Cruz Pedregon broke out singing.
He tried just five words and decided that “I Did It His Way” would be a flop.
The Frank Sinatra tune “I Did It My Way” has to be the two-time NHRA Funny Car champion’s signature song.
“That’s a pretty cool song, to me. And the message in it is pretty cool, too. How many songs have you heard where it’s ‘I did it his way’? Can you imagine? That song would not be a very popular one. So I’ve always been that way,” Pedregon said.
“People don’t realize this, but even the last couple of years when I was driving for Joe Gibbs, I had already started buying equipment. I bought a truck, I bought a trailer – even when I was employed and had no plans on leaving Joe Gibbs. This has been instilled in me. It’s in my fabric, my make-up.”
Like Sinatra’s lyrics, regrets, Pedregon has had a few, but then again, too few to mention. He did what he had to do. He has lived a life that’s full. He traveled each and every highway. And more, much more than this, he did it the Cruz Pedregon way. He supposes he had times where he bit off more than he could chew. And through it all, when there was doubt, he would say, “I ate it up and spit it out. I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way.”
Pedregon laughed and shrugged off longtime rival John Force’s insistence that “back in the day, Cruz Pedregon would get to the end of the track and jump out of his car and say, ‘I am the king!’ – even when he lost!”
But Pedregon never shrugged off 151-time winner and 16-time champion Force – and vice versa. When Pedregon drove with McDonald’s sponsorship, Force had started to come into his own and called his aggravating nemesis “that kid driving the hamburger stand on wheels” or the car “the hamburger stand from Hell.” A part of Force probably never will get over the way the 29-year-old Pedregon waltzed into the class in 1992 after a part-time Top Fuel run the season before – and in his first year won six Funny Car races and the title. With that, Pedregon dethroned two-time champ Force and became the only driver in the decade to command the class besides Force.
I feel like we’re on the brink of breaking out of the rebuilding mode that I’ve been in for several years now.
Compared to Force, who has risen above his tragedies, crashes, and sponsor and personnel changes to remain the class icon at nearly 71 years old, Pedregon said, “I feel like a young man still.” A 15-year gap exists between their Funny Car debuts (Force in 1977, Pedregon in 1992) came into the class, and Pedregon said he probably would lump Ron Capps in their elder-statesman group. “[Capps] came on the scene with the Copenhagen car in ’95, I believe, and here he is, going strong, too.”
But as for Force, the 56-year-old Pedregon said, “I haven’t seen any drop-off in his racing, his driving, or anything. I don’t think I’m going to race as long as he has, but I definitely have a few years left in me.”
Racing past age 70, Pedregon said, is “not something that I desire to do. I’m not going to put a timetable on driving, but I’m not going to go to that distance. I could see myself more as an owner and still being out there with a car, with my car. Through all the years I’ve been at it, I’ve also been collecting experience on how to run a team better, how to manage people better, and how to run a car. So I feel like I’ve got a lot of good years left to offer that up. I’ve been doing it so long I’m getting good at it – might as well keep it going.” He said he closely watched bosses Joe Gibbs, the NFL coaching giant, and Larry Minor, the off-road-racing legend who also fielded some of NHRA’s most celebrated drivers and nurtured some of the most respected crew chiefs. And he filed all sorts of team-ownership tidbits away for the day he could be his own boss.
“Like anything else, it’s life experience,” Pedregon said.
“I think about it from time to time. The competition we race now is way different than the guys we raced in the early 90s…Chuck Etchells, Al Hofmann, guys like that. The constant has been [Force] and me, and I had my brother [two-time class champion and current TV analyst Tony Pedregon] for awhile.”
Pedregon has seen drivers come and go, the car-count pendulum swing, and performance standards evolve. He has seen the Countdown change the way champions are decided, as well as recently relaxed qualifying changes to the Countdown he isn’t wild about — “It should be harder to get into the Countdown, not easier,” he said. “You need to earn your way in by winning rounds.” He has had his fill, his share of losing (winning 36 times in 76 finals through 594 races, missing the cut 41 times, and two first-round exits so far this season).
But losing isn’t in his 2020 blueprint.
