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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Interview with the Pros: Tony Pedregon

By NHRA Communications

Tony Pedregon actually has a hobby, if you can believe that. The Funny Car racer comes from a family of drivers, and currently is part of the three-car John Force Racing team that has steam rolled the competition in the first half of the season. Heading into the sixth annual Sears Craftsman NHRA Nationals, Pedregon is third in the point standings and is looking to defend his St. Louis title. In this Q&A session, Pedregon talks about what it is like to race in the same category with his brothers, Cruz and Frank, and what the chances of seeing a three-car Pedregon Funny Car program might be. He jokes often. He jokes about having to compete with John Force all these years, and now has the No. 1 point leader in Gary Densham to deal with too. He talks about painting helmets in his spare time. He also mentions what it is like to work for a legend.

Q: Teammates Gary Densham and John Force are No. 1 and No. 2 in the Funny Car point standings. You are in the No. 3 spot. What do you think about the Force Racing Team dominating the top spots?

PEDREGON: We dream a lot. But whether we can actually accomplish it all says a lot about the resources and the people that John (Force) has placed in all three teams. What makes it so amazing is the fact that the level of competition is much greater than it has been in the last 10 years that I can think of. It think that some of the multiple-car teams has added to the level of competition. We brought Gary (Densham's) team on as the third car of the program last year and it went through some growing pains. I think for him to be sitting on top is a little more impressive than me and John bringing up the rear. At this stage of the season, we are not exactly a couple of races in, we are rounding the mid-way point. So I think it is impressive, it really is.

Q: What did you think about having a third car in the program?

PEDREGON: I thought that it seemed like in its early stages, it took away from the other two teams. We had to help and take time, everybody had to take time, to help that car get up and running. It may have been a little bit of a headache in the first couple of races. I understood the reasons for it and I understand growth and I think a lot of people do now. I was the one who was caught in the middle when John was brining on a second car and a lot of people didn't think it made any sense. There were a lot of people against it and there were just a few people for it. But I always understood the marketing value of having two cars and I know from a technological standpoint, what it could do for a team. So two was better than one and three, when managed right, is better than two. I think management is one of the strong points of John Force Racing so three cars helps us even more. It gives us more depth.

Q: Did you or anyone else have a say in who was going to drive the third car? Or did John Force want Gary Densham from the beginning?

PEDREGON: It was something that was actually fun to see because he went through a similar process when he hired me. Just to see the constantly changing moods that John would be in only because I think it was so important. I know John wanted a lot of input from myself, he wanted a list. He wanted input from (Force's co-crew chiefs) Bernie Fedderly and Austin Coil and (Pedregon crew chief) John Medlen to name a few. I'm sure people would be interested to see who was on my list. I knew what he was looking for but I also understand that there are a lot of drivers with some talent that could do the job but we were also looking for a driver that would fit into our chemistry. I think that was very important. What Gary brought went beyond the financial support of the Automobile Club (AAA), because I had been involved with that company for three years. I think what he brought was a lot of experience and that was an asset that a lot of the younger drivers that John was looking at didn't have. I think John was in a position that he had some funding, but he also needed someone who didn't need to go through a learning process. In other words, the car needed to be an instant player. Gary Densham was probably one of the few drivers that he could put in the car and didn't have to go through that learning process. When he gave me some criteria to make the list, and then he mentioned Gary Densham after a while, I thought, 'Well, there goes my list.' It is very good that he asked a lot of people. I hadn't really thought about Densham but when John mentioned him, I knew he was the guy who could eliminate our problems. He could handle the media, the PR, and he was well liked. That was important to John. Gary was someone that you didn't have any doubts about. When John mentioned him, he went right to the top of my list. He was a good pick. I think that Gary has stepped up to the plate and delivered in a big way. I view a driver as not only someone who can get into the car and negotiate it down the track, but someone that can also make an impact with the team. Gary seems to be able to do that. There aren't a lot of guys who can actually make a difference.

Q: There was talk that you guys were going to make a crew chief change before the season started. Jimmy Prock was going to be moved from Densham's team to your team and John Medlen was going to Densham's team. What happened with that plan?

