Throughout his drag racing career, Cruz Pedregon has been known by the colorful nickname of “The Cruiser.”
Part of the onus for that nickname is he made success – and winning – look easy at times, like he was on a Sunday cruise during many NHRA national event final eliminations.
Along the way in more than three decades of racing, he accumulated 35 career wins and two NHRA Funny Car championships in 1992 and 2008.
But over the last four seasons, Pedregon has done very little cruising. He’s suffered through one of the worst slumps of his career, swapping out team members and crew chiefs to try and find a winning chemistry, doing everything he could to turn his team around and back to prominence.
It took 92 consecutive winless races but the Southern California native finally is back on the winning track after capturing the Funny Car class this past Sunday in the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina.
“This one ranks right up there,” Pedregon said. “Believe it or not, but I was thinking, ‘Man, maybe I’m not destined to win again.’ Part of the make-up in my personality is that I don’t want to do this unless I’m competitive.
“To be out here racing is a lot of work and a lot of stress. I have a seven-year old daughter and the travel is tough. What motivates me is having a good running car that people respect.”
Pedregon and his Snap-On Toyota Camry defeated 16-time champ John Force, Courtney Force and Tommy Johnson Jr. to earn his 36th career Funny Car triumph in NHRA competition.
I didn’t believe my ears when Caleb Cox, our team manager, got on the radio and said we’d won. I said, ‘I might have a little wax in my ears so I need to make sure I heard that right.’ It’s still a little bit surreal.
In so doing, Pedregon moved into fifth-place on the all-time Funny Car wins list, passing the legendary Don “Snake” Prudhomme.
“This is like going back to my first win,” Pedregon said. “This might just be the sweetest win of my career. It shows you can be a single, independent team with no attachments to the big teams and if you hire the right people and have the funding you can win out here.”
Now that he’s broken his winless streak, Pedregon goes for his second consecutive victory in this weekend’s NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Georgia.
After Sunday’s race, Pedregon gave thanks to a number of people for the help they’ve given to him and his team this year to elevate its performance.
Among those, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) team owner Don Schumacher, and Pedregon’s crew chief, Aaron Brooks.
“The car we won in (Sunday) is actually a DSR chassis,” Pedregon said. “I called Don this winter and told him I needed a chassis. It was a very different chassis and we had to modify the cage and we didn’t debut it until Houston and let me tell you, it’s a good car.
“Thanks to Don. He’s a businessman and he sold us a car and it works really good. We have another one on order and I think I will be able to afford to pay for it now.”
And then there’s the significant improvement to the team in the person of Brooks.
“When I signed with Snap-on in 2010, I had a team where everyone had left me, all the crew and the crew chief,” Pedregon said. “I had nothing until Snap-on came on board and sponsored me.
“Within a year, we were winning races. We really had something going on then. I was tuning the car, but really my plate was full. But by 2014, we started to win fewer races and by 2015, we just hit the wall.
“There was some technology going on in Funny Car that we weren’t privy to and we fell behind as a team. So we had to regroup as a team. I went and hired Aaron, who was crew chief of the Lucas Oil team, who was hungry and very dedicated.
“I needed to bring in someone like Aaron who could take over my team and run it the way it needed to be run. There was just too much to do for one guy. I was driving and I was tuning and just fell off the pace.
“So I had to bring in some new people and, thankfully, this year, we were joined by Glen Huszar, who has a lot of years with DSR and Kalitta (Motorsports), as the assistant crew chief on the car. So it’s been a one-two punch.
“Aaron’s been a great asset. Last year was frustrating because he had his ideas and I had mine, but we kept our heads down. Aaron weathered the storm of my ranting and craziness and (Sunday) we had a car that just won a race. It just goes to show if you stick with good people that they’ll make you look good.”
Pedregon didn’t even know immediately whether he had won Sunday’s race or not.
“I had no idea that (92 wins without a race) was the number,” he said. “When I pulled up in the final and saw Tommy Johnson Jr., I said to myself, ‘Didn’t we already race him twice today?'”
That’s a Don Schumacher Racing car, one of these runs he’s going to get us. Then I saw John and Courtney and I said to myself, ‘Man, we’ve got our work cut out for us’. I just didn’t want to finish fourth. So I was going to do everything I could to not finish fourth and we got the win.
“I didn’t believe my ears when Caleb Cox, our team manager, got on the radio and said we’d won. I said, ‘I might have a little wax in my ears so I need to make sure I heard that right.’ It’s still a little bit surreal. I still can’t believe that we won. It’s pretty cool.”
But in a way, Sunday’s win wasn’t exactly a surprise, either.
“Our performance has really been a lot better than we’ve shown,” Pedregon said. “The pressure that I’ve been feeling is that even though the car is on the upward swing, it’s been more consistent and we’re qualifying in the top half every week, but we still didn’t have anything to show for it.
“When we won the first round (of Sunday’s eliminations), it was like, ‘Oh man, at least we got that win.’ Then after we got the next one, it crossed my mind that we have a chance to win this thing.”
“It shows that the DSR and John Force cars don’t have all the answers. We can stick our nose in there and mix things up with them.”