National Hot Rod Association Media Conference
August 4, 2009
MICHAEL PADIAN: The final three races Countdown to Ten are the 28th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals August 13-16, at Brainerd International Raceway in Brainerd, Minnesota, and then the 25th annual Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pennsylvania August 21 through the 23rd, and finally the 55th annual Mac Tools US Nationals, Labor Day weekend at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis.
Today we have with us three of the drivers on the Funny Car bubble right now: Tenth place, Cruz Pedregon; 11th place, Matt Hagan; and 12th place Robert Hight. The three drivers are separated by just 15 points, less than a single round of racing.
I'll begin with the two-time and defending NHRA Full Throttle Series Champion, Cruz Pedregon who drives the Advance Auto Parts Toyota Camery. Cruz, thoughts on these last three races, the tracks, and what strategy you and Rahn will be employing to ensure that you get into the playoffs?
CRUZ PEDREGON: Well, first of all, we kind of -- we just hope to have a fast car, I guess to summarize it. We pretty much have done a pretty good job of shooting ourselves in the foot, and I'm sure, you know, Robert can probably say the same thing, and Matt's car's probably been as good as any of us. But we all lack consistency, which is why we are sitting here talking about the bump spot today.
Our vantage point is we discovered that -- I think in a nutshell, we discovered what we were doing wrong, and I know in racing terms, that everybody has the hot ticket of the week or oh we just found our problem.
But literally, I think we can say that, I think maybe it took getting to this point and really being a lackluster season we've had so far and being in this position for us to -- maybe we are scared straight.
Maybe we are just looking to get back where we were towards the end of last year. We have all that data in our -- right in our fingertips, so we are just trying to figure out why didn't we find out about this earlier. But we didn't and we are here now, so we are just going to make the best of the last three.
MICHAEL PADIAN: As a reminder, Cruz and the Advance team won the last race of the 2008 season to win the championship.
Next I'd like to introduce one of the four contenders for the Auto Club Road to the Future Award, Matt Hagan who drives the Shelor.com Dodge Charger for Don Schumacher Racing.
Matt, you're just a rookie but you have plenty of experience to tap into in the DSR stable with Ron Capps and Jack Beckman there, and I'm wondering, how much of a resource have they been for you as you try to drive around, you know, not only as the defending champion and a perennial championship contender in Robert Hight?
MATT HAGAN: I'd say it's been a tough battle this year. We started off strong and we've had some bumps along the way, but I know in my heart and I know our crew feels the same way, we have a front running car. We've qualified well but we have to make it happen on race day.
But to go back to your question, the guys that I'm able to talk to many my stable here with Ron Capps and Jack Beckman and Corey Schumacher, it's very, very valuable, starting off as a driver, being able to go to them and to bring up different situations and you know, try to experience new things and try to learn from those guys, because they have gone through the school of hard knocks before. If I'm going to learn something and I don't have to go do it by talking to those guys, and when you come up against tough competitors like Cruz and Robert, you've got to have everything together, and you definitely don't want to leave anything on the table.
So I'm trying to learn from those guys and I'm also learning there's a big learning curve ahead of me still so, hopefully we'll do well with what we have.
MICHAEL PADIAN: The third driver I'd like to introduce today is Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang. Robert won the 2005 Auto Club Road to the Future Award when he finished in fifth place last year, and he's since finished second, second and fourth place the last three years.
Robert, it's been an unusual year for you, you've been stuck in 12th place now for nine races, but it seems like the Auto Club Ford has begun to show signs of life on the Western Swing. Have you and Jimmy Prock found what you were looking for? Cruz was talking about they found something; have you guys found something that you've been looking for all season and time to get the Auto Club Ford into the Playoffs?
ROBERT HIGHT: I think so. It's definitely starting to show a little promise. Like Cruz said, that's what we are lacking is consistency, and that's why we are in the shoes we are in.
We probably changed way too much stuff over the winter, and you know, normally, our teams go out and test a lot, so that's hurt us. The best car we've got on our team is Ashley, and you know, Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas did a great job in not taking anything on that car. You know, they haven't even used up a test session, as I know Tony and Cruz haven't been testing.
