Cruz’ing Back To Dirt: An Interview With Cruz Pedregon

I remember going to my first NHRA drag race only knowing a few names. Names such as Force, Pedregon, and Capps were really the only drivers I recognized. We all know Force due to his success in the sport, but Pedregon and Capps I only knew because of their appearances in the Prelude to the Dream dirt late model event at Eldora Speedway. Pedregon was the name that stood out most because he had visited my home track Oakshade Raceway on a few occasions with his dirt late model, when time allowed. He also owned a full-blown midget team with Kevin Swindell and Josh Wise as pilots.

Fast forward to spring of 2017, when I was able to sit down with Cruz Pedregon Racing’s GM, Caleb Cox, at Indiana’s Comic-Con. I had found out through the grapevine he was a fellow nerd, like my wife and me. I was able to write a piece about Caleb and his racing efforts, as well as what it’s like to run a professional NHRA operation for another publication. In true nerd fashion, we had to talk about our favorite comics and superheroes as well. Cox and I also talked a little about dirt racing. He hinted at Pedregon getting back into a new dirt car in the near future. I had kept the hint under my hat, not wanting to put the cart before the horse, but luckily Pedregon and team came through. Pedregon had added a non-wing sprint car to his stable, shortly followed up by the purchase of a midget to complete the team.

Cruz Pedregon in the pits before the 2012 Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway. (Mike Campbell photo)

I couldn’t just let this news settle for long, so I contacted Caleb to see about getting a word with the Snap-On tools driver. Thanks to Caleb, I was able to meet with Cruz Pedregon at the PRI show in Indianapolis. I wanted to see what was in store for CPR, the newly-purchased sprint car for 2018, and to find out more about where Cruz gathered his interest in dirt racing.

Many dirt fans remember Cruz from his days of owning a midget team and running a dirt late model like I did, but Pedregon actually has deep roots in dirt racing from his first days behind the wheel. His early days of racing were at Ascot Park in California, which is no longer around. Pedregon says proximity and costs were the large factors for tackling dirt in the beginning.

They had a small track on the inside of the big half mile where they raced go karts, so we got into that. So that was kind of the beginning of my career.

“We grew up near Ascot Park which is in Gardena [California]. Our shop was two miles from Ascot and my dad was friends with the people that ran it — the Agajanian family — obviously a famous racing family. When the opportunity arose, we couldn’t afford to do any kind of racing other than some kind of a low-cost type of racing. They had a small track on the inside of the big half mile where they raced go karts, so we got into that. So that was kind of the beginning of my career.”

Pedregon didn’t start hitting the straight lines until after racing for a handful of years on dirt in the ’80s. Ascot Park became the home track for Pedregon’s early years. The Pedregon family followed the path a lot of dirt racers do. They started at the local facility, then got more serious and started branching out. In the quest for more competition also came the reality of defeat and injury.

“We started getting serious about it and we’d go race up in Ventura. I didn’t race anything in drag racing until around 1986. So I raced dirt tracks from ’82 to ’86. I broke pretty much every bone in my ankles and legs, and learned that you got have a cage over the cockpit” (laugh)

Cruz on the gas at Eldora Speedway in his dirt late model in 2012. (Mike Campbell photo)

In 1986, Pedregon got started in the drag racing scene. Pedregon has 2 NHRA Nitro Funny Car championships under his belt. He’s had corporate sponsors such as McDonalds, Advanced Auto Parts, and currently Snap-On Tools. His first championship in 1992 is most noted, because it interrupted the dominance of John Force in the ’90s. Simply put, Cruz was the only driver not named Force to win the NHRA Funny Car championship in the ’90s. His second crowning season came in 2008, but even after all of his success in the NHRA, Pedregon still can’t get away from his roots.

“So it’s full circle. I started drag racing which I still do. We’ve won some championships and have had a great career. But I’ve always had an affinity for sprint cars and midgets. Obviously, living here [Indianapolis] I’m exposed to all the different tracks.”

Pedregon loves the open wheel classes so much he decided to get into the ownership side of the dirt world. Cruz says his connections through the NHRA ultimately helped the cause to own multiple teams. Owning a NHRA team is probably a lot more complicated than many of us could imagine. Having a sponsor like Snap-On Tools helps Cruz Pedregon Racing foot the $2.5 million budget to be competitive up and down the road with the Mello Yellow Series, but adding to the challenge was helping Toyota develop their midget engine with his team.

“What started it [the midget team] was Toyota, who I am involved with through my drag racing team. I got to know Gary Reed who headed up the Toyota program. I wanted to be in on that development, so I thought I would get some cars together and get some drivers. I got Kevin Swindell and Josh Wise to drive and had Sammy Swindell in on the development. We helped develop the Toyota midget engine. It was in its infancy at the time and wasn’t the engine it is today, so we had some modest success. It could have really taken off then, but it was fun being in on the development with Toyota.”

