Houston Pontiac Racing Preview

PEDREGON RETURNS TO RECORD SETTING VENUE HOUSTON (October 22, 1998)-Back at the beginning of the race season in March, when the NHRA Winston championship tour made it's first visit to Houston Raceway Park, Cruz Pedregon stunned the auto racing...

PEDREGON RETURNS TO RECORD SETTING VENUE

HOUSTON (October 22, 1998)-Back at the beginning of the race season in March, when the NHRA Winston championship tour made it's first visit to Houston Raceway Park, Cruz Pedregon stunned the auto racing world when his Interstate Batteries Firebird shattered the NHRA Funny Car record with a run of 4.819 seconds. That run established Pedregon's Pontiac as the quickest car in the class giving him the added confidence to compete for his second Winston Funny Car championship.

Pedregon now looks forward to a return trip to the Lone Star State and the Matco Tools SuperNationals on October 29-November 1. He'll be shooting for another victory to add to the four he has already won this year at Gainesville, Atlanta, Sonoma and the Winston Invitational at Rockingham. He won at Houston in 1992 and was runner-up in 1997.

"There's a lot of experience here, and when you can utilize all of your people and all of your resources, you're going to have a great team. Looking back on it, I think we've done a pretty phenomenal job considering the short time we've been together."

In addition, Pedregon has piloted his Wes Cerny tuned Firebird to the No. 1 qualifying position 10 times in the first 20 races, and no worse than fourth an astounding 17 times! Currently fourth in the Winston standings, the 1992 Funny Car champion is still confident that he can make a move on the leaders before the year is over.

"It's been a total team effort. The Interstate Batteries Firebird program is completely better. But the main ingredient I've constantly been pointing my finger to is Wes Cerny. The acquisition of Wes Cerny was the No. 1 goal of mine and Joe Gibbs. That was absolutely essential if we wanted to compete for the championship and go after the guy that's been winning every championship in the 90s, John Force. The guy that we had to hire was Wes Cerny. I put so much emphasis on Wes because we have followed his career for a lot of years, and his record speaks for itself. I believe that certain crew chiefs fit into certain situations better, for whatever reason and I think that he's at his best with us. It's as simple as that."

GM Goodwrench Pontiac Firebird driver Warren Johnson won his eighth race of the season and his fourth Winston championship at the Parts America Nationals at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan., on Saturday, October 17. Johnson's title was clinched in the semi-finals against Tom Martino after his closest competitor, Kurt Johnson was eliminated in round one. Johnson's other championships came in 1992-93, and 1995.

"We have four laps to get it right and if you don't get it even close to right the first round, you're not going to survive for the second round. I guess this is akin to the Gunfight At The OK Corral. You had better be spot on with your first shot or you're dead meat."

At the March contest at Houston Raceway Park, Johnson swept the competition by bolting to the No. 1 qualifying position, and set best time and top speed of the event on the way to his second win of the season. Johnson defeated Mike Thomas in the finals.

"As close as this category is, I think you have on an average, five or six hundredths difference top to bottom in qualifying. There really isn't much room for error on any part of it. Not only the driving part, but the setup, the maintenance, and reading the computer to make sure that if you have changing track conditions you make the right choices. It's a pretty diligent effort on everybody's part out there."

Outlaw Firebird driver and Arlington, Tex., resident Bruce Allen has had some success at Houston Raceway Park. He's been runner-up twice at this facility and would like nothing more than to bring home a win for his home state fans and sponsor Pennzoil. Pennzoil's corporate headquarters are in Houston.

"We've been struggling a little bit to find a combination that will get us down the race track, or at least a baseline we can tune from. Our goal is to put in three good races and try to bring home at least one victory before the season is through. Houston Raceway Park is a great facility and has an awesome race track. We've had some success there and hopefully we can take advantage of what we've learned to make our Outlaw Firebird a competitive race car."

Al Hofmann has back-to-back final round appearances at Memphis and Topeka under his belt thanks to the resourceful tuning efforts of crew chief Jimbo Ermalovich and a little bit of savvy driving on his own behalf. At the Pennzoil Nationals in Memphis, Tenn., Hofmann defeated Cruz Pedregon to win his first race of the year.. At Topeka, his GM Performance Parts Firebird was runner-up to Ron Capps.

