Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – COMMERCE, GA – Cruz Pedregon wondered if he would ever return to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series winner’s circle as a winless stretch reached 92 races for the two-time Funny Car world champ. But a victory last weekend in Charlotte – his first since the 2014 season – has the veteran riding high heading into this weekend’s NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello at Atlanta Dragway.
The victory in his 10,000-horsepower Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry sent Pedregon to eighth in the loaded Funny Car class and solidified his place as fifth in all-time Funny Car victories, giving the 36-time event winner a jolt of confidence heading into Atlanta. Having turned some of the early-season progress into a victory was significant and now Pedregon hopes to keep those good vibes going as a busy three-race stretch finishes up.
“Our performance has been a lot better than we’ve shown,” Pedregon said of his 2018 season. “The pressure I’ve been feeling, even though the car is on the upward swing, we were 11th in points and falling, and the guys in 10th were moving away. With all the good feelings I’ve had as far the car’s performance coming around, being consistent and qualifying in the top half, we still didn’t have anything to show for it. (The win) is a great feeling.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock), and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including finals coverage starting at 6:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday. It is the seventh of 24 events in a 2018 season that has taken the turn Pedregon has worked for over the past three seasons.
His last win came in 2014, but Pedregon showed promise early this year, qualifying fifth in Houston two weeks ago. However, he only had one round win to show for it until the four-wide event in Charlotte. There, everything clicked for Pedregon and the magnitude of breaking a lengthy winless spell wasn’t lost on the longtime standout, whose lone win in Atlanta came in 1998.
“This might be the best, sweetest victory of my career,” Pedregon said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to drive some good cars and win a lot of races, but this one here, it’s big man. It’s huge. I thought I was maybe destined to not win again. I don’t want to do this unless I’m competitive. It’s a lot of work and what motivates me is having a good-running car that people respect. (Winning in Charlotte is) like going back to my first win.”
It’s a feeling Pedregon is ready to replicate in Atlanta against a field that includes points leader Jack Beckman, Phoenix winner Courtney Force, reigning winner Capps and defending world champion Robert Hight. But Pedregon has praised the work of crew chief Aaron Brooks, who came on board in 2017. Both have persevered through a variety of struggles, and Pedregon also added the talents of Glen Huzar to the fold in 2018. The trio has worked together well to open the season, and Pedregon believes the team can continue to move forward in the star-studded class.
“I had to regroup and reload,” Pedregon said. “I went and hired Aaron, a young guy that’s hungry and very dedicated. I need to bring someone in like Aaron and run my team the way you need to run it. Last year, it was pretty well documented that it was frustrating. (Brooks) had his ideas, I had mine, but we kept our heads down. He weathered the storm and we have a car that just won a race. It just goes to show if you stick with good people they’ll make you look good.”
Steve Torrence has three wins in 2018 and is the Top Fuel points leader. He’ll try to keep the likes of Tony Schumacher, looking for his first career Atlanta win, Antron Brown and Clay Millican at bay.
Bo Butner, the reigning Pro Stock world champ and current points leader, won in Pomona as the class has had a different winner at each race in 2018, including Charlotte champ Erica Enders.
LE Tonglet had six Pro Stock Motorcycle wins in 2017, but is chasing points leader Andrew Hines, Gainesville winner Eddie Krawiec and Charlotte champ Jerry Savoie in the two-wheeled class.
The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport.
Those in attendance will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with a few of the most renowned names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This will feature meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities. Legends scheduled to attend the NHRA Southern Nationals include Don Garlits, Warren Johnson and Rhonda Hartman.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 3:30 and 6:45 p.m. on Friday, May 4 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, May 5, at 11:15 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 6.