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Force Feels No Pressure

Times Staff Writer

The way John Force looks at it, he can’t lose.

“If Tony [Pedregon] wins, I win. If I win, I win. So what could be better?”

The way Pedregon looks at it, he wants to win to make a statement for his family and for second-generation drivers.

“If I could win, it would be huge for the Pedregon family, being the first time John has been beaten since [brother] Cruz did it 10 years ago. It would be huge for the whole family, growing up the way we did in Southern California watching our dad drive.”

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The catch: Force is Pedregon’s boss. Also his mentor and biggest rooter.

Both say they will be going all out, with no team orders except to try to win, when the 38th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals get underway today at Pomona Raceway.

“The guys in the shop gave me a great hot rod and they gave Tony a great hot rod, so we’ll shoot it out and see what happens,” Force said. “No matter what, a Castrol Mustang will be the champion.”

The funny car championship race, involving only Force and Pedregon, is the only National Hot Rod Assn. professional title yet to be decided. Larry Dixon in top fuel, Jeg Coughlin in pro stock and Angelle Savoie in pro stock bike, all clinched their titles last month in Las Vegas.

Force has won nine consecutive funny car crowns since Cruz Pedregon upset him in 1992. Going into the season’s final event, Force, 53, has a 31-point lead over his 37-year-old protege -- the equivalent of two rounds of racing. If Force can reach the semifinals Sunday, Pedregon cannot catch him even if he wins the event.

“I need some help, no doubt about it,” Pedregon said, “but as tight as the fields have been this year, you’ve got to fight for every round. John’s been upset in the early rounds before. I just have to mind my own business and make sure I don’t stumble.”

The first professional qualifying session will start at 1:45 p.m. today with one Friday and two Saturday to set the 16-car field for final eliminations.

Pedregon had been the hottest driver in funny cars -- short wheel base cars with a fiberglass replica of a production car, capable of 325 mph in less than five seconds from a standing start -- until he met the boss in Las Vegas. In the last five events, Pedregon has won three finals and qualified No. 1 four times.

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Las Vegas produced a dramatic final-round match of the teammates that Force won with a 4.82-second run at 305.22 mph to 4.86 and 301.94.

Cruz, the older brother, also is a funny car entrant, but has been giving Tony some advice.

“He told me to check the ladder after Saturday’s final qualifying round and see who was between me and the finals, and who was between John and the finals, and start figuring out how to get there,” Tony said.

“An ideal situation for me would be to be in the same half of the draw with John and catch him in an early round. That way I could control my own destiny.”

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The Castrol teammates have met four times this season, Force winning three.

“I love Tony and I’d love to see him be champion, but when I get out there on the line the competitor in me comes out and I’ll do whatever it takes to beat him,” Force said. “It’s great that we get to settle it in Pomona on our home track. Both of us came up the same way, scrapping for parts and money trying to make a name for ourselves in this area before we hit on the right combination.

“You know, I went 15 years out here before I won anything. Tony hasn’t been around that long, but he knows what it’s like when you wonder if you’ll ever win. It’s a great feeling, for me, that no matter what happens I’ll be a winner.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Auto Club NHRA Finals

When: Today, qualifying, 1:45 p.m.; Friday, qualifying, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, qualifying 11 a.m. (ESPN2, 6 p.m., tape); Sunday, eliminations 11 a.m. (ESPN, 2 p.m., tape).

Where: Pomona Raceway.

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2001 winners: Kenny Bernstein (top fuel), Angelle Savoie (pro stock motorcycle), Del Worsham (funny car), Bruce Allen (pro stock), Mike Coughlin (pro stock truck).

Tickets: Ticketmaster, (213) 480-3232.


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