The last Funny Car driver to turn on a win light in NHRA competition is Cruz Pedregon who, of course, won the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals last November. Based on his performance during pre-season testing, Pedregon also figures to gain his fair share of win lights again this season. The two-time Funny Car champ was one of the few drivers who didn’t want the 2022 season to end, but he’s now more than excited to kick off his 2023 campaign.
Pedregon was one of more than a dozen NHRA nitro racers to make runs on Tuesday at Gainesville Raceway, and one of the few who opted to drive to the finish line, including a very impressive 3.89 at over 331 mph in his Snap-on Dodge Charger. The car that Pedregon drove on Tuesday is not the same car that he ran in Pomona. Rather, it’s a new chassis that had approximately four or five runs on it.
“With the car that we ran in Pomona, we know exactly what we have and obviously, its pretty good,” said Pedregon, who won the Gainesville Top Alcohol Dragster title in 1989 and earned a Funny Car victory in 1998. “The new car is identical to the old car, at least as close as we can make it, so we decided to come here and make a few runs. We’ve also got a couple of new crew members so it’s good to come out here and get them into the routine. So far, I’d say I’m pretty happy with the way everything is coming together. I don’t really like to call this testing. It’s more like pre-season football where you practice and try to simulate game conditions as closely as possible. We don’t often get a chance to test on a [national event track] the same week as we race, so this is a big plus as far as having the same conditions that we’ll probably face this weekend.”
Pedregon’s success with his new car has left him with at least one major decision to make. Race the new car or go back to the tried and true car that he ran last fall in Pomona? He admits the decision isn’t that easy.
“Hmm, right now, I’m not sure; that’s actually a tough one,” he says. “With the old car, we know exactly what we have but right now I’d say the leader in the clubhouse is the new car. Either way, it’s nice to have that option. If we get in a situation where we have to bring out a back-up car, we should know exactly what we have. Honestly, it might be a game time decision. I”ll talk to John [Collins, crew chief] and Lee [Beard, consultant], and well decide what we think is best.”
Another driver who has plenty of reason for optimism ahead of the season-opener is Bob Tasca III, who drove his Motorcraft Quick Lane Ford to a very quick 3.85 to set the pace for Funny Car teams. Tasca has tested extensively over the past few weeks as he adjusts to new crew chiefs Aaron Brooks and Todd Okuhara. Tasca also tested in Gainesville last week and returned with a string of 3.8 and low 3.9-second time slips. Given the changes to his team, Tasca was one of the season’s big question marks, but he’s in the process of answering those questions in short order.
“These guys have exceeded every expectation I may have had. I’m so impressed with what Todd and Aaron have done,” said Tasca. “We kind of picked up where we left off but the car today is very very different from when we left Pomona. These guys found a lot of things they wanted to change. The harsh reality is car ran good last year, but not good enough to win a championship. I was arguably better than anyone in the summer but we struggled on the cool tracks. We were a threat to no one. We had to make some changes, so [the crew change] might have been a blessing in disguise. I went faster today than I have in the last two-and-a-half years.
“We go down a hot track as quick as I’ve ever been. Todd and Aaron have a completely different attitude. Their attention to detail is unlike any team I’ve ever been a part of. When this happened, the first two people that came to mind were Todd and Aaron. Todd was a big part of me coming back to race in 2017 and I’ve always loved Aaron’s aggressive style. We needed to have a good test and we got it. We worked hard for it and we got it. Now, we have to go race.”
Tuesday was a busy day for Funny Car racers as Ron Capps, Tim Wilkerson, Paul Lee, J.R. Todd, Chad Green, John Force, Robert Hight, and Blake Alexander. Reigning world champ Capps was solidly in the 3.9s with a 3.93 best at 327.66 mph while 16-time champ John Force came through late in the day with a 3.956, 328.46 behind the wheel of his Peak/Blu Def Camaro. Lee also found the threes with his McLeod Clutches entry with a 3.993, 319.28 run as did Alexander, who drove the Pronto/Head Racing Ford to an impressive 3.974, stepping off the throttle well before the finish line.
Much like Pedregon, Antron Brown also finished the 2022 season on a high note, but his Matco Tools team isn’t about to take a conservative approach as they head into the new season. Brown made three runs on Tuesday and plans to make several more during Wednesday’s test as he looks to get off to the sort of fast start that eluded him last season.
“We were down here [in Gainesville] a couple weeks ago and ran a bunch of 3.6 runs and all of them were early shut-offs,” said Brown. “We’ve got a bunch of new parts that we want to test but we couldn’t do it before now because we didn’t have them. So, today [Tuesday] and tomorrow, we’ll probably try some of the new stuff, and then when the race starts on Friday, we’ll go back to our old set-up because we know what we have there.
“You’ve got to keep moving forward in this sport so that’s one of the reasons why we’re trying a bunch of new stuff, but for now, we’re very comfortable with what we’ve got. Last year, we struggled at the start of the season but Mark [Oswald] and Brian [Corradi] got after it and they figured out the problem and we ended up having a great year. Now, I want to see that sort of consistency for the entire season. That’s our goal.”
Brown did not make full runs on Tuesday. His best was a 3.817 at “just” 300.40 mph, but the team felt like they gathered enough data to deem the test successful. Brittany Force did drive her Monster Energy dragster a bit further and was rewarded with low elapsed time of the day with a 3.714 at just over 331-mph. Force is not only the reigning world champ, but also the 2016 Gatornationals winner.
Tuesday’s Top Fuel field included Force’s teammate, Austin Prock, Doug Foley, Kalitta Motorsports teammates Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta, Justin Ashley, and eight-time world champ Tony Schumacher.