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Behind the rebirth of the ultimate "tyre fryer"

Behind the rebirth of the ultimate "tyre fryer."

14.4.05.  “Tyre fryers” have always been crowd favourites in the sport of drag racing, and Frank Pedregon, or “Flaming Frank”, as he was later christened, became a quarter-mile legend for his spectacular driving style as he smoked the drag strips of southern California at the wheel of his dramatic, Fiat coupe-bodied dragster. 

 As well as wowing the fans, the car also left an indelible imprint on Frank’s children – notably, brothers Cruz, Tony and Frank Jr – even though, at the time, they were still only knee-high to the proverbial grasshopper.

Frank on the boil at Pomona mid-'60s

Frank quit racing in 1968, and mysteriously, the Fiat-bodied dragster disappeared from his backyard soon after.  Not only did this rob the brothers of their father’s legacy, but also an important part of US drag racing heritage.  Worse was to come, however, and tragically, Frank’s life was cut short by a plane crash while he was still only in his 40s. 

Drag racing was clearly in the blood of the Pedregon family, however, and in the intervening years, brothers Cruz, Tony, and more recently, Frank Jr, have made their mark in NHRA Funny Car racing, with Cruz and Tony notching up a championship title apiece, and Frank learning fast.

As a way of both remembering and paying homage to their pioneering father, however, the brothers decided to recreate the infamous Fiat coupe they’d witnessed in their formative years.  To do this, they enlisted the help of top fabricator, Pat Foster, and drag race legend, Dale Armstrong.  The rest as they say is history, or in this case, history recreated. 

As enthusiasts will know, the completed Fiat-bodied dragster debuted at the 2005 Pomona Winternationals in February.  It has now been repainted for the Las Vegas NHRA round (April 14-17) in a brighter, more photogenic shade of Candy orange.   DRCReview caught up with Cruz Pedregon prior to the Vegas event to talk about the new car and to find out a little more about ”Flaming Frank” and his antics in that original dragster – a car that is now very much part of US drag racing folklore.

Frank literally lights up the tyres

Can you tell us how Frank got into drag racing?
He just loved drag racing, although none of our family members were ever involved in any form of racing, so I don’t know what sparked off the interest.  My Dad was an only child, he liked the speed and power, and I think just fell in love with the sport.  He was a great innovator – he built his own cars and got a real buzz out of making them go faster.  He grew up in Texas, where he built his first little gas-injected dragster around a 130-inch wheelbase chassis.  The Fiat Coupe came later and went up to 155-160 inches.

Action from Lions Drag strip above and below

Can you tell us when the original car was built?
Not exactly, but it would have been around late 1964 or ’65.  We can only go by memory and photos, as we were so young, but I remember he ran the car through the mid-sixties.  What’s not commonly known is that my Dad built several versions of that coupe.  There were at least four different permutations and two different paint jobs.  The bright orange car came first, followed by the silver and aluminium-bodied version.

Frank Sr with Cruz (in the hot seat) Tony and Frank Jr

I see Pat Foster built the new car.  Did he play a part in the original?
No, my Dad built the car, and even created some of the engine parts himself, but Pat was around at that time and they raced each other, so there is a connection.  Don Long fabricated some of the chassis, but my Dad did everything else.  The new car that Pat created is based on the Don Long design.  

Frank Sr poses for the camera (above)

Did Frank achieve any notable success with the Coupe?
Yes, he did, but the problem was he never really had a class in which to race the car.  I guess he really wanted to be in Top Fuel, but because the car had a coupe body, they put him in a category in which there were fewer cars.  He would race in Competition Coupe, but the main attraction of the car for the fans was that he could just light up the tyres down the entire strip.  In fact, it happened by accident – my Dad didn’t plan it that way, although later it became his trademark at the track.  I have to laugh sometimes, because some people think he had some hidden device in the car and they’re eager to tell me how he did it – special bleach and header pipes pointing on to the track, for instance – but it wasn’t like that.  It was purely accidental that he discovered he could light up the tyres at will.  Someday, we’ll rig up some sort of system that will help us to recreate that show.  It would be nice to hit a little button and get the tyres to smoke instantly.  We’re busy with the season’s racing right now, and it was simply our goal to get the car finished and to show it to people.  We’ll start playing with it as time allows.

Superb '60s action shot by Roy Robinson

Do you know what happened to the original car?
No, I wish I did. My Dad left it stripped down in our backyard.  There was no motor in it and the frame was cut in two so it would fit in, but the coupe body and all the other stuff was in the garage.  Dad left town for a while – we moved to Texas, and he left the key to the garage with a friend – and when he came back everything was gone, including the frame, so we’re not sure where it went.  It could be in someone else’s backyard, for all we know, just rusting away.  I feel it’s gone forever now, though, and the fact we’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find it for several years sort of reinforces that notion.  

