Pedregon blazes to fast time at Bristol

By Jeff Birchfield

STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Tony Pedregon blazed down the Bristol Dragway quarter-mile at a speed of 322.34 miles per hour Friday night to earn the No. 1 qualifier in the Funny Car class at the NHRA's MAC Tools Thunder Valley Nationals.
   Pedregon's pass of 4.844 seconds in his Castrol-sponsored Ford easily was the best of the first day session with Tim Wilkerson's Pontiac coming in second with an elapsed time of 4.895 seconds. Speed-wise third place qualifier and Pedregon team owner John Force was second on the charts with a run of 310.20 mph. Ron Capps, the defending race winner, was the fourth fastest qualifier.
   "Our car was right at the edge," said Pedregon, whose older brother Cruz, the 1992 Funny Car champ, also qualified for today's race. "I don't know if it could have taken too much more. We knew the conditions were good when we got to the track.
   "I think the big question was whether the track was where it needed to be in order for us to post some mid-to-low 4.80's. We looked at the surface, and I think it was the first time we decided to go for the low ET. I thought the time would hold, although I was concerned about a couple of cars."
   Force, an 11-time Funny Car champion and current points leader in the Powerade standings, is going for a third victory of the season. Force is coming off a historic 100th career win at the tour's last stop.
   While Pedregon's speed was easily the best of the Funny Cars, Larry Dixon put a run in the Saturday morning session to eclipse Kenny Bernstein's overall fastest speed on Friday. Bernstein's 4.599 second mph run in the Budweiser King looked unbeatable until Dixon's Miller Lite dragster cranked out a 4.583 et. Third fastest was defending race champion Doug Kalitta in the race sponsor MAC Tools car.
   "Usually when you fire a shot, it's on Friday night," said Dixon about his 11th career No. 1 qualifying run. "The conditions are with you then. The weather played a lot into it. I think the weather was still very good. The sun stayed off the race track and without the sun on the track is such a big deal.
   "This is a neat place. The first time I come here was with my dad during seventh grade on summer vacation in 1978. I've always loved coming here since he was racing. It's amazing how loud the cars are, "Thunder Valley", to people who haven't been here, don't know. I always have a good time when I come in here."
   Dixon's Saturday heroics denied Bernstein a 62nd pole, in a career scheduled to end at the conclusion of this season. The driver of the Bud King comes into today as the most recent on the tour winning at Houston two weeks ago. Bernstein's final season before handing over driving duties to son Brandon has been aptly nicknamed, "Forever Red, A Run to Remember Tour".
   "It was a great run," said Bernstein, whose speed of 323.27 mph set a new Bristol track record. "I think it caught us all off guard. We didn't expect it to be that good. I think everybody thought the evening times would be really good, but sometimes it just doesn't work that way.
   "I think we're still learning how to run this tire in all conditions. We haven't run a lot of night sessions in cool weather like this with this tire."
   Three female competitors posted speeds good enough to make it into today's elimination round. Four-time World Champion Shirley Muldowney headlines the list with her 8th fastest time along with Rhonda Hartman-Smith and Melanie Troxel. Hartman-Smith paced a phase of one qualifying session for a fifth best overall to earn her way into the round of 16.
   The final of the big three professional classes, the Pro Stock division, saw former Bristol race winner Troy Coughlin with the fast time of 6.853 seconds. Troy, driving one of two Jeg's Chevrolets along with brother Jeg Coughlin Jr., registered a speed of 200.74 mph. While impressive, the speed was bettered by four of the five drivers who qualified directly behind him.
   Four-time Pro Stock champion Jim Yates was the second place driver with his time of 6.857 seconds just four one-thousandths of a second behind the time of Coughlin. V. Gaines came out of the sessions third, with defending event winner Greg Anderson in fourth and Ron Krisher with the fastest qualifying speed in fifth.
   "We're excited for Team Jeg's," said Coughlin, who won the 2000 Pro Stock event when it was part of the Winston Showdown race weekend. "We made some great decisions and had a great car with out Chevrolet. 2000 was a great year and '99 was just as good when Jeg and I met here in the finals. Hopefully, we can meet in the finals again.
   "I think we've found a car set-up that works at Bristol. We've put a lot of laps on this race track and any data you can get is positive. We're using that same data from last year and the year before, just using it with a different car."
   The Pro Stock division saw different outcomes for two contestants with prior sporting experience in professional basketball. Larry Nance, the former NBA slam dunk champion, made the field with the 14th fastest time, while Tom Hammonds missed the show with a 20th place run.
   It was also a big weekend for local entries with Todd Paton of Bluff City making the cut in the Funny Car division. "It's really exciting," said Paton, a transplanted Canadian. "There was a little bit of extra pressure competing close to home with friends and family. We're glad to make them proud. Hopefully, we can carry on and take home the hardware."
   Greeneville driver Allen Johnson and Kingsport's Tom Lee, teammates in the operation that Johnson owns, each attempted to make the Pro Stock final cut. Lee was successful starting his bracket today from 11th place bracket, while Johnson was the fastest car not to qualify only two one-thousandths of a second off the pace.
   Some who missed the field included former Top Fuel champ Gary Scelzi now in the Funny Car ranks and Bruce Allen, the No. 1 Pro Stock qualifier one year ago.
   With qualifications now finished, attention turns to today's elimination round. Spectator gates open at 7:00 a.m. and eliminations begin at 11:00 a.m. with racing at Thunder Valley to continue throughout the afternoon.