Cruz Pedregon took a giant step at the NHRA season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., toward regaining his stature in the Funny Car class.
Huh? How huge could a quarterfinal exit be? How can one round-win constitute a super leap forward? The Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry owner-driver defeated Tommy Johnson Jr., then lost to eventual winner Matt Hagan Feb. 12. But hidden in Pedregon’s 1-1 record in eliminations so far were two encouraging gems:
He lost to Hagan by a mere five-thousandths of a second (about two feet), particularly unfortunate because he cut a stellar .010-second reaction time. A dropped cylinder at mid-track allowed Hagan to overtake him.
Pedregon had the quickest reaction time in both rounds at Pomona.
Reaction times don’t yield points, and narrow margins of defeat seldom gain lasting notice or even sympathy. But that victory over Johnson to begin the 2018 season was his first opening-round success since last September’s U.S. Nationals, his first in seven races.
After a first round of Top Fuel eliminations that took more than an hour to complete, Pedregon was last in line of the eight pairings, and he said he “really got set back in preparation time.” Against Hagan, he oiled the track late in the run (which cost him five points and $1,000).” But he remained optimistic, thinking he might have reached his first semifinal since last July’s Denver race (his only semifinal of 2017). Had he beaten Hagan at Pomona, Pedregon would have scored only his second semifinal appearance since the 2016 spring Charlotte event – and just the third since the 2015 St. Louis event.
That’s all to prove that Pedregon is justified in saying that “good things are coming for the Snap-on Toyota this year. Talk is cheap, but I feel like we’ll be in the mix this year.”
No champion in NHRA history, in any class or combination of classes, besides Cruz Pedregon has endured a 16-year drought between titles (1992, 2008). So despite the predominance of such younger drivers as Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, two-time and reigning champion Robert Hight, and Courtney Force – and noise from veteran racers but class newcomers Jonnie Lindberg and JR Todd and now Shawn Langdon – Pedregon, 54, has been relevant. His skill never has been questioned. Neither has his ability to win. His 35 victories tie him with legendary Don “The Snake” Prudhomme for fifth on the NHRA Funny Car all-time victories list.
I feel confident that 2017 was the year we put money in the bank and this year is going to be the year we start to collect interest – and that’s on the track performance-wise. – Cruz Pedregon
To bolster an increasingly comfortable crew chief, Aaron Brooks, Pedregon officially hired veteran Glen Huszar in December, after Huszar came onboard for the last two races of 2017.
Through the years, the savvy Pedregon has shown himself capable of serving as his own crew chief, but he has entrusted tuning duties to such notables as Rahn Tobler, Lee Beard, Rob Flynn, Ron Douglas, Wes Cerny, Wayne Dupuy, Bob Brooks, and Dan Olson . . . and recently to the mysterious, elusive “Juan Mota,” his imaginary confidante/alter-ego. But the Aaron Brooks-Glen Huszar tandem just might have the right chemistry Pedregon has sought for years.
To prove the point, Brooks said he and Huszar “don’t agree on everything, but that’s a good thing. We have a lot in common. We’re both very detail-oriented, and I think our personalities mesh well. That’s a good thing. We kind of keep each other in check.” Huszar said, “It’s been pretty seamless working with Aaron. It’s been good getting to know him. Actually, we have a lot in common. There are a lot of things we disagree on, but that’s part of it.” So they are on the same page.
“You hear it all the time, whether it’s motorsports, another sport or in business, you have to have the right people around. You have to have the right blend,” Brooks said. “We’ve been missing a key piece and Glen fills that role.”
Pedregon said Huszar “has been flying under the radar a little bit. He’s worked with Tim Richards, and he won a championship in 2010 with Tommy DeLago [with Matt Hagan at Don Schumacher Racing]. He really brings a previously missing element. We brought him in at the end of last year, at Las Vegas and Pomona, to see how he would fit in. And after the first weekend, Aaron Brooks and I looked at each other like, ‘Wow, we need that guy here.’ In big-time drag racing, you can’t have just one guy overseeing things. With Aaron, Glen, and myself I think we have three.”
Preseason testing at Phoenix produced the results Pedregon was looking for.
