Photos: Larry Chen

NHRA: Cruz Pedregon ready to do some home cookin’ in Pomona season opener

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Like many of his fellow drag racers, two-time NHRA Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon loves Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

It’s Pedregon’s home race track, having grown up in nearby Chino, about 20 minutes away. Formerly known as Pomona Raceway, it was where Cruz and brother (former NHRA champion and current FOX NHRA TV analyst) Tony first got their exposure to drag racing from their late father, Frank, and where they both cut their own quarter-mile teeth, so to speak.

Even though he now lives in suburban Indianapolis, Cruz Pedregon always looks forward to the two annual NHRA national events at Pomona: the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals and the season-ending Auto Club Finals.

Going back to the West Coast is a definite homecoming for the veteran drag racer, who is starting his 28th season in NHRA competition at this weekend’s season opener. He’s looking forward to catching up with family, maybe grab a Double-Double or two from In-n-Out Burgers, and potentially catch some rays and take a dip at the beach.

Pedregon debuted his new Dodge Charger during the NHRA preseason test last weekend in Chandler, Arizona.

But most importantly, the man nicknamed “the Cruzer” wants to start the 2019 season with a win. It’s been a long time since he’s won at his home track – one win in the Winternationals (1995) and two wins in the Finals (2008 and 2012) – something he hopes to change this weekend.

“I’m very optimistic about this season,” Pedregon told NBC Sports. “We always feel optimistic at the start of the year. We have the holidays, come out refreshed, ready to go. But I’ve always felt like there was work to be done and things had to kind of fall in line.

“This year, I just have a good feeling and feel like making the moves that we’ve made as far as personnel-wise and shuffling, I guess the best way to say it is I trust me more than I trust other people.

“I’ve put the bar pretty high so our expectations are to go out and be right there in the middle of everything. Pomona is one of the legendary races. I love the sport, I feel good about it, I haven’t lost the edge or the desire or anything like that. I’m just more experienced and know more about what to do and what not to do. It would be big to start off right there at Pomona. We’re notorious slow starters but I hope to change that this year.”

There’s several reasons why Pedregon has a good feeling about this weekend:

* First, after two seasons of delegating motor tuning duties to others, Pedregon will once again tune his hot rod, in addition to his driving duties.

“For me, to go back to that role is exciting, it’s a challenge but I’m up for the challenge,” Pedregon said. “I’m kind of reinvigorated – not that I needed that before – but I felt like there’s a lot of knowledge in my brain being a sponge working with all the crew chiefs I have over the years. Will I be busy? Absolutely. Is it something I can manage? Sure. I welcome it.

“I have a good feel for what I have to do. … For me, it’s good, old-fashioned experience that plays an important role in being a tuner. You have to go off the seat of your pants quite a bit. It’s just got to be a feel, you have to know what to do, you have to study, you have to be dedicated and committed. I felt that guy is hard to find, so I looked in the mirror and I said I better use this resource.”

* Second, he has a new crew chief (Glen Huszar) and assistant crew chief (Nick Casertano).

“It’s like a football team,” said Pedregon, who is a diehard Raiders fan and whose race helmet is similar to the Raiders’ football helmets. “Some head coaches call their own plays, others don’t. I guess you could say I’m going back to calling my own plays.

“For me, all that was left was to do was to put the emphasis to make sure I hired not one but two key guys that could oversee the operation. With Glen and Nick, I feel like we’re going to be as strong as ever.”

* Third, after 11 years running a Toyota body, Pedregon has switched to driving a Dodge Charger body for 2019.

“Toyota informed me middle of 2018 that the support was going away, so that left me kind of a free agent, so to speak,” he said. “I’m very happy to be with Dodge. It worked out very well that I was able to obtain Dodge bodies over the winter through my connection with Don Schumacher Racing. So, basically overnight, we went from Toyota to Dodge.

“Let’s face it, the engines in these cars are (Dodge) Hemis. Dodge goes way back in NHRA racing. Dodge is a racing group, a racing family and their hot rod cars that they come out with now, all the things they’re doing in the high-performance world, makes a guy like me want to be a part of that.”

GOING FORWARD AFTER A ROUGH 2018

Pedregon will be the first to admit last season was a rough one. He won one race (spring event at Charlotte) – his first victory in four seasons — but because of oil-down penalties at three other races due to major – and very expensive – motor explosions, he lost valuable championship points that ultimately cost him a spot to qualify in the top 10 for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“That was financially a big hit for us but we survived,” Pedregon said. “We’ve since addressed those issues, but that was definitely not the most fun part in any way, shape or form, particularly for the owner, who has to write checks to replace them.

“The thing that hurt most is we were in good position to make the top 10, however, with the point deduction based upon the NHRA rule where if they roll trucks to clean up your mess on-track, they actually deduct points. I had enough penalties or infractions that it bumped me out of the top 10, so that was a double whammy for me.

“If we would have made the top 10, we would have salvaged our season. … It was probably one of the most frustrating times of my career.”

Pedregon has put the struggles his team has gone through the last few seasons in his rearview mirror. He’s perhaps as positive and optimistic as he’s been since he won his last Funny Car championship in 2008.

“I’ve set my goals pretty high,” he said. “I want to be top five in qualifying every race and I want to win five races this year. I’m throwing it out there, lofty goals.

“To me, it starts with goals and you have to do things that are consistent with those goals. I’ve made the financial investment on the right equipment and hopefully the right people.”

The 55-year-old Pedregon is hoping 55 is the new 35 for him. He’s ready to win a ton of races and a third championship. He’s far from climbing out of his race car or turning it over to anyone else. He knows he has a big job to turn things around, but he’s up for the task.

“I really want to perform at a high level and win,” he said. “I know I’m no spring chicken. I don’t know how many years I have left, so I’m not going to look back, I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been, so yeah, I’m very optimistic.

“Last year, there were too many chefs in our kitchen. This year, there’s going to be only one chef – and I make a heck of a steak.”

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NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

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