The eye-watering smell of drag racing fuel burns the eyes and fills the air as Tony Pedregon scorches the tires on his green Quaker State hot rod in a dramatic pre-race burnout. Slowly the two-time Funny Car champion backs up his 8,000-horsepowered dragster to the starting line at Memphis (Tenn.) Motorsports Park.
Behind him, a procession of nitro-fueled dragsters await their turn, including one driven by Pedregon's older brother, Cruz, who stands alongside his land rocket staring intently ahead at his brother's impending duel. As the vertical starting lights hit green, two Funny Cars explode down the 1,000-foot track in a thunderous flash.
Four seconds and 300 mph later, it's all over and Tony Pedregon wins the heat in the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) event.
"It's a real condensed adrenaline rush," says Tony, 44, who won Funny Car world titles in 2003 and 2007. "It's like riding one of those extreme roller coasters multiplied by 10."
The experience is both thrilling and addictive for a driver, he adds. Still, Tony concedes that his first race at an accelerated speed made him consider finding a slower-paced occupation.
"I thought, 'OK, I've had my fun,'" recalls Tony with a grin. "I grew up around it, always wanted to do it. The first time I did it, I thought, 'This isn't for me. It's too much. It's too fast.' But that was just inexperience. That was fear. Luckily I overcame that."
Sons of Flaming Frank
The Pedregon brothers grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Chino Hills, Calif. (pop. 73,879), where their father was a local drag racing star, known to area fans as Flaming Frank Pedregon. Flaming Frank earned his nickname in the 1960s because of the way his tires burned while speeding down the track, and his racing feats had a powerful and pervasive influence on his young sons.
"Like most kids, we wanted to do what our dad did," says Cruz, 46, a Funny Car champion in 1992 and 2008.
Tony and Cruz recall attending drag races with older brother Frank Jr. and sisters Barbara and Dora, before their father died in a plane crash in 1981 at the age of 41. "We were around it at a very early age, and then we were not around it anymore," Cruz says.
Oddly, Flaming Frank never encouraged his sons to pursue drag racing. "If anything, he discouraged it," says Tony, who first sat behind the wheel of a racecar at age 25. But their father's love left other indelible attributes with the Pedregon boys.
"I look back," says Cruz, "and my dad, while not encouraging racing on us, was instilling good values and always promoting us working together and helping each other."
Brother vs. brother
Because they both race Funny Cars, head-to-head matchups between the brothers are inevitable. Over the course of their careers, they have lined up against one another 36 times, with Tony winning 24 of those encounters.
In Houston, in 1997, the brothers clashed in the final round of a racethe only time in NHRA history that siblings have been paired in a final. "I remember going into that final, thinking, 'We've won the race,'" says Tony, who made his NHRA debut in 1993. "Cruz and I have such a huge following of Hispanics in Houston, and I thought, 'Hey, I've got no pressure. We won!'"
Even when Tony is victorious, he insists he gets little satisfaction beating his brother.
Cruz, who won his first drag race in 1980 in California driving a Kenworth truck, feels the same way: "I prefer not to have to go head-to-head," he acknowledges. "We're two brothers racing each other . . . but we've learned to accept that this is what we do. Some days it's gonna be me and some days it's gonna be him."
In years past, the competitive brothers allowed on-track confrontations to taint their kinship. "We wouldn't speak for maybe two or three days," Cruz recalls. "Then it would be two or three hours." Fortunately, the brothers have matured beyond racing rivalry. "Now it's no big deal because we've already crossed that bridge," Cruz says.
While the brothers remain foes on the track, they maintain strong bonds.
"Family ties seem to disappear in the staging lanes then return after the run," says Paul Page, a longtime motorsports broadcaster and ESPN2's NHRA play-by-play announcer. "They are a tight family that, like any family, might have squabbles internally. But when the chips are down, they are each other's biggest fan."
Adds Tony: "I enjoy racing with Cruz. When we look back on our careers, I will be glad that I had this opportunity."
Two teams, one race shop
While the brothers share a $1.5 million shop in Brownsburg, Ind. (pop. 19,994), they maintain separate racing teams, employing about 10 people each. "Financially, there's a benefit," says Tony about sharing a shop and equipment with Cruz.
The brothers also willingly exchange racing information, knowledge and advice. "Our operation is a little unique in that we are two one-car teams, but Cruz and I always felt we are stronger together than just one of us trying to race on our own," Tony says.
"To me, it's us against everybody else," Cruz adds.
In 1999, Cruz became the first of the two siblings to start his own race team. "I thought I wanted to call my own shots," he says. "Some days I'm thankful I made that decision, and other days I'm like, 'Now what the heck did I do that for?'"
Tony, married with three children, established his own racing team in 2004, and the brothers rented shop space together before building their own facility in 2007.
"We've grown up close, but we've always challenged one another," says Tony of his relationship with his brother. "Cruz and I don't always agree. Ultimately, we know we have to work through it. We're very competitive. That's how we've gotten to be champions."