 

Pedregon, shown on the far left, competed in every Prelude to the Dream event at Eldora Speedway. (Mike Campbell photo)

Cruz was also known to be spotted behind the wheel of his dirt late model many times. He was one of the original drivers in Tony Stewart’s Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway. Pedregon had so much fun he decided to get his own car and get some laps when time permitted. He was often seen at Ohio’s Oakshade Raceway getting laps as well as Eldora Speedway for American Late Model Series events. Cruz admits his open-wheel roots didn’t leave much of an opinion for their full-fender counterparts, but his seat time behind the wheel made him appreciate them.

“I got an invitation to do this Prelude to the Dream race and I saw all these NASCAR drivers on the list. I really took that serious, so I bought a car and practiced. I finished in the Top 10 three or four times. I think Ron Capps and I really represented drag racing well. That really made me fall in love with the bigger cars because I had never really been involved with them. I was always involved with midgets and sprint cars.”

You wouldn’t think many things about a dirt car could scare a drag racer who travels at 320 mph, but Cruz admits one of his scariest moments in his racing career was in a dirt late model at Oakshade Raceway. A tangle in a race left his steering wheel with a mind of its own, nearly injuring his hand, but he also admits one of his proudest moments in the late model was there as well.

“I probably ran more laps at Oakshade than any other track. I made the feature a couple of times there, and it was like my proudest moment. I actually got caught up in a wreck there once. It was the most scared I’ve ever been.  Someone spun out and I got caught up in it and my hand got caught in the middle of the steering wheel. It almost ripped my freaking thumb off. It’s scary, because I thought ‘man if I break my hand I can’t race my Nitro car.”

We saw many tracks, racers, and fans have a hard time in 2008 when the economic recession hit. Cruz Pedregon was no different. Adding to the economic impact on the team, was the fact that Pedregon’s crew chief decided to leave for another opportunity. All of this happening right after winning his second crown. Pedregon had to make the tough decision to concentrate on only his Nitro program and ultimately selling his dirt equipment.

Cruz races against Ohio driver Steve Kester during an American Late Model Series event at Eldora Speedway in 2011. (Mike Campbell Photo)

“Some things changed in my drag racing career. My crew chief left, and the economy tanked after our championship in ’08. Toyota was starting to get involved with some other teams, and I thought ‘man, I need to get back to focusing on my drag racing career.’ When they quite running the Prelude and started running the truck race, I just quit cold turkey.”

After taking a break from dirt, Pedregon is back at it and building a team. Pedregon hints this will be a much different effort in the dirt ranks than his previous endeavors. This time it’s about having fun. Cruz also says it’s more about being in the pits than on the track.

“So here we are in 2017. If you go to my shop you will see a motor-less sprint car sitting there. I just wanted to own a car again; I have no plans to race it. I want to build a nice car that we can have fun with. Ultimately, what I want to do is go to a couple of events a year and maybe put one of the top drivers in it. I’ll be the setup guy. I’ve always had an interest in setting the cars up. Driving them is half of it, but the other side is setting them up.”

When it came time to decide what kind of dirt car to buy it was a simple answer of proximity. Using his home base in Brownsburg, Indiana, leaves Pedregon minutes from Indiana’s toughest non-wing competition. That is where you more than likely can catch the new Cruz Pedregon Racing dirt entry.

“I like winged and non-winged. I think they’re both equally challenging. But for us here locally, it kind of makes more sense to stick with the non-wing.”

Pedregon may not have a full time dirt team, but he certainly holds it close to his heart while he carries on his father’s love of drag racing. Piloting a Nitro car may be what made Pedregon who he is today, but being an all-around wheelman is what he aspires for. Names like Tony Stewart, Christopher Bell, and Jack Hewitt come to mind, but Pedregon holds another name for inspiration.

“My hero growing up was a guy named Danny Ongias. He drove dragsters, funny cars, Indy cars, motorcycles, and everything in between. What I envied and loved about him was he was driver who could drive anything. Kind of, in a roundabout way, I wanted to be like him. I never made it to Indy, but at least when my career is over I’ll say ‘look, I think I have a skill to be successful at any form of motorsports, but I just happened to choose what my dad did.’ I’ve always said John Force, if he so chose, would be successful in anything because he has the drive, dedication, and commitment to get to the top. I’m friends with Tony Stewart, and I really feel he’s on that level of being successful driving a bunch of different kinds of cars.”

Drivers like Tony Stewart keep Pedregon motivated to be a diverse wheel man. (Dirt Nerds Media photo)

Cruz Pedregon put it in simple terms of where you may be able to find him when he’s not running 1,000 feet in a straight line.

“I don’t have a Harley, I don’t go to gentlemen’s clubs, I don’t have any bad habits, but I do like dirt racing. If you look at a sprint car lift the front end up during a race, how could you not like that? That’s like the coolest thing ever. If I would ever use the phrase ‘badass’ it would be referring to a sprint car.”

Pedregon may have a dirt sprint car and midget sitting in his shop, but the clear primary focus for CPR is the 2018 NHRA season. Cruz was caught in a drought for a couple of years, going winless. Luckily, he’s shaken the monkey off his back and made his way into victory lane early in the 2018 season.

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