Tony's probably got the best car out there. So it's obvious that they probably didn't change a lot either, you know, at the beginning of the year, you always fear, you look at the cars contending, and there's more than ten good cars. So you know, my fear is kind of with me right now, because nobody believes that, you know, it's a guarantee to get in the Top-10.
That's where we are at right now. We are chasing a car that won the world championship last year, he's a great driver, and also, Matt Hagan, who I hope gets the Rookie of the Year because he's one of us, he's a Funny Car guy.
But it's going to be exciting the last three races, that's for sure, and just hope that we have what it takes to get this Auto Club Ford where it needs to be.
Q. Robert, can you talk a little about what happened in round three at Infineon, and also what you said about making a lot of changes, are you kind of going back and trying to put things back the way they were?
ROBERT HIGHT: Yes, that's basically -- at Chicago, we started kind of backtracking and putting this car back like it was last year. Since then, it's shown some promise.
But yeah, I definitely messed up at Infineon in the semis against Tony. You know, he's a killer. I rolled her in there and actually went a little too deep and the top light was blinking and instead of just letting it go, I tried to roll a little further and keep it from blinking, and the tree came down and I never even saw yellow. I heard Tony leave; I guess lucky for me, my car smoked the tires and I wasn't the one that lost it. But it still was a dumb mistake on my part, and you know, you've got to learn from those and move on.
You know, you've got to be on your game up there. With thousand-foot racing, the starting line is huge anymore.
Q. Both of you are proven entities, can you tell me what you know about Matt Hagan?
CRUZ PEDREGON: I can answer that. I know Matt Hagan comes from the FRAM rookie, but I know of him because I'm a fan of racing and I pay attention to the different kind of cars, and I know he's raced quite a bit in the IHRA and I believe in Funny Car a year before, maybe two years. In fact, I used to look on-line and I was wondering who the heck Matt Hagan was. He was running some pretty good runs and going to finals and cutting his teeth there and running on some of the racetracks that maybe are not the caliber of NHRA.
But then I understand he did some pro-mod racing, so you know, he's a heck of a nice guy. Seems like a very polished guy, and actually I bought one of his Toyota Shelor bodies that they ran last year. Got to know his Dad a little bit, a very class act. Formidable driver. He's in a good car and not taking that rookie business too far, because I feel like he's maybe newer than we are, but for sure, newer than me, but I think, you know, he's been around and he's seemed like he's handling it just fine. It's going to be interesting down the stretch.
ROBERT HIGHT: Yeah, I've got to hang out a couple of times with Matt. You know, we did some bowling there in Las Vegas. We were on the Funny Car team and we won. He's just a little good guy. I think he actually got his first round win against me at Gainesville. I remember my first round win and how excited I was, and he was just a good guy about it all.
So like I said earlier, he's my vote for Rookie of the Year. These funny cars are tough to drive, not that the dragsters aren't. He's just a good guy. He's on a good team over there with Schumacher and Kraj (ph); they wouldn't have hired him unless he was a class act and definitely had the talent to do what he's doing.
Q. Do you feel that you're at a disadvantage, because you're essentially a single-car team and running your own operation and running against Hagan with all of the backing of Schumacher and their resources and drivers and against Robert Hight, who has the whole John force team with him?
CRUZ PEDREGON: Well, to answer your question, no, I don't feel like I'm at a disadvantage. I think I am part of a multi-car team; one of the car is my brother. We are unique in that we don't have the headaches of one owner coming in and dealing with all of the stresses of running a team. I know it's difficult to run one team, let alone three or four. I don't know how Schumacher and John Force do it. I know it's very stressful.
But we help each other, Tony and I, and so we are really part of a multi-car team. It doesn't look like it, but we are. No disadvantage. We get on a roll, which is what it's going to take probably, because Robert and you guys have mentioned, it's starting to look like his car is coming to life.
We did a match race Saturday night up in Norwalk, and his car made two, it looked like, pretty flawless runs up there. And I know Matt has a good car, ran a 4:06 at the last race, and looks good there to make a run there.
So you know, I think it it's going to take the best we have, and so you know, like we did when we went on the championship run, we didn't worry too much about the competition as long as we can take care of business.
