It wasn't looking healthy for Cruz Pedregon this time a year ago. Master tuner Rahn Tobler was long gone, Pedregon couldn't afford another crew chief and anyway, all the good ones were taken. Then he got an idea: I'll do it myself. People snickered, but Pedregon and his young team shocked everyone by the end of the season, not just contending but winning. Out of title contention well before the Countdown to the Championship playoffs began, they won multiple Countdown events.
Of the tiny fraction of nitro drivers who tune their own cars, none were in Pedregon's position. Jim Head and Tim Wilkerson are trained engineers, independently wealthy, and longtime team owners, while Mike Neff was a crew chief with a championship pedigree before he ever drove.
Pedregon has never been anything but a driver. He's never built an engine in his life. “Do I know how to time a camshaft?” he asks. “I hate to admit it, but no. Have I ever set the valve lash? Hell no. Could I plumb a car or run all the computer cables? Not with a gun to my head. I'd probably end up with the fuel pump hooked up to the driveshaft.
“But what I do know is know how a nitro Funny Car functions, what the balance of the car should be, how to read the revs on the computer, whether it has adequate horsepower at a given point on the track. Just let me get a look at the driveshaft [graph on the computer]. I'm a good racer – not because I'm a genius, but because, over the years, I've seen a lot of crew chiefs come through.”
Way back in 1992, when he was a rookie, Pedregon sometimes questioned his crew chief, Larry Meyer, and even went over Meyer's head to McDonald's team owner Larry Minor a few times. “If I saw something I didn't like, I'd say something,” admits Pedregon, who went on to win the championship that year. “I've never wanted to be just a driver. Some guys sit back and let the chief have free rein. Not me. I always looked over the guy's shoulder. It rubbed some of them the wrong way, but if I'd been any other way, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now.”
Today, Pedregon is a two-time champ, a fixture in the top five in the Full Throttle point standings, and solidly in contention for another championship. No one saw it coming. Some even felt sorry for him – not just because he didn't have a “name” crew chief calling the shots but because he didn't have the budget other top teams have. It hasn't stopped him.
“I know what most teams are spending,” he says, “and we spend about half to two-thirds what they do. But I'm not crying poverty. Even if there was a blue-chip crew chief available right now, he'd command double or triple what I could afford to pay him.
“To me, having the car prepared right is more important than having a perfect tuneup anyway. I break it up like this: Driving is not what's most important; neither is tuning. The most important thing is maintenance. Are the heads prepared right? Are the right connecting rods in there? Are the blocks in good condition? Sunday morning, we have enough clutch packs to go all four rounds, enough heads to go all four rounds. We could blow up every run and stick a whole new engine in there if we had to. I don't have to answer to anyone; there's no high-pressure owner breathing down my neck. We do off-the-wall stuff, make up rules as we go along. And I'm not afraid to blow my car to smithereens if I have to.”
As the season passed the midway point, Pedregon and his Snap-On crew, led by crew chief Danny DeGennaro and assistant crew chief Scott Wible, lay fourth in the Full Throttle standings, with final-round appearances in Gainesville and Englishtown. “And it's not like we got to those finals and had to find five-hundredths or a tenth somewhere,” Pedregon adds. “We had lane choice for one of them. We lost both to [season-long points leader] Neff, but if we'd maintained what we'd been running up to that point, we could have won either one. We were good for the first two or three rounds. We need to be good for all four rounds.”
After winning the championship in 2008, Pedregon didn't even make it into the Countdown the past two years. “I used to dread this time of year,” he says, “doing the math after every round, keeping track of everybody's points, figuring out how far behind I was, and thinking, ‘Who do we have to stay in front of? Are we going to get in?' Well, this year, we're getting in. Winning races verifies what you're doing and we haven't done that yet this year. But we're right there; we've been in every race this year except two or maybe three. It's going to happen.”
In 20 years of fuel racing, Pedregon has learned how it feels to win – and what it's like to lose. In ‘92, he won five races in a row to overcome Force's huge lead and win his first championship. But from 2000 to '08, he won just a single race (Las Vegas, '06).
“You look at every champion over the last few years, and they got some breaks somewhere along the way,” Pedregon says. “I know I sure did. Now the whole thing comes down to the last six races, you can't win the title without the ball bouncing your way a few times.”
If Pedregon performs as well in the crucial Countdown races as he did in 2008 and 2010, a third championship is within reach – even though he went winless through the first half of the year.
“We can do it,” he says. “I'm not saying we're the best team out there, but we've gotten where we are by doing things our way. I can't put my finger on any one thing and say, ‘That was it.' All I've done is pay attention to what a lot of smart guys I raced with in the past used to do. As I started overlaying our old runs on the computer, I thought, ‘You know, we're really not that far off.'
“I give Danny a lot of credit because he's trusted my judgment. When something works, it's not whether it's my idea or his idea. We all put our heads together and, in the end, I make the final calls – I mean, it's my car, right? What I want is a team that has no ego, that doesn't worry about who gets the credit.
“This is the way I'm racing from now on. If I'm dependent on one crew chief, one, I'll have to pay him an extraordinary amount of money, and two, what happens when he isn't available? What if he decides he doesn't like me anymore? It's like [World of Outlaws star] Sammy Swindell told me a long time ago: You never want to be too dependent on any one person. So he became a setup guy. Now he's in his 50s and still winning races. That's exactly what I plan to do.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the September 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.