PEDREGON: There was some talk of re-positioning. It was a conversation and I think that it was something that a team does. Maybe if John didn't look at all the ways he can improve the team, maybe he is not thinking enough. It was one of the things he considered. We talked about it, I considered it. He asked my opinion, Densham's, Medlen's and Prock's. We decided that between Medlen and I, one of our biggest assets was the fact that we have been working together for so long and we have a good working relationship. I understand what he is going to do and I don't even have to ask him all the time. I think that was probably one of the things that might have swayed to make that decision. At this point, it was a good decision. I am very comfortable where we are at in the points, it is better than where we have ever been in the seven years I have been racing for John. I feel very good about our chances going into a race. I have all the confidence in the world in Medlen. I think a lot of Jimmy Prock too. I think he is probably one of the most formidable competitors right now, including John Force. Bazemore is another guy to look at. You never know what the Skoal cars are going to do or Del Worsham. I think the competition is there and it is good and it's healthy. Because of that, there are no guarantees that we are going to stay one, two, and three. The fight for us is to try to maintain those spots. And for me, I have my own agenda, just like John and just like Gary. My goal is to let those guys duke it out and I would like to sneak around them. Hopefully they won't notice.

Q: After winning the race in Topeka, Kan., last month, you said that John Force still should not be giving you any attention and that all of his attention should be the guy who is standing at the top of the standings.

PEDREGON: Gary to me, is a gift from above. He has actually created a little bit of a diversion for me. In all honesty, John has to look out. He probably feels good that it is one of his cars. But it may change. I have known John long enough to know what his goals are. But if John's car can't get to the top, then naturally, it should be one of his cars. I think sometimes John seems to worry about loyalty and the fact that I have been here (and Densham is No. 1 in the points) but that doesn't bother me. I believe that in this sport, you get what you earn. Right now Gary's car seems to be a little more consistent and maybe they have gotten a few more breaks than we have, but we are still right there. My point, however, is still that John probably needs to look at Densham more than me right now. The funny thing is that Gary is really getting into it now. You look at him and his demeanor and he walks around with a big smile all the time. One of the things I have learned is that if you breathe a little confidence into a driver, and into a team, they can go on a roll. I have seen it before. Right now Densham has confidence. I don't worry about me, I have always had confidence. But man, he has got some of that too. And then there is John. I think that is what makes us so interesting is that Gary is a guy who has been rejuvenated. He raised his performance and we will have to see if he can keep the performance up. If he can, great; but if he can't, well, I don't mind taking the heat from the top spot. I don't mind. He can have it now, but in a few months from now, I would like to be the one who is catching the heat from John. I really have no doubt that the championship will go down to late in the season. And it is not going to be between just one or two cars. I think you are looking at a good four or five cars that are dicing it out. I think there is going to be some history going down here this year.

Q: We are at the halfway point of the season. What is it going to take to stay near the top of the standings?

PEDREGON: We have to be able to eliminate first and second round losses, without a doubt. We would all like to win, that's a natural so I am not going to say that it is important to win races. No kidding. We'd like to do that. But I have learned that we are in this position because we have not been eliminated as many times in the first two rounds as we have had in the past. Winning is the most important, but if you can not do that, we need to maintain consistency through the next four or fives races. I don't think you are going to see one car run away from the pack. This is something we have not seen before. I don't recall seeing, in this category, the top five or six runners, getting a guarantee win in the first or second round. We have seen guys, and it happened to me, where you qualify (in the No. 1 spot) and then you get flat out-run by the No. 16 car in the first round. So the competition is such that there are no easy ones. I know that is a cliché but this year, there really aren't any easy rounds. There aren't any races where you can go in, shallow stage and play with the tune-up. When the car puts a cylinder out, it used to be that John could just peddle the car and the other guy would have already smoked the tires and John would still get the win. But the fields are so tight right now that consistency is the key to success. The cars that can stay close in these summer races are the ones that will be standing at the end. I think there are going to be five or six cars in the running.

Q: Some veteran drivers have said that racing has changed in the Funny Car category. They used to be able to set the car up soft for the first round, and maybe the second round, knowing they would win. Now, they say they set it on "final round mode" every time. Do you agree?

