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Tony Pedregon Switches Seats

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 11 2016
Tony Pedregon is moving out of his old office and into a new office for the 2016 drag racing season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Tony Pedregon is moving out of his old office and into a new office for the 2016 drag racing season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Tony Pedregon says his move from NHRA Funny Car owner/driver to FOX Sports color analyst has been all about timing, and a guy named Jeff.

“My biggest problem is I decided to get out of the seat and Jeff Gordon did the same thing,” Pedregon joked during a recent interview. “So, many of you didn’t hear about me stepping out of the seat and starting to work for FOX. I blame Jeff for that.”

A four-time Sprint Cup Series champion, Sir Jeff will begin his second career as a member of FOX

Tony Pedregon will be gripping a microphone this coming NHRA season, not a Funny Car steering wheel.

Tony Pedregon will be gripping a microphone this coming NHRA season, not a Funny Car steering wheel.

Sports’ NASCAR broadcast team during SpeedWeeks at Daytona International Speedway. Simultaneously, Pedregon _ a two-time Funny Car world champion _ will make his debut as fulltime analyst as the network launches Its new NHRA partnership with three hours of live coverage Sunday at 5 p.m. (EST) from the 56th annual Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.

Qualifying coverage from Auto Club Raceway, the first of 24 events on the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, premieres Friday on FS1 at 10:30 p.m. (EST) and continues Saturday night/Sunday morning at 1 a.m. (EST).

“I’ve grown up around the sport of drag racing, second generation,” said Pedregon, the brother of two-time NHRA Funny Car world champ Cruz. “I look back on when I was younger and how obsessed we were with racing. I mean, we grew up down the street from Ascot Park so we used to sneak off to watch the dirt races, we loved Indy car…but we were a little partial to drag racing just because of what it was _ it shoots fire!

“I remember the smell of nitro, the smell of rubber and all these years later it hasn’t changed. But what has changed is the ground shakes a lot more and how I’ve been able to make a career out of racing for what would have been 20 years. I was going to get a watch next year. It’s a great product and I think this partnership is going to help us put the sport in front of new people.”

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series had aired exclusively on the ESPN family of networks since 2001, concluding its 15th season on ESPN and ESPN2 in November. FOX Sports and the NHRA announced an historic television package in mid-July highlighted by 16 live events, including four on the FOX broadcast network _ a first for the professional drag racing series. FS1 and FOX will air more than 120 hours of original TV programming.

Pedregon joins a team featuring Dave Rieff providing play-by-play and Bruno Massel and Jamie Howe reporting from the pits. Indianapolis Bureau Chief John Kernan will contribute feature reports and Lewis Bloom will handle stats and additional side bars. The broadcast team began the process of building chemistry during a full dress rehearsal last weekend at the NHRA Nitro Spring Training sessions at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz., near Phoenix.

“It helped me more than you can imagine,” Pedregon said. “To this point, all I’ve been able to do is watch and listen. I knew going through a rehearsal would benefit the team but, especially me since I’m the only one that’s coming into this position with minimal experience. I feel the pressure but I also feel the excitement…and like anything else, the more we work together, the better we’ll become as a team and the end result will be a great show.”

Pedregon replaces retired NHRA driver Mike Dunn _ another second-generation racer _ who spent 14 years as ESPN’s drag racing analyst. Dunn, incidentally, was introduced Tuesday as president of the rival International Hot Rod Association. “I know Mike. I respect him as a driver and for what he did all the years on the show,” said Pedregon, who is working on a three-year contract with FOX Sports.

NHRA President Peter Clifford; Ken Adelson, NHRA vice president of broadcasting and digital content and the network’s brain trust are confident the increase in live telecasts will introduce the sport to a new and younger and hipper demographic. “Everybody wants younger,” said Pedregon, 50. “As it relates to the show, the target is to increase the viewership by 50 percent in five years. Five years! And I think that’s achievable. I’ve seen the metrics, the analytics and I think it’s something they can do.

“I’d love to do a good job for the current and especially the new audience. The potential to earn a new viewer is what is most appealing to me, and really, that’s what I’m training and conditioning myself to do. I want to break things down, I want to put ‘em in the seat but I want to explain and point things out in a way they can understand.”

