Commentary

Funny car champ Tony Pedregon's season may be heating up

Tony Pedregon is having a pretty good season, with three victories so far. Sure, there were a couple of car explosions and he's nearly seven rounds of racing out of first place, but the Funny Car champion knows things tend to even out, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: July 10, 2008, 10:26 AM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

One of the most frequently uttered axioms in NHRA POWERade drag racing states that winning a championship is tough, but defending a championship is even tougher.

Tony Pedregon can speak to that.

The two-time and reigning NHRA Funny Car champion has had one of his most eventful racing seasons since breaking into the category in 1995 from a short stint in Top Fuel Dragsters.

His recent victory at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio, was his third of 2008 and second in the last three national events. Despite impressive midseason numbers, he still trails points leader Tim Wilkerson by 151 points -- over seven rounds of racing.

And that's the good news.

Twice this year -- first in Pomona, Cailf., the '08 opener, and again in Chigaco -- Pedregon suffered shattering engine explosions that destroyed the bodies and much of the underlying structures of his 8,000-horsepower racing machines.

The episode in Pomona was so spectacular that mainstream news media carried the video for several days, and Pedregon was interviewed on the subsequent Monday by Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today Show."

His Chicago boomer was a violent display, yet it didn't prevent him from regrouping after the incident and winning the race.

Tony suffered second-degree burns on his right hand and forearm but was back in action the following race in Phoenix.

But for the 43-year-old veteran, who won his first title as part of John Force Racing in 2003, his secret to success is being ready to accept the bitter with the sweet when engaged in the world's quickest motorsport.

"I learned a long time ago that to win consistently, you have to have a positive attitude and not let setbacks or unexpected obstacles discourage you," said Pedregon, who races alongside his brother and 1992 champion, Cruz. "There were times back when I was racing with teams that couldn't afford the best cars and best equipment that we had to work through the rough spots and try to make up for our disadvantages with extra effort.

"Those days prepared me for going after a championship, and in 2003, when I was racing with John Force, I really appreciated the ability to race with all the best resources anyone could ask for. It's that way again with the team I have now, the support we get from Quaker State, and having a crew chief like Dickie Venables who brings a lot of experience to the table."

With 39 career victories, Pedregon is second all-time for Funny Car national event wins, trailing the sport's winningest driver, Force, who has 126. Pedregon needs only one more win this year to equal his 2007 total of four and come within two of his career-best season in 2002.

"Right now, the Funny Car class is as equal and competitive as I think it's ever been," he said. "Tim [Wilkerson] is having the best season he's ever had and that's putting a lot of pressure on the rest of the class to keep up. We've won three times and are still almost two full races behind him in the points and there are a bunch of other drivers out there who could get red-hot at any time.

"But that's the part of the sport that gets a racer on his game and keeps him fired up. At the end of the day, when you've raced against the best and can say you've come out ahead, there's a lot of satisfaction there."

Translation: The "ups" will almost always compensate for the "downs."

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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