Atlanta: Tony Pedregon preview

Pedregon optimistic in return to site of breakthrough first win. ATLANTA, Ga. After winning the 1996 Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals, Tony Pedregon didn't know whether to celebrate or apologize. Since it was his first career...

Pedregon optimistic in return to site of breakthrough first win.

ATLANTA, Ga. After winning the 1996 Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals, Tony Pedregon didn't know whether to celebrate or apologize.

Since it was his first career victory, one realistically might have expected the second generation driver to pump his fist, shout, maybe even dance.

Unfortunately, his final round victim was his boss, John Force, who at the time was seeking his fifth straight victory at Atlanta Dragway, the track on which the Southern Nationals will be contested this week (May 3-5) for the 22nd time.

"I didn't know how John was going to react," Pedregon said. "It was only my fifth race with the team and, really, I didn't know if he was going to congratulate me or fire me."

Fortunately, Force took the former tact although, at the time, he told the media that "it looks like I may have hired my own assassin."

Six years later, Pedregon returns to Atlanta at the wheel of a hybrid Castrol SYNTEC Ford that is fully capable of returning him to the winners' circle. If he makes it, as he did earlier this year at Gainesville, Fla., extending to seven the number of consecutive seasons in which he's won at least one tour event, there'll be no conflict of emotions even if the boss again is in the other lane.

"It was a little awkward at the start," Pedregon said, " but John has always been really good about it. He knows I'm a very competitive person and that I want to win just as badly as he does. He's taught me a lot about what it takes to succeed at this level. He's a student of the sport. He studies his opponents. He studies the tracks. All of that helps eliminate a lot of the variables and his record speaks for itself."

Pedregon too, has been a very good student. Too good some might say. The 37-year-old Californian has beaten his boss in six career finals including the last three at Houston in 2000, Englishtown, N.J., and Topeka, Kan., in 2001.

In fact, Pedregon has won more tour events in the six-plus years he has been a member of Team Castrol (14) than any Funny Car driver other than Force.

Nevertheless, because he races in the shadow of a legend, the Chino Hills, Calif., driver hasn't received the kudos normally afforded a driver whose resume includes 33 final round appearances and three runner-up finishes (1996, 1997 and 1999) in NHRA POWERade driver points.

Although he was upset in the first round of last year's Southern Nationals, Pedregon recalled that it was in testing the next day at Atlanta Dragway that the team worked through mechanical problems that had resulted in the worst slump of his career.

"We didn't qualify at one race and lost in the first round at five others," Pedregon said. "After (the loss at) Atlanta, we dropped out of the Top 10 for the first time."

After testing, he rallied to win the next two events (at Englishtown, N.J., and Topeka, Kan.), propelling him to his sixth straight Top 6 finish.

This year, he's aiming considerably higher.

"After you've won races and qualified No. 1 and been runner-up (for the championship), there's not a lot left," Pedregon said. "So, yes, I want to win a POWERade championship just like my brother Cruz did in 1992 (the only time in the last 13 seasons that someone other than Force has reached the pinnacle)."

To do so, Pedregon will have to beat his boss. That's a prospect with which he is far less uncomfortable than he was seven years ago.

TONY at Southern Nationals....

*Earned his first career victory at Atlanta Dragway in 1996 when he beat his boss and teammate in the final round of the Southern Nationals.

*Has qualified seventh in each of his last four appearances.

*Was beaten in the first round last year along with teammates John Force and Gary Densham.

TONY Highlights....

*Since 1995, has won more races (14) than any Funny Car driver other than boss and teammate John Force.

*Has won the last three final round meetings with Force two last years (Englishtown, N.J., and Topeka, Kan.) And one in 2000 (fall at Houston).

*Has won at least one NHRA tour event in each of the last seven seasons.

*Has been runner-up for the NHRA Funny Car Championship three times in the last seven years (1996, 1997, 1999).

DID YOU KNOW?
In 1996, Tony was the first winner of the Auto Club of Southern California's Road to the Future Award which identifies drag racing's rising stars ....when he's not driving the SYNTEC Ford, making appearances on behalf of sponsors or spending time with his two-year-old daughter, Cecily, Tony designs and paints custom helmets including those worn by John Force, Gary Densham, brothers Cruz and Frankie Pedregon, reigning Top Fuel champion Kenny Bernstein and former Pro Stock Champion Jeg CoughlinJr...Tony is one of three Funny Car racing brothers. Older brothers Frank and Cruz also are on tour. All three brothers have won NHRA national events in the last three seasons.

- www.johnforceracing.com

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Kenny Bernstein , Tony Pedregon , John Force , Gary Densham