And I look at it this way; let me just say this: I firmly believe that if we are good enough, then we deserve it. If not, I don't really want to be a -- and as it may sound odd, I don't want to be in the Top-10 if we don't deserve it. And believe me, I'll be the first guy to shake whoever's hand of these two guys that can take us out, and I mean that sincerely. I don't mean to not sound cocky, but I'm looking forward to challenge ourselves and see if we are good enough.
I think we are, but time will tell.
MICHAEL PADIAN: A footnote before we move along to go through the standings. It's not just these three drivers for two spots. Just Nike Neff is only 27 points clear of Cruz in tenth place, and John Force is another 32 points ahead of Nike Neff, which would put him 59 points ahead of Cruz. So there really are potentially five drivers for three spots depending on how these last three races shake out. Those standings are available on NHRA.com or on the front page of our media notes at media.NHRA.com.
Q. For Cruz and Robert, in light of what Michael was just saying, with five guys that I guess are considered on the bubble and looking at the two of you guys and John, it would now finally reach that point with Funny Car where you can throw a blanket over pretty much the whole field and that there is that kind of parity where one to ten really are not separated by that much?
ROBERT HIGHT: Yeah, you know, actually one through ten is separated quite a bit in the points. Because Capps has won five races, Tony has won quite a few, Ashley is right up there. It's definitely a close class, and you know, the Countdown I think has kind of created this deal, because you just know you have to be in the Top-10; and not that that's easy, but I think some of the teams might test a little more and do things that they normally would not have to. I know the Countdown the got me the first year. I know that I wouldn't have won the world championship without it, and I wasn't a big fan of it at the time. But now the Countdown is the only thing that's saving and salvaging my season and I am a big fan of it.
I know the fans love it and it's a lot of excitement for them. My other two teammates, Neff and Force, they definitely know that they are not secure in the deal, and it's going to be exciting, the last three races. Indy is our biggest race. We are looking forward to it but we definitely have to have a good car. We are not going to get in there by being lucky or just running mediocre. We are going to have to run good.
CRUZ PEDREGON: I will say this, in spite of the wins that guys have had, even Capps, we are out pretty much on an even keel when we show up. They have struggled, the Capps car, the Napa car has struggled and they are beatable, and, in fact, they did get beat. It is deceiving when you have the same few guys that have won, Tony, Capps, lately Wilkerson.
But if you look at Tim Wilkerson, if you look at the top three from last year with myself, Wilkerson and Robert, up until Wilkerson went on his little run, he was seventh and eighth, struggling to get in the Top-10 also.
When people ask what the heck is wrong with me, I turn around and say: Hey, when you look at point the we are like ninth, tenth and 11th, top three from last year. So that just goes to show the difficulty of not only repeating but just getting back in there.
That pretty much summarizes it there. Again, the top two cars from last year, let's say with Wilkerson and myself and Hight, we are sitting here talking about trying to get in. So definitely different from what it was five, six, ten years ago, that's for sure.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Tony won his first championship in 1992 separated by 16 years from last year so, he would obviously be able to offer a perspective ON how the Funny Car class has changed in that period.
Q. Robert, have you and Jimmy and your team been able to get any information from the other cars, or the Neff and John's teams, are they pretty much keeping it to themselves because you are all fighting for that position?
ROBERT HIGHT: No. Our team, John Force, doesn't work that way. We try to help each other and our goal is to have four Ford Mustangs in the Top-10, especially since Ford is a major sponsor of the NHRA it's going to be good if we can do that.
No, we help each other and work together. Sometimes, though, we have different combinations. We don't always run these cars the same way, and that can be good and bad. Ashley's car, it's the best car we've got. And back at Chicago, a few races ago, we decided to put our car more back like we used to run it, which is how Ashley's car is ran and we share data with them and work together.
No, definitely, we all help each other and we are working together to have four in the Top-10.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Matt made his NHRA debut last year in Reading and followed that up at Indy and he qualified for the US Nationals in his second career start in the NHRA.
We are talking about this being your rookie year, how important is it for you with these last three races that you've already been to two of the tracks?
MATT HAGAN: I'd say it's huge but you learn something new every time you come to one of these tracks. I've never got in a race car and said, well, I know exactly what's going to happen.
You know, it's definitely going to be a learning curve as far as now that I have more power this year and getting used to the car and stuff like that.
