Pedregon begins defense of funny car title

Times Staff Writer

Funny car driver Tony Ped- regon won an NHRA Power- ade Drag Racing Series championship for John Force Racing in 2003, then seized the moment.

He left the comfort of Force's stable and started his own team. He switched to Chevrolet from Ford, and took on sponsorship from Quaker State after previously carrying Castrol colors. He took crew chief Dickie Venables with him, as well.

There were those who thought his grand venture was a career-killer. But four seasons into his decision, Pedregon won another title, this time as owner and driver.

He began defense of his National Hot Rod Assn., title on Thursday.

He was third through the first round of qualifying at the 48th Carquest Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona Raceway.

Pedregon's Chevy Impala funny car powered down the quarter-mile in 4.845 seconds with a class-best 325.45 mph.

Scott Kalitta was the top qualifier at 4.818 seconds and 322.65 mph in his 2008 Toyota Solara. Bob Bode was second, and the Force Racing duo of Mike Neff and Ashley Force were fourth and fifth. John Force, in his first competition since a season-ending crash four months ago, was 14th.

Four-time defending champion Tony Schumacher was the No. 1 qualifier in top fuel at 4.513 seconds and 331.53 mph.

Pedregon won four races last year, including two of the last four. His victory at Las Vegas almost clinched the championship by the time he raced in the season-ending NHRA Finals.

"It took a lot of hard work, but it was a great feeling, not just a good feeling. It was a lot more gratifying" than winning the title with Force, Pedregon said. "I think I quieted the critics, and I hope to do it some more."

A second-generation racer -- he is the son of the late Frank Pedregon -- Tony ended Force's streak of 10 consecutive titles in 2003, and is the only man other than Force to win multiple championships since 1990.

With a new championship format -- the points are reset for a six-race playoff to end the season instead of the two-tiered countdown from a year ago -- Pedregon hopes to repeat last season's magic.

"I watched the Super Bowl. That's why you don't run races on paper," Pedregon said. "What really counts is what you think, and what you do. And when you put those things together, we're tough to beat."

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martin.henderson@latimes.com

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