“I’m just focused on this year. I feel like we’re on the brink of breaking out of the rebuilding mode that I’ve been in for several years now,” Pedregon said. “I’ve got probably the most solid team, top to bottom. I feel like I finally have a team that stacks up well against the competition that still can get the job done. More than anything, it has been about personnel with me. As a single-car team, you’re challenged.
“There’s been enough personnel to go around nowadays. There’s a smaller amount of cars now than there’s ever been, it seems like. So you can still get good people,” he said. “The people have been a challenge for me through the years. I’ve not had any problem buying new parts. I’ve had good funding from Snap-on and my associate package. Eric Lane and Nick Casertano have come to me with a lot of experience on a lot of good teams. They haven’t been on any scrub teams. They’ve been on solid, winning, championship-caliber teams, and they’ve brought in some of their people. So I’m looking forward to the rest of the year. I feel like it’s going to be a turnaround year for us.”
His two Funny Car championships have come in 1992 and 2008, 16 years apart – proof of how hard it is to win a championship at all. Moreover, Pedregon took a year off in 2001, after part-time seasons in 1999 and 2000. Then he endured four years without a victory (2002-2005). He is in a 64-race drought. His most recent victory was at the spring Charlotte event in 2018. So he said he has learned to appreciate all the progress.
“I look back at some of the drivers, and there are some well-known, good drivers who have never had a taste of a championship. We’re talking 20-30-year careers. So for me to have two, I feel pretty fortunate,” Pedregon said. “Times have changed. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is people – you still have to have good people. I used to think, ‘Man, if I could just get the right budget together and buy certain parts and pieces of equipment – boom, I’m good.’ Well, it has taken me several years to realize it takes more than the equipment. And it takes more than a nice race shop. It takes more than a nice truck and trailer. The people are the ones who really make the difference. It has been a process, but I feel like the sport has created enough good people, and I’ve been the beneficiary of that.
“The key is to get good leadership where you have quality, good-character people. Once you have people believing in your team and you have good leadership and you’ve got a good infrastructure, then they won’t be swayed by $50 or $100 a week more or whatever the case may be. A lot of guys want to be there and be happy and work with people they like as opposed to taking a few buck more and going. It’s like having a real hot girlfriend or wife – people are going to be taking shots at them,” he said. “You’ve got to have one who has good enough values and be a good-enough person inside who believes in you that’s not going to be swayed by the googly eyes and the fast-talkin’ guys just trying to get with her.”
Pedregon’s race shop is at Brownsburg, practically next door to John Force Racing and a few blocks down Northfield Drive from Don Schumacher Racing, in that pocket west of Indianapolis called “Nitro Alley.” There, his crew members often pop into their peers at restaurants and other public places and can drift into conversations.
I look back at some of the drivers, and there are some well-known, good drivers who have never had a taste of a championship. We’re talking 20-30-year careers. So for me to have two, I feel pretty fortunate.
“The key is to have good, quality people so they can still run into each other and still go have a beer and then turn around and say, ‘No, I’m good here. I like it here. We’re building. I believe in this guy. This guy puts money into the team’ – which I always have,” Pedregon said. “I don’t live beyond my means. I don’t have a car collection. I don’t have a fancy house. I’m committed and dedicated, as I’ve always been, to building a winning program. That’s where I feel we’re at now.”
He doesn’t have a lot of spare time, but when he does, he can hum Sinatra’s song: “To think I did all that, and may I say not in a shy way. Oh no, oh no, not me, I did it my way.”
Pedregon couldn’t say what his own niche in drag racing, his legacy, would be. “That’s for others to decide,” he said.
“My dad taught me to do your own thing. He always encouraged me. My dad was a demanding guy – he always felt like – and he wasn’t talking about racing…he was talking about life and business – his way was to do your own thing and own your own business and not be a follower. He taught me the leader mentality, not the follower mentality. If that happens to be how it is now, so be it,” he said.
“I feel like it’s a bigger deal if we go out and be successful – and I plan on being successful, hopefully this year, as an independent team,” Pedregon said. “If you join a big team or you just become part of a conglomerate multi-car team, guess what — now you’re expected to win. You should win. You have all the resources. You have everything you need, the best of everything. It’s expected. It’s a big deal anytime you can win, but it would be an even bigger deal if we can pull it off and do it our way.”