It's always an experience every time you get in the car, but I tell you, it's something at least knowing that these tracks, they are all a little bit different. Some tracks try to pull you inside, some tracks try to pull you to the left or to the right. And keeping it in the groove, and that has a lot to do with being able to win races and win laps, because you know, each track is a little bit different.
So at least going into this race, I kind of know what's going to happen here at Indy, and also at Reading. But Brainerd will be kind of new for me, so I'm interested to get out there and get out to that track and meet the people out there. It's always exciting to meet new fans.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Is it intimidating at all to have Robert and Cruz being your chief competition going into these final three races to try and get in the Playoffs, and how much pressure is there internally to get in the Top-10 for you?
MATT HAGAN: I'm not sure it's so much intimidating as it is respect. Those guys are tough competitors and they have got very, very fast race cars and can win any time.
You know, anybody in this field that qualifies for these races can win at any time. You've just got to have a little bit of race luck on Sunday and you also have to just kind of do the right things in the car, and both of these guys are good drivers.
You know, so I think there's definitely going to be a lot of pressure for me to perform as a driver for me to keep up with these seasoned veterans. They have been out here doing it forever. And to watch Robert and Cruz drive, they probably are looking over in the stands if they wanted to, but they are just good drivers and well-rounded, and just basically have the total package and have good crew chiefs, also.
You know, it makes it tough to know that you've got those type of drivers beside you that are also hunting it out there to get in the Top-10. But you know, we have got to put that to the.
Side right now and really focus on what we need to do with our race car and our team to make sure that we secure our spot in the Countdown, because like I said, anybody can win. You've just got to be there.
Q. What has been the toughest for you and your team this season; do you believe that there is a way to create momentum?
ROBERT HIGHT: Well, consistency, that's the biggest reason, like Cruz said earlier, why we are all here; we have not been consistent.
You know, going up the racetrack and down four times in qualifying and being up near the top four cars every run down the track helps. And that's how you get momentum. The crew chief gets confidence, the driver gets confidence, and you know you're going to get up there and you know you're going to go down the racetrack. That's something that we have not had much this year.
So look at Cruz last year, he had the best car the last three races of the year and just basically dominated. We've got to be in that Top-10; any of the Top-10 drivers can win this championship, and you've just got to get the momentum and get hot at the right time. And that's what it's going to take.
Again, as good as the cars are and the competition, if you had a semi-final average, every race in the Countdown or every race up to this point, you know, you're secure and you might even win the championship. So you don't do that without consistency and just going down the racetrack.
Q. The 25th race is coming up in August, and you were one of the earlier winners back in 1992, since you first raced at Maple Grove, from a driver's standpoint, how has the track changed for you over the years, if at all?
CRUZ PEDREGON: Not really at all. It's one of those tracks that has a lot of uniqueness to it. When I first pulled in there, I didn't even know I was pulling up on an approach to the racetrack. I thought I was last. In fact, I get lost pretty much every time I go there it seems like, and it's a very -- nestled in between a bunch of mountains and trees, and it's just a unique -- it's just a fast little kind of a -- a little bumpy, but I think bumps give tracks personality. I know crew chiefs don't really care for that, but we were a good car last year, and, in fact, Ron and my crew chef were looking at notes of what we did. We lost; we slowed our cars down a little too much because of one of the bumps. We interpreted the bumps as spinning the tires and Beckman beat us. It was a good race.
To answer your question, it's still unique. I love the track. I'd love to win there again obviously. I think '92 was one of the last times we won there. So seem like a hundred years ago, but like I said, it has not changed much, but probably for a good reason. It's just unique. It's way different than any track you'll find in the circuit.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Final quick note where we wrap up. History at these three tracks as I mentioned with Matt, this is his rookie year. He did race last year at Reading, made his NHRA debut and qualified number 16 in Indianapolis at the Mac Tools Internationals last year. Cruz had his final round at any of these tracks was 2004 and he mentioned the win in Reading in 1992, his previous championship season. Robert has had a little bit more history at the three tracks. At Indianapolis, Robert has been to the final round the last three years with wins in 2008 and 2006 and runner-up in 2007.
So that brings us to the conclusion of today's teleconference, thank you all for joining us.
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