The biggest impression Funny Car driver Tony Pedregon has made in the first two races this Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season is one of breathtaking catastrophe.
 
The engine of his American Racing Wheels Toyota Camry detonated in the second of four qualifying sessions Feb. 15 at the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. It launched the snazzy Doug Sholty-designed flat black, hot-rodder-throwback body high into the sky. What made his wallet collapse and his heart sink even more is that it came on the heels of the discovery that morning that someone had stolen from his pit his toolbox that contained some valuable and vital tools and clutch components.
 

Photo by Rob Kinnan

The two-time Funny Car champion shook off the disenchantment of that and of losing in the opening round there that Sunday. He went on to the Arizona Nationals at Phoenix, where he improved his qualifying position, registered quickest Funny Car reaction time of the opening round, and ran his quickest and fastest lap of the season so far (4.097 seconds, 299.06 mph).
 
It wasn’t the finest hour ever for the 22-year veteran. But it signaled progress, and right now, that is about as sweet a word as he could hope to hear. And as he prepares for the March 15-17 Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville, Fla., Pedregon said, “I think we’ve got the damage under control and are looking forward to making some trouble-free runs.”
 
He certainly is due for some. And he said he thinks they’re coming.

At Pomona, we got off to a tough start, but we recovered at Phoenix, based on our performance. One thing we work hard to do is contain parts damage. These cars, we still ask a lot of them.

 
“At Pomona, we got off to a tough start, but we recovered at Phoenix, based on our performance. One thing we work hard to do is contain parts damage. These cars, we still ask a lot of them. There’s so much stress on the cranks and on the rods and on the chassis. But there is a way to run ‘em to where the motor should be in a happy state,” Pedregon said. “It’s just that sometimes when you lean on these cars to try to force ‘em to run better, then the motor’s not happy and you tend to damage parts.”
 
He said the problem at Pomona was an issue with the fuel system and “maybe an issue with the way we were setting the car up. It was just too lean.” After correcting those troubles, the team learned at Phoenix that it had an oiling issue. Had he been able to test in the preseason, he might have fixed those problems, but his qualifying runs at the season-opener had to serve as his testing.
 
“But we’re past that,” Pedregon said.


 
He and his team are using productively the three-week time before the Gatornationals, and regrouping. Those first two events were quite a haul from the Brownsburg, Ind., headquarters. The shorter trip to Gainesville will allow him and the Keith Stewart-led crew more shop time.
 
 ”We’ve got a pretty modest inventory of motors and parts. What we do have will allow us to reorganize our inventory and kind of regroup. We’ll spend the time wisely, and we should be able to go to the next race and at least have a little more confidence that we’re on the right track,” he said.
 
Pedregon clarified: “I think when I get in the seat, I’ve done this long enough that I have enough experience that the confidence really isn’t a big issue. It works hand in hand with how the car’s running. You can get in there with all the confidence in the world and then you start to factor in these other things . . . and it really disrupts your focus. There’s nothing like a good-running car and having the confidence a driver needs. Those things work in tandem.”
 
What he meant was that he “should be able to better focus. All the runs after the explosion and going to Phoenix, you have a tendency to take a different approach, maybe a cautious one, a conservative approach. In this sport, that’s not always the best way to approach eliminations. Hopefully that won’t be an issue.”


 
Lest anyone think his budget-conscious organization is racing with second-rate equipment or parts, Pedregon said, “We have good equipment. We definitely don’t have the depth that some of the bigger teams do. We have to race smart. There’s no question about that. Even when the economics were better, even when I won a championship in 2007, we’ve always had to work with less than some of the bigger teams. We kind of find ourselves in that position. I will never utter the words that things are tight — they are for everyone. So that goes without saying.
 

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

“But we’re still partnered up with some great companies that are very reputable companies, like Snap-on and Wix Filters and American Racing. What we do have is good. When the car goes to the starting line, it has the best of everything,” he said. “We have to be as efficient as we can, but there are areas in this business you cannot compromise on: engine blocks, crankshafts, rods. So I’ve got no excuses. When that car’s on the starting line, I’ve got good equipment.”
 