PEDREGON: The strategy has changed. It's so different. Now you ask someone who their first round opponent is. Is it Dale Creasy Jr.? So what. You still have to run the best you can because they can throw a starting run advantage on you and run what they did in qualifying and they can beat you. The Creasy team has given John some good races where before, they didn't even qualify for an event. They have given us races. All of the teams have improved. There are so many cars that are capable of winning. Nobody wants to take any chances. You've seen it happen a few times already this year where John and Whit Bazemore are paired up in the first round. Those are big teams. But I think that is going to happen more often. That is what is going to make this year so exciting. Personally, I like it this way. The pressure part of it is nerve-racking, but I like it. Hey, give me a close race because to me, I would rather be in that state of mind all the time. I never liked the first round easy opponent who was probably going to smoke the tires early or red light or shut off at half-track. I never liked that because I come in and I like to treat them all the same. I like the fear of losing. Some drivers, I have seen a tendency to work better under those conditions. I do. I think down the stretch, in a year like this, the drivers are going to make the difference. You get a good car, a good driver and things start clicking. There are more than a few guys clicking this year. Look at the top five, each guy has two wins. That is pretty amazing. This year is unlike any other year in Funny Car. It's funny because IRL brags that they have had the closest racing in years. Man, I think NHRA has really delivered this year whether it is with the facilities, the tires, and the aerodynamic restrictions. Whatever the NHRA has done, it seems like it is all coming together. The numbers show it. When you look at the stands on a Friday night and they are packed and it is standing room only, it seems like everyone is working together and everyone is going in the right direction, which is nice.

Q: What are some things that you want to accomplish before you think about retiring?

PEDREGON: Well I would like to stay healthy. I think I have less restrictions than I had a few years ago. What I mean by restrictions is John Medlen has the freedom. When we race, we are no longer racing with second-hand parts. Hey, everyone is on a budget. We are well financed and we still work under a budget, just like any good business would do. I think when you look at the race that John and I had a few weeks ago in Topeka, that is how it should be. It was a close race (Pedregon advanced to the finals and beat Tim Wilkerson for the event victory). I think that one of the bad raps that two car teams had was whether the sport was going to be manipulated by some car owner with an agenda that just wants one car to win and one car to lay down and be the blocker. You don't see that. You don't see that at all and I think that is a good thing, especially for me because I want a chance. I have that now. I am no different than anyone else. I want to win races, a lot of them. I hope I can do that because if I do that, then good things come. That is how you win championships. Drivers that are totally out of it now say they are testing for next year and that they are going to contend for the title. That is never going to come out of my mouth. I want to win races and at the end of the year, if I can win more than the other guy can, I know what is coming to me. That is the short term. The long term, I don't know. I am very content right now. I think what Cruz has done intrigues me. I have a very good relationship with him. Maybe that is something that I would take a closer look at next year. So many people ask if I am ever going racing with my brother. Yes, I am. Someday. Just don't know when. I don't know if it is a few years away or what. At this stage, I can do what I want. Cruz and I talk about it. If people didn't bring it up all the time, I probably would never have thought about it. I think that ultimately, I would probably, without a doubt, end my career as a partner with Cruz or as a team owner myself. Whether that is a few years away, I don't know. I think I am young enough to where I don't have to think about it, but I would be a fool if I didn't think about my long-term plans. Right now, my sights are on my short-term goals.

Q: As long as you have been racing in the Funny Car class, only two drivers have won the championship. John has 11 titles while Cruz won in 1992. John is not at the top of the standings right now, so are other drivers, including yourself, seeing an opportunity to sneak away with the title?

