INDIANAPOLIS (August 24, 1998) -- When it comes to the U.S. Nationals, no other active Funny Car driver has dominated the quarter mile at Indianapolis Raceway Park the way that Cruz Pedregon has. In the 30 years that the class has competed at...
INDIANAPOLIS (August 24, 1998) -- When it comes to the U.S. Nationals, no other active Funny Car driver has dominated the quarter mile at Indianapolis Raceway Park the way that Cruz Pedregon has. In the 30 years that the class has competed at the Labor Day Classic, only Ed McCulloch and Don Prudhomme have won more times than the Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird driver.
Pedregon entered his inaugural Funny Car contest at Indianapolis during his 1992 rookie campaign, defeating Del Worsham to capture his first U.S. Nationals crown on a road that eventually led him to the Winston championship. He revisited the winner's circle at IRP in 1994-95 and was runner-up during the Big Bud Shoot-out in 1993 and 1995-96.
With Pedregon focusing on another trip to the "Circle City," the California native is hoping to capitalize on a season that has him in the thick of the Winston championship hunt for the first time since his storybook rookie campaign of 1992. He is currently fourth in the Winston standings, just 159 points out of first place in the tightest Funny Car battle the series has seen in years.
As the Winston championship trail closes in on the 16th race of the year, it's been an up and down season for Pedregon. At the first race of the year at Pomona, he failed to qualify. He shot back three weeks later at Phoenix rocketing to the No. 3 qualifying position, and then he came back two weeks later at Gainesville, racing to the pole position and his first win since the 1996 Autolite Nationals at Sonoma in July 1996.
Under the tutelage of first-year crew chief Wes Cerny, Pedregon's Pontiac Firebird has set a blistering pace, streaking to additional wins at Atlanta, Sonoma and the $100,000 Winston Invitational at Rockingham.
In qualifying, Pedregon's Pontiac has been just as sterling, notching eight No. 1 and 12 top-three qualifying spots in the first 15 races. At the Pennzoil Nationals in March, he set a new national record by clocking a quarter-mile elapsed time of 4.819 seconds, the second consecutive race in which he had set a national record.
The 44th Annual U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park on September 2-7 is the 16th race on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship schedule. Qualifying begins with a single evening session on Friday, September 4, with two sessions on Saturday, September 5, the Big Bud Shoot-out and two qualifying sessions on Sunday, September 6, and final eliminations on Monday, September 7.
What are some of the factors that have contributed to your success this year?
"I have to look at the package we've put together with this team. Wes Cerny for one, and I have to mention Jim Brissette, he's been a big help to Wes in setting the car up and making some crucial decisions along the way. I know that Wes was the first person to point out Jim and the entire team after the four wins we've experienced this season. Wes is the kind of guy that takes input from everybody on the team, and that's important because every crew member sees different things on the car as it goes down the track. Wes has been a breath of fresh air for myself and the entire program. 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. When you include the Winston Invitational, we've won more races than any other Funny Car this year."
Speaking of the Winston Invitational, would you rather have the points or the $100,000?
"Both! The points are important because everyone's goal at the end of the year is to win the championship. Let me put it to you this way, if I could runner-up and not win a race all year and then win the championship, and then compare that to winning five races and not winning the championship, I'd rather have the runner-ups and the title. That's why we race, and for us, the championship is certainly in the cards this year. With seven races remaining, the U.S. Nationals is definitely a race we can win. We're going to have a lot of runs down that race track because of the Big Bud Shoot-out and everything else going on. You give Wes some extra data on the computer and some extra runs, and our chances become even better."
Will you be doing any pre-race testing at IRP this year?
"As far as I know we're not. That could change after Brainerd, but the car is running extremely well. If this Pontiac Firebird isn't qualified in the top-two, we're right there at the front of the pack. From a performance standpoint I think Wes will be working on his race day setup because you're always chasing that no matter what. Sonoma was a good win for us because the car didn't exactly have the kind of setup that we wanted going into race day, but we were able to get one round in and after that, the car was on rail. We made three perfect runs and won going away."
Does it feel good to be back in a championship race?
"I can't even compare this year to last year. Even early in the year last season, we were competitive. It was in the last part of the year that we fell off. This year all of the pieces are in place and having Wes on board means a lot to the team. Primarily because of the direction he gives our program."
Do you ever remember the points race being this close?
"The season we won the championship, Force was running away with it. We just made a strong run at the end and kind of surprised everybody. Really, we were counted out, and I think the third and fourth positions we're pretty far back as well. We were out of the hunt going into Seattle, and by Brainerd we were a long shot. It's been awhile since it's been this close. When I'm out of competition, there's nothing I like seeing more than Capps and Force, or Wilkerson and Force. I know that when Force goes against one of the top cars, it's anybody's race. In the past, unless he made a mistake, he went on to win the round and subsequently the race. Those are the kind of things that keep the championship battle alive, everybody beating each other. I know Hofmann put Force out in the first round at Sonoma and that enabled us to pick up three rounds on the leaders."
What are some of the factors that have contributed to your success at Indianapolis? Is it luck, a great race car, knowledge of the race track, exactly what is it that has made you perform so well there?
"You certainly have to have luck with you. I've never known an unlucky champion. But even so, we've earned every win there. I'll say this, having our team based out of Indianapolis is an advantage. In years past, if we're not running well by the time this part of the season rolls around, we've gone out and tested there, and left the session with a race car that we felt could win the event. That's definitely been a factor in the three wins. It's not so much that we've singled out the event but more from the standpoint of the track being available to us to work out our problems. If we can't win the championship, and we can go to Indy and win the Bud Shoot-out, the race, and all of the money and prestige that goes with it, then we can kind of make up for it. On race day I try to race it like any other race. There's not anything that you do differently as driver. You just have to have the car and the power to get the job done."
Is it important in a driver's career to win the U.S. Nationals?
"I think it is. A lot of people talk about it. We've won it three times and would certainly like to win it a fourth time. I think we have as good a shot to win it this year than any of the years coming into this event. This car reminds of the 1992 car. We dominated that race. We were the first Funny Car to run four consecutive rounds in the 5.10s. That was like running four 4.80s in a row today. I'm not saying that we're going to do that, but this car compared to the field gives me as good a chance than any car I've showed up with. It would mean a lot for our sponsors, Interstate Batteries and Pontiac to win it again, and it would put us in a position to make a charge for the championship."