"When this car is right, then it's pretty tough to beat. Our Firebird is capable of running in the 4.80s for the very reason that we're a high horsepower car. When you look at the times some of the teams were posting during the middle of the season, no one has really come close to the numbers that we were running at the beginning of the year. That's because the tracks we run on at mid-season, and the hot weather conditions aren't conducive to those kind of times. Now we're getting back to Dallas, Houston and Pomona when those big numbers will come back."

The competition in Top Fuel isn't getting any easier as the season winds down. McDonald's/ Pontiac pilot Cory McClenathan finds himself back in first-place in the Winston standings after his sixth win of the year at Topeka, but knows it's going to be a dogfight to the very end with defending points champion Gary Scelzi. McClenathan's victory at Heartland Park also ties him with seven other drivers for most Top Fuel wins in a season. McClenathan and the late Gary Ormsby have done it twice - McClenathan in 1997-98, and Ormsby in 1989-90. Other Top Fuel drivers who have won six races are Don Garlits (1985), Darrell Gwynn (1988), Joe Amato (1990), Kenny Bernstein (1991), Eddie Hill (1993) and Scott Kalitta (1995).

"The win at Topeka puts us right back in the running. If Gary (Scelzi) had won there in the second round and then gone on to win the race, chances would have been slim or none for us. Basically, all he would have to do is get to the second round of the next three races and he would be champion again. We felt that we really needed to win that one, luck was on our side a few times, and the win happened. At least now it's going to be a fight -- it's going to be a massacre till the end of the year. But it's going to be a lot of fun. The championship is what we want, the record would be a bonus."

George Marnell's Tenneco Firebird is starting to pick up the pace again. At Memphis and Topeka he jumped into the top half of the Pro Stock qualifying field and is determined to keep that momentum throughout the rest of the season.

"We're working on it. We just have to put everything together to be competitive on race day. We just have to put the whole package together. The Tenneco Firebird needs to leave better, and the driver has to tune up a little bit. If we get those two factors straightened out, along with the way we're running, we'll be competitive. That's what we're shooting for."

Summit Racing Firebird driver Mark Pawuk would like to win a race before the season is over and the performance of his Pro Stock Pontiac in recent weeks may very well take him to the winner's circle. Pawuk has climbed to eighth place in the Winston standings after qualifying fifth at Reading and advancing to the second round at Memphis and Topeka.

"Right now every round counts because we're trying to remain in the top-10. I'm just glad to be getting a few rounds under our belt. We're going to keep plugging away, try to win some rounds in the last few races and hang in there."

Jim Yates will not win his third Winston championship this year, but it's not often that you have the kind of season the Splitfire/Peak Firebird had in 1997. The popular Virginian won nine national events in eleven final rounds, advanced to no less than the semi-finals 17 times, compiled a 58-13 won-loss record (the best in the professional categories) and captured his second straight Winston Pro Stock championship. This year he is in fourth place in the Winston standings with one win in four final round appearances and a win-loss percentage of .659.

"When I look back on my career as a Pro Stock driver, I am astonished at the level of success we've had in the time we've accomplished it. We won two championships back-to-back and have only been in the sport eight years.

That's difficult to do when you're racing against guys like Warren Johnson. "You've got to have a combination that will run 6.88 to be competitive. Warren (Johnson) has a combination in his repertoire that allows him to do that, we've got a combination that runs those kind of numbers, and you have to have the gear ratios and all of the other stuff that will make it go that fast. When the weather and the track cooperates, you have to be lucky enough and smart enough to put it in there."

The second annual Matco Tools SuperNationals at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Tex., is the 21st race on the 22-event Winston championship tour. Same day final round coverage can be seen on TNN on Sunday, November 1 beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Mike Thomas , Kenny Bernstein , Mark Pawuk , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Al Hofmann , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Cruz Pedregon , Don Garlits , Cory McClenathan , Scott Kalitta , Bruce Allen , Tom Martino , Darrell Gwynn , George Marnell