John Force and Cruz Pedregon have raced a remarkable 103 times in their concurrent Funny Cars careers, but 25 years ago this week, the duo engaged in one of the weirdest and wildest Funny Car final rounds in the annals of the sport and certainly the craziest of all of their meetings.
If you caught the Flashback Friday video last weekend on All Access from the 1992 Chief Auto Parts Nationals at Texas Motorplex, you got to see it in all of its full-resolution glory; if not, this mediocre-quality clip I found on YouTube nonetheless gives you the visual.
As you see, Pedregon’s McDonald’s Olds, in the far lane, is up in smoke early, while Force’s Castrol GTX Olds breaks ‘em loose a little further downtrack, setting up a classic pedalfest. Force is out front, but loses the handle, and clouts the guardwall not once, but twice trying to stay ahead of the tractionless Pedregon who, unbeknownst to everyone at the time, was running in his own water after a hose broke loose and began spraying under the rear tires. Pedregon eventually smokes it past Force before the finish line to claim the win.
The race was the second to last of the 18-event campaign and gave Pedregon a practically insurmountable four-plus-round lead heading to the season finale in Pomona, but it's only the climax to what was an incredible story of a come-from-behind championship season for Pedregon.
I had a great ringside seat for the final, perched with my trusty Nikon in my usual spot atop the finish-line camera scaffold. I buried my finger on the motordrive button as it began to unfold, scarcely believing what I was seeing between shutter flickers. From my viewpoint, it looked like Force had lost his mind, and I could certainly understand why.
After years of struggles, countless bologna-sandwich dinners, and six people sharing a hotel room, Force had finally made the big time. He won his first season championship in 1990 and successfully defended it in 1991, setting up the makings of a dynasty. Then along came Pedregon, in his first year in the class, to challenge him. Force held the points lead most of the season with Pedregon on his heels, until a late-season push by Pedregon and some missteps by Force cost the reigning champ the points lead. The Dallas race was essentially a last stand for Force, especially because both had reached the final. He simply couldn’t allow Pedregon to put another round’s worth of points between them heading to Pomona.
But before we go any further, I believe a little backstory is in order to set up what was a remarkable season for both, with opposite endings.
Force, was just 43 but, as mentioned, he was on a tear with crew chief Austin Coil, having racked up 12 wins and two championships over the span of the 1990 and ’91 seasons and, to be honest, they almost seemed in a league of their own.
Pedregon, only 28 at the time, had been a proven winner in the Sportsman ranks, with three wins in Alcohol Dragster a one in Alcohol Funny Car. He had graduated to the professional ranks in 1991 with a 12-race campaign in Larry Minor’s Top Fueler, a teammate to veteran Ed McCulloch’s Funny Car. When McCulloch expressed, at the end of the 1991 season, a desire to return to his Top Fuel roots -– primarily to be able to continue to race old pals like Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein, who had returned to Top Fuel in 1990 –- and the McDonald’s deal came to fruition allowing two full-time cars, Pedregon and McCulloch simply swapped rides for 1992.
“It was Ed’s idea, but I was all for it,” Pedregon told me earlier this week. “I grew up watching Funny Cars at Orange Count [Int’l Raceway] as a kid and loving Funny Cars more than dragsters. I felt like I was following on the footsteps of my heroes. They didn’t have to ask me twice.”
The first nine races
Pedregon not only inherited McCulloch's Olds Cutlass Funny Car -- now adorned in the colors of fast-food giant McDonald' instead of frozen-treat manufacturer Otter Pops, which had ridden on both Minor cars in 1991 -- but he also got veteran crew chief Bernie Fedderly, who had tuned McCulloch to a dozen victories in "the Ace's" triumphant return to Funny Car glory in the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s.
With his Alcohol Funny Car experience, Pedregon took to the nitro car quickly and ran good numbers in testing, but the new McDonald’s Funny Car team really struggled at the first two events, in Pomona and Phoenix, burning up a lot of parts -- including this booming starting-line blower explosion in Phoenix -- and winning just two rounds.
After blowing up even more stuff during qualifying at the next event, the Slick 50 Nationals in Houston, the decision was made to install the team’s Top Fuel tune-up, courtesy of Lee Beard, into the Funny Car. Although the decision riled a lot of feathers in Fedderly's cap (and ultimately led to his parting ways with the Minor team, ironically to later join the Force camp), the move paid immediate dividends. Pedregon reset the national record at 5.10 and won the event, even beating Force in the first career meeting, on a 5.18 to 5.15 holeshot in the semifinals.
Coupled with the first-round loss by points leader Jim Epler, who had won the Winternationals in a surprise final-round conquest of Force, Pedregon suddenly found himself with the first points lead of his Pro career, leading Phoenix runner-up Tom Hoover by a round and a half with Force a close third.