He and brother Cruz Pedregon, also a two-time Funny Car champion, always have worked together as much as possible as they maintain separate operations under the same roof. But now that Tony has joined him in running a Toyota body, the shared data might be more useful. The body, for sure, is an aerodynamic plus for Tony Pedregon. He in turn would like to be a bigger asset to Cruz in the partnership.
 
“We’ve always worked together,” he said about his older brother, who struck a blow for independent team owners last season by finishing fourth in the standings. “The body is without question a benefit in a couple of areas. My cars prior to the Toyota body were getting real heavy. We were handicapped by about 100 pounds. That’s some [forfeited] elapsed time. You’re leaving some things on the table. When we were able to partner with Toyota, that solved our weight issue. But I think there’s a benefit also aerodynamically. So there are a few things that just work better for us.”


 
As for data sharing, Tony Pedregon said, “I don’t know how much of my information is useful to him. At some it should be if the cars are set up in similar ways. We should be able to help one another. But I’d say for the last year and a half, it’s been more him helping us.

We have to race smart. There’s no question about that. Even when the economics were better, even when I won a championship in 2007, we’ve always had to work with less than some of the bigger teams.

“But it’s just a matter of time before we grasp what we’re doing — and it seems like car’s starting to respond,” he said. “I learned years and years ago that you can duplicate the parts and cars as much as you want but getting them to run the same is another challenge.”
 
It might sound strange that Tony Pedregon has not won a race since August 2009, at Brainerd, Minn. (Only Gary Densham, whose last victory came at the 2004 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, has had a longer wait for a Wally trophy among previous Funny Car winners.) But Pedregon said he isn’t obsessed with that.
 
“I keep things in perspective. I don’t really worry so much about that. I have to look at things differently. The fact that I’m still in business . . . When times get tough we all have to make adjustments with our businesses first. Across the board, it’s so expensive to runs these cars. So the economics and the funding and the right partners have to be there. That’s been my focus. Yeah, it’s been a dry spell, and hey, that happens. It happens to the best of ‘em,” he said.

“With a little bit more funding, I could be dangerous. Again, that kind of falls back on my shoulders. Part of my responsibility is to continue to promote my platform. I continue to do that. I think that the winning will come. Other things have to be in place for that to happen. It could happen next week. It could be another couple of years. I don’t really focus on that,” Pedregon said. “I focus on not just surviving, but I’m trying to build my program to where it needs to be. Once I get there, then I can shift my focus on better performing on the track.
 
“I feel I’ve won plenty of races. It’s never enough. I’ve won two championships. If racing ended for me tomorrow, I probably could walk away and say that I’ve won, I’ve made a difference as a driver, I did it as a team owner. But I’m not to that point yet,” he said. “I still think that there’s some value in some of the things that we do. And I think there’s always some room for improvement with the sport. It’s still a great product. It’s my job to sell it.”

Photo by Rob Kinnan

Pedregon said that while “I’d like to say we’d be good enough to make the top 10. My focus is on a race-to-race basis. I’d love to say yes, but I’m pretty realistic. Time will tell, in a few more races, if what I believe can actually become a reality. I’d say it’s pretty early for me — I’d say it’s pretty early for a few guys — to answer that question. There’s probably 14 good cars. There’s probably only six cars that are legitimately capable of  having the depth and the talent of winning a championship. I would say that making the top 10 would be a goal. If we can do that, maybe we have the chance. But I’d say I’d probably be able to answer that in a few more races.
 
“That’s why I wake up early in the morning. When a guy believes that things can turn around . . .  It’s the work and the effort that make those things turn around. I got plenty of motivation,” he said. “We’re much better off than we were a year ago, in terms of ability and having a better team. A driver’s only as good as his car. If I get there in the late rounds, I’ll think I’m at home. I think we’ll get there again.”