Five Minutes With: Tony Pedregon
Tony Pedregon won two NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car championships and 43 national events in the category before hanging up his driving boots to join the FOX Sports broadcast team this season as a color analyst for NHRA events. NHRA National Dragster Associate Editor Brad Littlefield caught up with Pedregon to discuss his transition from being a driver/team owner to going behind the camera.
How are things going so far in your first year as a color analyst on a new production team for FOX Sports and NHRA?
When I was going in, I thought I would start to get the hang of it after three or four races. It’s taken more like 10 to 12 races. I knew, to some degree, what the job entailed. The biggest unknown for me was knowing how to prepare. That’s one of those things you don’t know until you do it. The biggest surprise to me was that it moves so fast. On TV, you want to be concise to about 5-7 seconds. I think I was accustomed to being able to articulate something in 20 seconds. I think I’m doing a better job now, but that was trickier to adapt to than I had thought. I can honestly say that I’m more comfortable now and can start to get better. Like anything else, the more you can do it, the better you get.
How are your weekends different now in the broadcast world than they were for the last 20 years in the competitive racing world?
The good thing is that I’m still there at the races. The same thing that drew me to the sport before I ever started racing is still there. By nature, it’s an exciting sport. I realized that there was so much preparation that goes into getting ready for a race weekend that race weekends are still busy. The funny thing is I get to the track earlier and stay later than I used to when I had a team. I was OK with the decision then, and I’m OK with it now. My goal is to be good at this. I think it’s an exciting time for the sport. The team that Ken Adelson has brought in is great to work with. I understand their different approach, and I like the fact that they don’t specifically have a racing background but know entertainment. It creates a good balance with Dave Rieff, Lewis Bloom, John Kernan, Bruno Massel Jr., Jamie Howe, and me who all live and breathe racing. I think we’re going in the right direction.
Has the increase in viewership from 2015 to 2016 been above and beyond expectations?
Pleasantly, yes. Prior to the season, we met with FOX, and they shared some of the metrics with us. Anytime you transition from one network to the next, they anticipate ratings to go down. They told us it might take three or four races to get it back up to the line. Right from the start, it was up. On the production side, I can only see that getting better as they get settled in. I think I can get up and running. Overall, everybody has to be pleased. More than anyone, I think our audience is happy that they can find it, and nothing is better than live TV.
How excited are you to bring NHRA back to live network TV on FOX during the Western Swing?
I think that’s what we’ve all been trying to be prepared for. We knew it would take time for everything to come together, and the goal was to be good by the time we got to Denver. I think we’re going to be ready for the opportunity to be live on a major network. It’s a new time with the potential audience that we can reach. I can’t remember anything this good since I was 12 years old watching drag racing on Wide World of Sports. I think this is a great opportunity and something that our sport is deserving of.
What has stood out to you on the track so far in the 2016 NHRA Mello Drag Racing Series season?
The competitiveness of the Funny Car category has been great ever since the start of the season. There were 9-10 cars capable of winning at the first race, and, of course, Ron Capps has won more than anybody. If you look at the list now, there are 13 cars that can win. Chad Head is a driver on that list who hasn’t won, but he’s capable of winning any Sunday. From then to now, the Top Fuel class has got more competitive, too. Tony Schumacher and Shawn Langdon got off to a slow start, but now they are where they want to be. Pro Stock has been a little top-heavy, but that will change by the time the [Countdown to the Championship] comes around. The problem those teams have is that even when they catch up, Jason Line and Greg Anderson are good when everyone’s on the same playing field. They’re not going away. When the Countdown gets here, I see three or four cars that can challenge them. If you look at the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec haven’t been running away because of a performance advantage. There are several riders that have potential. Like Jason and Greg, even when everyone’s on par, they are among the elite riders. The driver element has been playing a role in a lot of races with the exception of Pro Stock, but that will change. There has been a lot of drama. I can see that continuing. It’s going to be fun to be in the position I’m in, because I can speak to that. I’ve been there on the losing end and the winning side as a driver and an owner/driver. I can use my experience to point out what the drivers go through.
As someone who has won a championship in the Countdown era, what factors become important at this stage of the season?
Timing more than anything. Teams may run good in the beginning or in the middle. In the fuel classes, some teams stock away clutch discs and take them out in Charlotte. I think they’re going to try to pace themselves. I’ve seen it before where some cars get off to a great start, but they’re not going to have a chance if they can’t win in the final six events. In Pro Stock, everybody’s going to be happy that there is a reset.