PEDREGON: I do, more than ever. That is one of the reasons that I think it is important for the three cars to stick together. It is good for me if John wins and it is probably good for me if Gary wins. I am a piece of that. Don't get me wrong, naturally, I am in it for me. So are they, that is not being selfish. But without a doubt, there is a very good possibility. Everyone talks about Bazemore. They have the team to do it. They have the financial resources, they have the track record. They have everything it takes to do it. Can they actually do it? Three first round losses, two of them on holeshots, is not the way to do it. So down the stretch, that is where the driver makes a difference. John is very good at what he does. He is very entertaining, he is good at PR, and he can go in and sell a company on a concept. He has done that with three cars. But he gets into the seat and he sure seems to get up for racing. He is very good at that and that is why I don't see John retiring anytime soon. He still has that fire burning when he puts these guys on the trailer. That is one of the things that you have to do. So does the (Bazemore team) have everything it takes? Yeah, they do. Can they actually do it? There is a small chance, but right now, the odds are in our favor. You only race one car at a time, but we have three of the top five cars and that is hard to beat. Bazemore has a good guy in his corner with Scotty Cannon, but I think our cars are better. I think we have more depth, I think our drivers seem to be a little better. Densham rolls up against Scotty, I would put my money on Densham. I think there are still a few things that make us a little bit better than the other guys. I am coming off a race where I had a red light and my attitude is different than a few years ago. I look at athletes and successfully people like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. They might have a bad series or a bad shot but they come back from that. I have all the confidence in the world in my team my car and myself. Right now we are in it and I think we are going to stay in it.

Q: Are you a Funny Car driver for life or is there a chance that you would drive in a Top Fuel dragster?

PEDREGON: I considered that. John and I talked about some possibilities in a Top Fuel car. I think that one of the things that I would like to leverage a little bit more is the Hispanic market. I actually considered it. I think with this team, I probably would. Outside of that, I wouldn't. I have always been partial to Funny Cars since I was a young kid growing up. I have driven both, but there is a 98 percent chance that I will stay in a Funny Car. Right now I am letting John take care of what is going on with the team and what goes on in the office. Like I said, if I do make the switch, it would only happen with this team and John and all of the people we have here. Really, the people are a big part of it because I have a lot of good support in my crew chief. I don't make these decisions alone, they have a lot to do with it. But I would consider it, from the marketing aspect of it and maybe to do something different. There is no doubt, however, that I will end my career in a Funny Car. I did tell John that I would consider it for a year or two or whatever the terms were. Whether or not that it will happen, I would say that it is more likely I will stay in a Funny Car. It is still a possibility, especially now with Densham. I have always had to compete with John, why Densham now too. Maybe I just have not absorbed what I have semi-committed myself to, but it is still in the early stages. I look at the challenge of it and the competition of it. I don't think that on average, you have the depth of fields that the Funny Car class has right now. There are a couple of guys in Top Fuel that I wouldn't mind going over and seeing how we do against. I think we would do pretty well, to be honest. There is such good competition in Funny Car, but I look at Top Fuel and see a couple of the top guys. Drivers are like this. We have that mentality of wanting to go up against certain people and knock them off of their little deal. Whether we could do that, I am not cocky, but I am confident.

Q: What is one of your biggest accomplishments in drag racing so far?

PEDREGON: I would say that my biggest accomplishment would be probably being with the team long-term like I have been; having loyalty and having success. You don't see that a lot and I hope that someday there is a big demand for drivers because I come from a background, just like Cruz, of the alcohol ranks. What we had to do wasn't so much financially, but the way we contributed was based on what you could do in a race car first and then outside of that what you could do from the other standpoint of the fans, media and sponsors. For me, to be able to race at this level, coming from an alcohol car, which is like the Busch Series in NASCAR, is a quite an accomplishment. There are still drivers that come up from those ranks. Guys like my brothers, Darrell Russell, Larry Dixon, and Ron Capps. For me, I think you need that training. You need that experience. I don't like seeing someone just get into a Top Fuel car. I think you need to get into something that can give you experience first because the tricky part isn't so much getting into the car because when everything works the way it is supposed to, the driver can just go through a routine and make it down the track smoothly. The problem lies when the not-so-common things happen. That is when you need to rely on past experience. You need experience to be able to compete at this level of racing. Personally, to me, that was like climbing a mountain, gaining enough experience to drive one of these cars.

Q: Do you consider yourself lucky because you have had a long-term relationship with your team and your sponsors while having a competitive car along the way too?