Pedregon won his Funny Car world championships in 2003 and 2007. A 43-time winner on the NHRA circuit, Tony P. has driving experience in Funny Car, Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Dragster.

“When I changed my role from a driver to a team-owner, that came with some headaches and I can say it’s not for everyone,” said Pedregon, who failed to qualify his Toyota Camry for the Countdown to the Championship last season. “The struggle for me over the last few years has been not being able to be competitive. When I had a better program and the better funding to go along with it I was competing with all the big teams. I could say I was a top-three car all those years. I was beating Don Schumacher (Racing), I was beating John Force (Racing), I was beating Al-Anabi (Racing) with a fraction of what they had.

“So making the transition, I still haven’t really felt the full impact of it.  I think that I’m going to miss it more when I’m up in the tower and watching cars. The only decision for me was, I knew at some point it was going to be time. And I’ve always known that. So as much as I enjoy it, as much as I love the competition and feel I’m still good at it, I think the timing is right for me. It was a good opportunity and I think I’m going to miss it more than I realize right now because we haven’t started the season.”

With his business background, Pedregon knows that even in a strong economy, motorsports is a tough sell. “Things aren’t exactly great (currently), but the one dynamic that can change that is TV _ and live TV,” Pedregon said. “The one thing we haven’t had is live. I think ESPN we probably had three or four races that were live but to be consistent with the programming _ the fans that we have it’s frustrating that they can’t find it _ they will now be able to find it. You don’t have to find it at 3 a.m. I don’t think we’re going to get bumped by Little League…it’s just frustrating to a viewer. Even me, when I get home and I’ve set my DVR and it’s not there…it’s confusing to me.

“From a lot of different aspects it’s going to be better. There’s going to be more effort put behind it, it’s going to look different, it’s going to feel different. But in the end the cars sell themselves. It’s a great product but it’s like anything else _ we’ve got to do a better job exposing that and marketing it. I know from experience even as a team-owner, if I can get any sponsors to come to a race and they can experience it just once _ that was all I ever asked. And once they went in and could feel it and smell it, then they understood where their investment is going. If we can do that, then we’re doing our job.”

Pedregon said his offseason homework has included equal amounts of NHRA history and real-time coaching. “What I’ve done is gone back and watched a lot of old racing from the Steve Evans-Dave McClelland-Chris Economaki (era) because that’s what I remember,” Tony said. “I remember Chris Economaki opening the show in that pale yellow (ABC) sports coat. I was a kid and for me, that was an amazing thing _ the sport that I loved and I could see it on Wide World of Sports _ and it wasn’t even live.

“This era for us, there’s going to be a stretch of four races that will be aired not on FOX Sports but on FOX _ so we’re going to be exposed to an additional one million fans that we want to win over. So the opportunity is there for us.”

In his role as teacher, Pedregon promises to interpret drag racing’s jargon for that projected newbie audience.  “I know Funny Cars, I knew dragsters very well. I’m able to speak to them without any assistance,” said Pedregon, who believes the myriad rules changes made to the Pro Stock class for 2016 will require in-depth scrutiny.

“I’m going to get in a Pro Stock car,” Tony said. “At some point I’m going to get on a Pro Stock bike. I’m very familiar with them, but I want to be able to speak to specifically what I’m going to be talking about and covering better so that the viewer can have that same experience.

“I specifically want to do a good job in pointing out the things that the common viewer really doesn’t know. When we use the term ‘dropped cylinders,’ if I use that term, I’m going to explain what a dropped cylinder is. I’m really going to shy away from some of the terms that were being used previously because as a viewer, I want to know what is that thing you just called ‘pedaling.’ If you say pedaling, I’m looking for somebody on a bicycle. I may use the term or explain it differently _ that the driver has to get in and out of the throttle to allow the car to regain traction. I think those are the things that are going to be interesting.”

Pedregon also said he feels free to opine on any aspect of a sport some critics feel is chock full of competitors who are too nicey-nice to one another, even in defeat. “I understand what my role is _ to be objective and unbiased,” Pedregon said. ”I’ve thought about that and I think there’s still some areas within the rules that could be better, so in that regard, what they see is what they get. If I hear that little voice from the producer on the microphone when we’re live, I’ll pay attention to it. But I haven’t heard it yet.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 11 2016
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