Force rebounded nicely by winning the Gatornationals -– and avenging his Houston semifinal loss to Pedregon in the same round in the process -- to take a narrow points lead (less than a round) yet one he would hold and steadily increase throughout the summer.
Force won again at the next event, in Atlanta, besting a tire-smoking Pedregon in the second frame to expand that lead. A semifinal finish in Memphis –- his famous “I saw Elvis at 1,000 feet” crash -- another win in Montreal (including another semifinal thumping of Pedregon), and a semifinal finish in Englishtown only added to that lead. Despite consistently outqualifying Force and often setting low e.t. of the meet, Pedregon only mustered one final-round appearance, a runner-up in Columbus behind Al Hofmann, over the same period, and was almost four rounds worth of points behind Force.
"It seems like we were in ‘just-there’ mode,” reflected Pedregon. “We’d reel off great runs but just couldn’t win a race. Then, in late April, Larry [Minor] let Bernie Fedderly go and, for a few races until we could get [tuner] Larry Meyer on board, it was just me and the crew guys.
“Even when we got Larry in there, he had his own ideas, which showed potential but was hard on parts, and I was really in favor of keeping what we had, Lee Beard’s dragster tune-up, because we knew it could put down the big numbers. It took a while for Larry to find the happy medium and hit on the right combination.”
The second nine events
The second half of the season continued Force’s rampage. He was runner-up in Denver behind Chuck Etchells while Pedregon struggled mightily, qualifying a lowly 13th and being upset in round one by Paul Smith. Force and Pedregon met in the final in middle leg of the Western Swing, in Sonoma, where Force beat him again to expand his lead to more than eight rounds. In other years, we’d be sticking a fork in the championship trophy and preparing Force’s platter.
But then funny things began to happen.
Gary Clapshaw handed Force his first first-round loss of the season in Seattle; Pedregon only made it to round two before losing to that pesky Hoover guy, but the tide had slowly and, almost imperceptibly, begun to turn. When Mark Oswald took down Force in round two in Brainerd, and Pedregon went on to win the event, beating Oswald in the final, the alarms probably weren’t yet going on in Force’s head, but they should have been.
Looking back on it now, Force recalls exactly where things began to go wrong.
“I remember standing in the parking lot in Seattle, talking to Etchells and Hofmann and a handful of other guys, and I remember me saying that we’d have to lose the next five or six races and Cruz would have to win them all, so we went into test mode,” Force recalled. “We threw the rods out in qualifying and got beat first round and we couldn’t do anything right from there on out for a few months. We tried to put the combination back but we were lost.”
Force had no idea how prophetic his thinking was about the car he called “the hamburger stand from hell.”
Now on a tear, Pedregon also collected his first U.S. Nationals crown, topping Del Worsham in the final. It had been Worsham who had beaten Force in the semifinals, preventing what would have been a monstrous matchup between the points frontrunners. Worsham had been another thorn in Force’s side that season, beating him in the semifinals in Englishtown and round two in Columbus, and had given him a real run for the money in the final in Atlanta.
“After we put together those two wins, I think we really got Force’s and Coil’s attention,” said Pedregon, who shared the Indy winner's circle with teammate McCulloch. “But I knew enough to know that these guys were going to be coming, and hell was going to be coming with them.
“John made a statement though that kind of bothered me; he said, ‘If we can get rid of the breakage, we can win,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute; we’re the national record holder and run low e.t. all the time. Getting rid of the breakage is only part of your problem.' "
The Indy win pulled Pedregon to within just about two round wins of Force’s lead, and Pedregon’s stunning third straight win -– coupled with Force’s second-round loss (again to Hoover) -– in Reading, gave the class rookie the points lead by more than two rounds with three races to go. Not only that, but the McDonald’s Olds tore up up the record books in Reading with the three quickest passes in class history: 5.076, 5.077, and 5.078.
Still, Pedregon and Meyer did not let up, winning in Topeka with a final-round victory over Force, just Pedregon's second in six head-to-head meetings so far that season, giving him a nearly six-round lead with just Dallas and Pomona left on the calendar.
High noon in Dallas
Force qualified No. 1 in Dallas and his 5.079 was his quickest pass of the season and seemed put him back on equal footing with Pedregon. Force looked unstoppable in eliminations, cranking off runs of 5.13, 51.6 and, in a semifinal pounding of upstart Gary Bolger, a 5.10. Pedregon, on the other hand, had struggled mightily, barely escaping a round-one race with Jack Wyatt, 5.53 to 5.71, then eking past Mark Oswald’s holeshot in round two by just two-thousandths of a second. The team finally righted itself in the semifinals with a 5.09 to beat Hofmann and earn final-round lane choice.
The final was their seventh meeting of the year, and Force had won four of the first six, and desperately needed this one. Both drivers also had a backup run for a new national record, meaning a potential 800-point swing. This was Force’s big chance. A win and the record could cut Pedregon’s lead in half. If Pedregon could do the same, it was Game Over.
