Tony Pedregon proved his worth as a racer a long time ago. When he’s outside the seat of his Q Horsepower Chevy ImpalaFunny Car he continues to prove his worth as a man on a daily basis. After winning the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Ohio last weekend he offered up a prayer for Scott Kalitta and then, rather than spitting out a list of sponsors as if by rote, he talked about the need for the racing community to heal itself following that tragedy. Still later, addressing the fans gathered in the Summit Motorsports Park staging lanes for the winner’s celebration, he exhorted the parents present to spend time with their kids, because they’re what really counts in life.
This is not the same Tony Pedregon who raced for, and won his first championship with John Force. He’s clearly his own man these days, and as such remains outspoken about the issues that he believes are critical to the sport’s success.
Almost a month ago, on Saturday evening, June 7th, Pedregon was making a qualifying run during the Route 66 Nationals when his Dickie Venables-tuned engine had some sort of internal “disagreement” and burst into flames. Unable to see clearly through the smoke and fire, Pedregon unintentionally rode the concrete guardwall until his car came to a sudden and dramatic stop. It had hit a heavy steel gate that members of the finish line work team apparently left open after Bob Tasca’s car had used it to exit the racing surface after an aborted run.
Later that evening, when questioned about the incident a member of the NHRA Media Department vehemently denied that Pedregon had hit the gate. That statement had to be withdrawn when NHRA vp Graham Light later acknowledged that a mistake had been made by the crew, and Pedregon had indeed hit the gate.
Almost 30 days later Pedregon has yet to get over the incident. “I was given, in my opinion, a partial apology,” Pedregon told CompetitionPlus.com in an exclusive interview. “We knew the gate was open (based on the damage to the car), but (NHRA) denied it at first. It was pretty clear on the (ESPN) tape that it was open.
“The explanation that I got was that whoever was working the gate saw the car coming down and caught on fire, and proceeded to open it. However, I’ve got three very credible witnesses that were with the previous car that actually took that opening (in the guardwall) that even asked the gate personnel if they were going to close the gate (before I ran). In my opinion the gate was never closed. Why (NHRA) would apologize and say someone had attempted to open the gate, well, I don’t know if that’s humanly possible. It’s a heavy gate and you’ve got to pull a (heavy steel) pin. By the time a car lights up ‘til it gets to that point on the track is literally a couple of seconds.
“Prior to (racing in) Englishtown I was hoping to go into the ESPN trailer to look at some different angles (of the incident) just to try and clarify this, so that we know what we’re up against. It appears that Graham (Light) told someone at ESPN that no one was to view that footage.
“It’s pretty disappointing that they acknowledged the gate was open, and I’m probably the one out of a hundred that it (impacted), but again, that’s a very, very dangerous situation. The fact that the gate was probably open, I just don’t see why they don’t acknowledge that the gate was open. It almost seems like (NHRA) is still trying to cover some of it up, and not really admit (anything) – and I think that’s part of the problem across the boards. If the racers are giving you input, and you want that input, why not maintain a good relationship and be forthcoming with information.”
Pedregon says that the incident set him back about $60,000. “Before I went to the next race I had a $12,000 chassis bill,” he says. “That was due to the gate being open. Of course, in that situation it probably worked out better for us that (the gate) took the body off the car (because it helped eliminate the fire).
“Another couple of inches one way or the other and there’s the potential for the car suddenly stopping, flipping…there’s so many different scenarios, it’s just not a good situation. So, at this stage of the game you wouldn’t think that we’d have these issues that we constantly remind (NHRA) about, like closing the gates.”
When we asked Pedregon pointedly if he was sure Light had told ESPN not the share the footage with him, he said, “I was told that by Paul Page (ESPN announcer). I asked him, ‘How do I go about seeing some better views (of the incident)?’ His suggestion was to go into the ESPN trailer. They’ll be set up in Englishtown by noon (on Friday).”
According to Pedregon, Page came over to his pit area at Englishtown to get a pre-race comment, so he told him he was about to head over to the ESPN compound to ask about looking at the footage. “Page told me that he didn’t think they were going to let anyone look at it,” Pedregon says. “At that point I really knew what happened (in Joliet). I knew prior to that. I just wanted to see (the video footage) for myself.
“To me it’s just common sense. Initially (NHRA) shouldn’t have denied (that the gate was open). I knew that by riding up against the wall, and then looking at the (broken) wheel on the car that you don’t get that unless the wall’s open. It’s unfortunate that we had to go through that ordeal just to get some acknowledgement (that the gate was open).”
Following our conversation we sought out an ESPN representative who confirmed that NHRA had specifically told them not to give Pedregon access to the footage. “While (ESPN) controls what’s shot and shown on the air, the company believes that NHRA owns the rights to the footage, and it’s therefore their right to deny anyone access to the stuff if they want to.”
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