PEDREGON: Without a doubt. That really means so much to me. I have seen some of the drivers, who to me are very talented, what they go through. All kinds of people praise you when you win a race, you have a good day at the races and everyone praises you. I have learned not to get too excited because everyone is your friend when you win. I don't rely on that and I think I know the difference what having a good race car and one that is consistent and capable of winning. When I look at some of the other drivers that don't have that, but I know they are talented drivers. But how much can we, as drivers, make up for the difference in a great race car? The driver has to be on when the car is running well and at the same tine, the driver has to make large contributions when the car isn't running as well. I have learned a lot and have been in a position that a lot of drivers don't get a shot at. But also, it is important that when you do have the opportunity, to take advantage of that. Without a doubt, this situation has been very good to me. Not just being involved with John, but the company as well. I think in a lot of ways I have contributed in some areas. That is my job, to contribute. It seems like this situation has been working pretty good and I think in the long run, we will have more success. We work so well together.

Q: In what ways has John Force influenced your career?

PEDREGON: I think that in this business it is important not just to ride the wave. I have learned a lot. For me, it has been a crash course of not just getting in the car and driving, but learning the business aspect of it as well. I have been able to sit in the board rooms with all of our sponsors and potential sponsors and when I say crash course, it is no different than being at school and learning. I am learning from the best. The best of all time. John Force is one of the best drivers and one of the best of going out financially and getting what it takes. So what I have learned from the business side of it and being able to get into the car. I watched John even before I drove for him. I watched his technique, his routine during a run, and really what he did to make a difference in the seat. John was one of the guys that I just looked at what he was doing. He and Cruz are probably the two biggest influences in my career over the years. I have learned a lot and I have learned that I can't be a John and I can't be a Cruz. I have my own personality and maybe I will end up on my own, but what I have learned from John has added a lot to my resume. People relate my name to winning, to being successful and I have not done that on my own. I did that because I had some good people to work with. I had a good team owner and he hired a good crew chief and they gave me some good equipment to work with. We have turned all that into being successful on the track. That is a pretty defining part of my career, which was just getting hand-picked by John. I really enjoy being here. I get up in the morning and I look forward to seeing him, most of the time. I think one of the important things in any business is that when you wake up, you need to maintain that level of intensity and motivation. I have that. As long as I have that and can wake up and have fun during the good and bad, I'll keep doing this. It is easy to have fun when you are winning, it is not so easy when things are not going the way you want them to. My attitude is very positive and John is one of the reasons. The communication in any relationship is very important. It has always been good with John. We do have that. He is a very honest person and probably more important, he does what he says. His word is very good. His credibility with me is excellent. The work relationship that we have is good on and off the track and that is closely related to what we do in the car. We get on the radio and we share all these things. We have fun together, we work hard together, and we enjoy what we do. We go to a lot of the sponsors together and go to meetings and appearances together. It's funny because we are opposites. John will do all the talking and I sit there and I only talk when John says, 'Tony, what do you think?' and I usually don't have to say much. It's fun to be around him, he is entertaining, he makes me laugh. On rare occasions, he will remind me what we are doing. It's funny because I always feel that way. I remember very well where I grew up and where I came from and hanging on the fence when I was a kid. To me, it is pretty amazing. Here is a guy who has done so much more than me, he is the most successful drag racer and he still remembers his background and he still enjoys this. I don't think he has changed and because of that, he is a pleasant guy to be around.

Q: How did you get involved with painting helmets?