“I had both Larry Meyer and Larry Minor come up to me before the final and tell me that they wanted me to shallow stage so that we could get a better e.t. and maybe the record,” Pedregon recalled. “I was like, ‘Shallow stage against John Force, the deep-stager? No way.’ Finally, I just relaxed and decided to go with the flow and shallow stage. I still thought I could leave on him. Right as I’m putting on my helmet, I hear Force’s voice say, ‘Cruzer, let’s go to work.’ I don't know if he was just trying to get into my head or what.“
Force got out on Pedregon by the slightest of margins, .463 to .479 –- numbers that Pedregon can exact recite a quarter-century later -- and when Pedregon’s red Olds went up in smoke it looked like the Force was strong again.
Pedregon: “My car smoked the tires immediately, and I was like, ‘Oh man …’ and I really thought we were done, then I saw his car, out of the corner of my eye, get in trouble, so I was just trying to do the best job I could to get the car to recover, but it never did.”
Force’s car made it a few hundred feet further before breaking traction and making a move to the guardwall. He pedaled it, saved it, then stepped back on the gas. The front end came up and it headed for the wall again. This time he didn’t miss, clouting it heavily. He lifted, then, even though the race was already lost by disqualification, he nailed the gas again and hit the wall again.
Force: “I remember that he smoked the tires, then we smoked the tires and it went sideways. I missed the wall the first time, came back off the throttle, then hit [the throttle] again and hit the wall. I was so mad that I stayed on the gas because I knew he’d beaten me It was really frustrating. Later I was so frustrated at myself for driving that way.”
After hitting the wall the second time, Force shut it down and rode the guardwall to the stripe as Pedregon blazed past him, tires still smoking to the finish line, to get the win, 7.76 to 7.85.
Pedregon: “It never recovered, so I just decided to leg that sucker all the way through spinning the tires. I got out of the car not sure if I had passed him but didn’t know he’d hit the wall until someone told me.”
Rumors swirled that Force has been knocked out by the second hit. He doesn’t remember being KO’d, but he did suffer a concussion and bruised chest and spent that night at Baylor Medical Center.
Force: "I'll always remember the lesson Cruz taught me. He was cool and calm and I was driving like a madman. I thought I could whip him because I had ‘the magic.’ No, the magic is keeping control of your senses. You get all pumped up with your adrenaline and pissed off, it causes you to change the way you race. He got me mental; he had control of my car, not me. That’s a lesson I learned."
The Dallas victory gave Pedregon a four-round lead heading into the World Finals in Pomona. All Force could hope for was an early exit by Pedregon and a national-record-setting victory by his team. Halfway through qualifying it looked like Force might get his wish as Pedregon’s team, admittedly overconfident, pushed too hard and smoked the tires and on both runs Friday and was not qualified after two sessions.
The McDonald’s team backed it was down for Q3 and made it safely into the show, but it was what happened just in front of their run that caused the greatest stir as Force’s machine smoked the tires early then went out of control.
Force ended up on his roof, sliding down the track behind qualifying mate Wyatt Radke, whom he almost rear-ended. (I remember Radke telling me later that he had no idea what was going on behind him until he looked up at the big screen and saw Force bearing down on him, so he goosed the throttle to get out of the way.)
The story at the time was that Force crashed because his throttle hung open, ostensibly because the team hadn’t correctly seated the body after the Dallas incident, but today Force says he doesn’t remember that happening.
“I don’t know what happened; us drivers create [stuff],” he admitted. “It was really based on not giving up. I wasn’t going to give up. I’d seen guys like [Don] Prudhomme win four championships and then the winning stops and you don’t know why; I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
Force was unhurt –- and in fact made a big show of it, climbing atop his turtled racer as it sat straddling the finish line and raising his hands to the crowd -– and stayed in the show, but there was no great comeback. When Pedregon beat Paul Smith in round one, it was over and Force’s first-round loss to Gary Bolger two pairs later –- courtesy of a broken blower belt --was only salt in the wound. Pedregon reached the semifinals before losing, but was the champion, a clear six rounds ahead of Force.
“Even though we won the championship, I was still disappointed that we didn’t win the race, didn’t make it six in a row; that would have been the little crescendo to cap it all off,” admitted Pedregon. "Still, it was a great year. The car was kind of a Frankenstein of parts and tune-ups -- we had some real oddball stuff in there -- but it worked really well. We 'fixed' it for the next year but obviously couldn't repeat as champions."
Lumps absorbed, Force was back the next year, learning from what had cost them in 1992 to win the '93 championship, the first of 10 in a row stretching to 2002.
Today, Force holds a clear 69–34 winning edge in his battles with Pedregon, but few will forget Dallas 1992 as a huge part of their intertwined careers.
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]