“Overall, it was a good test session,” he said. “We really used the time to come together as a team. We focused on ‘training,’ and it paid off in the numbers we were achieving. The elephant in the room has been our inconsistent runs. That’s been our main focus,” he said. “We ended last season getting the numbers we wanted and more consistency in our runs, and we are upping our game from that good place this year. Aaron, the team, and I finished the season with Glen helping us out in Vegas and Pomona, and we all liked what we could make happen together. It’s already working well with the 3.89 run at 330 mph we made during testing. That’s the fastest run ever for me at 1,000 feet.”
Brooks said he and the team used every minute of the early-February Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park test-and-tune to prepare for this season: “We maximized spring training, working with our newer crew members and Glen. And I’m confident the work we did to get into the Countdown in 2017 will be paying off big in 2018. Having Glen onboard brings even more experience and enthusiasm to a team that already has a great work ethic and really fast car in its favor.”
He said, “Things are good so far. We had a rough year last year, and I knew it was going to be a rebuilding year with a lot of changes.” For himself, personally, he said, “I’ve got the first year’s learnings as a Funny Car crew chief under my belt. Last year was a little bit of a beat-down. It made me feel pretty stupid for a while, but I think we have a good handle on where we are going with our program and our tune-up. I feel good, and I sleep a little better at night.
“This year we have high hopes,” he said. “We’re happy right now, but we’re not where we want to be yet. We’re not tapped out. We still have plenty in the bank.”
Huszar, too, has his fingers crossed that the Snap-on team can continue its progress and give Pedregon another championship on the 10th anniversary of his most recent one.
Obviously, we want to win a race, then multiple races and earn our way into the Countdown and try to win a championship. We have a good combination and a top driver, and I’ll be disappointed if we’re not in the top five. – Aaron Brooks
“There’s so much to do and so much to keep track of. I really believe you need a blend of talents to be successful out here. There’s just so many areas that need to be explored and taken care of. You need more than one person overseeing the operation. Today, we have twice the amount of people working on one car than when I started, so they need supervision, and they need to be taught. That’s what I believe you need to be successful.”
Brooks agreed: “We’ve actually brought in a number of new people on the team that have never raced at this level before. It’s good to bring some fresh faces in. It’s also a lot of work in training. But the guys are doing good, and it’s making our job easier. I think we’re in a good spot. We were inconsistent last year, and our motto for ’18 was to work on consistency. I think we can make good runs. Going down the track more and having a good maintenance program, it’s made our whole program better.”
A Pedregon tradition is naming his Funny Car bodies. They have included El Guapo (“The Handsome One”), El Chignon (“The Bad-Ass,” or “The Awesome One”), Scarface, and Frankenstein.
But the one word he wants to reclaim for himself is “winner.” He’s seeking his first Wally trophy since the one he earned at the 2014 Englishtown, N.J., event. That’s nearly 90 races ago, decidedly un-Pedregon-ish.
He called his outlook for 2018 “bright.”
Pedregon said, “We had some good runs from 2010 through 2014 and won close to 10 races in that span. But the competition has stepped up and some new technology has been introduced. I feel confident that 2017 was the year we put money in the bank and this year is going to be the year we start to collect interest – and that’s on the track performance-wise.
“The truth is last year was a rebuilding year for us and it was a tough year, but Snap-on Tools stuck behind us and we just signed a new three-year deal through 2020, and of course, Toyota, who I go back with to their early days of midget racing. Having their track support helps puts us on a more level playing field with the bigger teams.
“I’m as confident as I’ve ever been,” Pedregon said. “I’ve been eating right and working out this off-season. I wanted to make sure I did my part and we want to provide our sponsors with as light a car as possible. We put the car on a diet and we put me on a diet. If it makes us go faster – and it will – then it was an easy decision.
Last year was a little bit of a beat-down. It made me feel pretty stupid for a while, but I think we have a good handle on where we are going with our program and our tune-up. I feel good, and I sleep a little better at night. – Aaron Brooks
“Our goal this year is simple – to win,” he said.
Brooks backed him up: “Obviously, we want to win a race, then multiple races and earn our way into the Countdown and try to win a championship. We have a good combination and a top driver, and I’ll be disappointed if we’re not in the top five.”
All that should concern Pedregon’s rivals. Nemesis John Force likes to say, “I love Cruz Pedregon. He always jumped out of his car and said, ‘I am the greatest!’ – even when he lost!” So imagine a self-assured, relentless, undistracted Cruz Pedregon, a Cruz Pedregon who’s winning once again.
All the elements are there.