PEDREGON: I got started when Frankie and Cruz started racing go-karts and our business was buying and selling trucks and we had a big service center. So the beginning of my (painting) career was just taking some paint and literally screwing up Frankie and Cruz's helmets. I was probably in my early 20s and it evolved from there. One thing people always ask me is if I went to school for this. No, I really learned the hard way. I wish I would have taken some kind of training or course. I learned because we had a bunch of paint from all of the trucks. I wish I still had some of those helmets to show. I got to be where I am at by screwing up a lot of paint jobs. Before I started racing with John, I used to do a lot of helmets for some sprint car racers, for a couple of CART racers, Bill Elliott (NASCAR Winston Cup) and others. Over the years, I have really cut back because of my schedule. Technically, it is just a hobby. I enjoy doing it and I do Kenny Bernstein's, Cory McClenathan's, and Tommy Johnson Jr. has me working on one for him. Between myself, John, Densham and Cruz, that is all the work I want. If anyone asks me now and I tell them I retired because I have really cut back. It is just a hobby. It takes me away. The most important things in my life are my family and racing. Really my only hobby, outside of my family, is painting helmets. I think last year I probably, and I do a lot of replicas for sponsors, of our helmets, I did about 20-30. This year, because John won the 100th race, we are going to do a limited series and when we picked a number, we knew we had to do 100 helmets for 100 victories. Whether I will get to that I think is another story. I might get burned out at 20. Right now I am getting close to 10 of them. This year I may do, beside that collection, maybe 30 or 40 helmets, if I can fit them in. They are nice works and is something that shows a little about the driver. If you really think about it, people associate the helmet with a driver. It shows some personality and you can really tell a lot by looking at the helmet. You can look at a guy's helmet and see what's on it whether it's flames, skulls, or something conservative or corporate looking and that will actually tell you something about that driver. I have always loved a lot of things about racing such as the competition, going fast and to me a big part of it is the color of racing. I am very conscious about the look of the car. I don't want anything too corporate, I want something appealing to the audience. Believe it or not, the drivers are part of the audience too. I love watching the races. I don't like to get beat but when I do, I am still there, watching the races, seeing some of the other guys get beat. It's neat seeing some of the helmets that I do. When Kenny gets into the car, I sneak over sometimes and I stand back and I take a little pride in the helmet. I like to watch them get into the cars with the helmets on. I enjoy doing it and it looks cool.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of racing with your brothers?

PEDREGON: Brothers? No. Cruz, I would consider doing it. Frankie, I think we just have different personalities. The pros are that Cruz and I work well together and we have a good working relationship. I think that the two of us together is good chemistry. We bring two completely different personalities and two completely different aspects together. If down the road it happens, I think it will be very successful. I think it has a lot of marketing value that we can leverage and turn into something good. Without a doubt, Cruz and I work together very well. Cruz is very intense and he works at a level that I like to. It's a major challenge and I think Cruz is like me in that the more the odds are stacked against us, the more we want to do it. Whether it is in the car or trying to get the funding to get the car down the track, it can be done. If you can work with your brother and your family, I think that is great. Not only are you doing what you want to do, but with the people you want to. You should be close with your family. If and when it happens, I think it would be a good thing.

Q: Who has been one of your biggest mentors in your career?

PEDREGON: It has got to be John (Force). It's got be John and Cruz. It's funny because early in Cruz's career when he started driving, I always worked on the car. On the alcohol car I did the bottom end, I did the cylinder head work, and I learned a lot from him even when he was driving the car. So when I made the transition, it was like a natural for me because I had such a close relationship that mentally, it was actually me going down the track all those times. Then I came to work for John and what don't you learn? If you pay a little attention, you are going to learn a lot. Without a doubt, not just in the first year or two, but more in the last two or three years, I have really started to put the puzzle together. It's like having fun at school, and still getting to drive the car too. I can't complain.

Q: Have you ever found it to be a burden to be the second car in the John Force Racing program?

PEDREGON: No, I don't think that he is ever taken away from anything I have done. That is a perception that a lot of people have and something I have been asked a lot. Fans ask when I am going to go out and do it all on my own. They don't realize that I am on my own. There are no restrictions that I have here. The problem is that John has been successful as a businessman, as a driver and the relationship that he has with Austin Coil has been unbeatable. We haven't been the only team unable to beat him at times, everyone has been unable to beat him. It would be a different situation if Medlen and I went on a winning rampage and John told us to slow down. It has never come to that. We have always been able to win as much as we can and do as much as we can. The problem is that this is a business and it takes persistence and it takes a lot of years to be successful. John and Austin worked together for years before they were able to do what they are doing now. People tend to forget that. It wasn't an overnight success. John always says that it was an overnight success that took 30 years. Sky is the limit. If we can do it, if we can get there, no one is going to put the brakes on us. We might do it this year.

NHRA Communications

 

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