like. I’m 48 years old, and I’m going to let it hang out a little bit for the rest of my career.
Whatever — it seems to be working for Pedregon. His recent head-butting with Lee Beard and his longtime aggravation that his tuning protégés have bolted (with his training) for bigger paychecks might indicate that what Pedregon really, truly did need was a “Juan Mota.”
Pedregon said his dual role comes with “disadvantages here and there, but I try not to think too much about the disadvantages. I try to think of the advantages. I’m definitely not at an advantage, that’s for sure.”
For some time, he has said, “I think for sure I’ve got to work on me. And that is trying to focus my attention on Sunday to try to be the best that I can be.”
Making a more effective transition from “thinking about the car day in and day out and then have to get in there and compete at a high level against some of these drivers” has been his goal.
“It’s just a lot of mental [preparation], and it’s really, really intense,” he said, and he has been an advocate for the driver making a difference in the competition equation. But sometimes, he said, he feels overloaded.
“Our cars run as good or better than these other guys’. A lot of these guys, that’s all they think about, and they’re good at it. I’m over there thinking about clothes and timing plots and this and that and — oh, I’ve got to race,” he said.
Our cars run as good or better than these other guys’. A lot of these guys, that’s all they think about, and they’re good at it.
But along came Juan Mota. And Pedregon has had a lot of enjoyment telling tales of Juan Mota’s hauler-lounge arguments with him. Assuring that he isn’t developing a clinical split personality, he explained that “Juan Mota” does help him separate the different tasks he faces.
“I joke about this Juan Mota guy, but I really do try to compartmentalize,” he said.
It’s working for the crew, too. After his Las Vegas victory this spring, Pedregon said, “It’s strange — I look back at the excitement level I still have here. It’s Thursday. My guys had to drive, what, 2,000 miles? They’re still all excited.”
Pedregon said, even after the ups and downs since then, that he’s having fun overall. And naturally he is, for he has three victories, three No. 1 starts, and a stint as points leader in late April to mid-May.
He said, “As long as I don’t feel like we’re pulling a car up to the starting line that’s lacking, I’m going to race and be here and do this for a number of years. The day that comes that I don’t feel like I can put the car out there that equals or is better than the competition is the day I’ll step away and do something else. I’ve had a great career, and I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had.”
But this Juan Mota, he can argue, and his struggles with Pedregon can be some real doozies. Sometimes Pedregon wins. Sometimes Juan Mota gets his way.
Take, for example, the stretch between the Atlanta and Denver events, when Pedregon fell from first place, suffered the indignity of four Round 1 defeats (including three straight) in seven races and tucked in there a final-round loss to John Force in June at Bristol.
“My crew chief, Juan Mota, I think he got his chest sticking out a little bit too far,” Pedregon said following the first day of qualifying at Denver earlier this month. “We kind of had a little arm wrestle. And I just told him, ‘Man, we need to get back to what we were doing earlier in the year.’ After he threw a little tantrum, he realized that’s probably the case. Great to have Juan eating a little humble pie.”
But when it comes to handling media matters, Juan Mota gets his way.
“Juan, he’s so focused,” Pedregon said. He says, ‘Hey, no media. You pay me to tune the car, and that’s they way it’s going to be. He says, ‘You drivers do all the talking. You’re the front men, the lead singers. He says, basically, ‘Don’t bother me.’ “
Pedregon started this season with his so-called “No-Name Crew.”
Officially, they are Chris “Warrior” Kullberg and (car chief), Todd Haas (assistant car chief, supercharger), Sterling Van Dusen (clutch, wheels/tires), Narciso “Nacho” Bravo (bottom end), Chris Abbott (short block), Archie Singleton (clutch, ignition), Ethan Dooling (cylinder heads), and Mike Rodriguez (fuel, parachutes).
Juan, he’s so focused. He says, ‘Hey, no media. You pay me to tune the car, and that’s they way it’s going to be.’
The along came the “Non-existent Crew Chief.”
But Pedregon is using Juan Mota for financial leverage. Of course, Pedregon knows the better he performs, the more his competitors want to steal away this automotive mastermind. But he is prepared for that.
“He’s with me. We signed a lifetime contract,” Pedregon said. “But if any owners want to hire him, they have to get me, too. So get your checkbook ready.”
Until that happens, he’ll stick to the job at hand and prepare for the Countdown to the Championship.
“I’ve been critical of John [Force] and Don [Schumacher], but that the end of the day, hey, we need guys like that out here. You have four cars in Schumacher’s camp, and John has three. Luckily I’ve been able to fund my team to where I’ve been able to hire good guys,” he said. “The competition’s good, and it’s hard at times, but it’s exciting for the sport. There’s room for everybody here.”