When did you decide to rebuild the car and how long did it take?
We’d been thinking about it for several years.  I’d been watching how Pat Foster had been building these really neat old cars, and he was doing such a great job – that got my attention.  I spent a lot of time talking to Pat over the ‘phone, and then we got really serious at the beginning of last year.  We got down to finalising the specification, and I gave him the go-ahead at the start of 2004, although in actual fact we’d been discussing it on and off for a couple of years. 

painstaking build took over 12 months

We decided to recreate all the best bits of Dad’s coupe in one new design.  We went for the sleekest shape, to make it a little sharper, a little prettier than the original, and we also went for the brighter Candy orange paintwork.  We took the view that we were not going to find every single component and recreate every single feature of the original car, so we decided to start with a brand new car and make it as close as possible to the original.  Okay, we didn’t lose any sleep over the fact that it doesn’t have an Olds rear end, for example – it’s now a Ford 9-inch – but the shape is still the same, and it’s still powered by a 392 hemi with an original 6/71 blower, and it runs on nitro, so even though we’ve deviated in certain areas, it looks virtually the same as the old car.

Beautiful sheet metal work keeps smoke out with body on

Once we had the reconstruction underway, we needed to get the motor sorted.  We needed someone equally talented.  At the top of the wish list was Dale Armstrong.  We chose Dale for a lot of reasons.  He was the guy who really knew the original car, he was a partner with my Dad for a while on a funny car team – in fact, my dad even loaned Dale an engine – so we thought, if Dale was available, he’d be the right guy for the job.  I’m delighted to say that he was happy to do it, so we sent him all of the engine parts and let him get on with it.

Dale said, “How do you want it built?” and we said, “Hey, use your imagination and build it like you think it should be built.”  The motor incorporates all of the latest nostalgia Top Fuel components, but without their race restrictions, so in effect, it develops more power.  It’s pretty much down to Dale’s specification and ingenuity.  When you have Pat and Dale build a car for you, you’re talking about two of the best in the business.

Mid way through the build at the body mock up stage

It's perhaps no surprise to learn that Pat Foster has an 18 month waiting list when you look at the quality of the cars he recreates

We opted to use a fibreglass body for this project rather than Dad’s original steel version, as he ran both, but ‘glass is easier to work with – and easier to come by!  The enclosed bodywork for the chassis was all hand-beaten by Pat out of aluminium, and it’s a real work of art.  Pat also created wheel tubs and additional aluminium panelling to keep the smoke out of the cockpit.  You really need to see this car in detail to appreciate the amount of time and effort he’s put into it.  The paintwork was expertly handled by my brother Tony’s local body shop  - Body Palace out of Huntington Beach, California.

Wheeled out for the first time at Pomona

Has the car been built to run hard?
We had that in mind when we had it put together.  Primarily, we will run it in demos and exhibitions, but it’s been built to the current NHRA nostalgia Top Fuel standards, so it could be used in competition.  We would need to work on the clutch and fuel system, but I’m sure it would surprise a few people.

We’ll show the car at various NHRA tracks, and hopefully, we can go to the hot rod reunions, but we need to check our schedules to see if they overlap.

Since debuting the car, we’ve had it repainted.  It had a copper look to it before, but the new paint is a brighter Candy orange, and we’ve added new lettering to make it stand out a little more.

Before we debuted the car at Pomona, we took it to Fontana Speedway and fired it up.  It was awesome – it sounded fantastic.   Tony sat in it at Pomona, and put down a short burnout to try the car out, and it was really well received by the fans.  As we get used to it, we’ll be exploring the horsepower potential.   We’re all very pleased with the end result, and as far as we’re concerned, the best is yet to come!  I’m sure my Dad would be proud of us.

Tony climbs on board at Pomona during the car's debut

Pat Foster of Foster Slingshots looks pensive 

It's a tight fit under the heavily reworked Topolino body

Tony Pedregon gets the motor running while Cruz looks on

Tony performs a gentle burnout to test the car....

...and briefly taps into the enormous tyre frying potential

After a total repaint in a slightly brighter shade of candy orange, this is how the car looked at Vegas in April

Aptly, the "world's fastest coupe" lettering adorns the roof

New gold lettering with 60's style execution

Cruz Pedregon - 1992 NHRA Funny Car champion


How do you cope with such a busy drag racing schedule?
 It’s not too bad at 23 events.  I look at NASCAR, and those guys are racing a whole lot more than us.  I enjoy racing more frequently – otherwise, I get bored.  I’m looking forward to getting out there and hopefully winning some races.

What has been the highlight of your career?
I was Funny Car Champion in 1992, and have come close to regaining that crown on a couple of occasions.  We’ve gone through numerous team changes, though, including several crew chiefs and three car owners, so it’s been difficult.  We’re now running Pedregon Racing – our own team – so maybe we can settle down a bit.  I certainly have the best performing car and crew I’ve experienced for a long time – this is a building process for me.

Cruz took runner up spot in Houston last weekend in the Advance Auto Parts Chevy

Has the competition got any tougher?
Yes, it’s a lot tougher out there.  Ten years ago, there were fewer consistently good, teams, but now everyone has a good shot at winning a race. There are multi-car teams, and it’s now a lot tougher to win, but then again, it’s the same for everybody.  The good guys will find a way to the top, and hopefully we’ll be among them.

What's it like competing against your brother?
It’s been fun.  Naturally, when we race each other we like to do it in the later rounds, to make sure at least one of us gets a chance of making it through to the finals.   Tony has a great car and he’s a good driver.  He was number one qualifier in the first three races this year, and he won the NHRA Funny Car crown in 2003. 

Tony was les fortunate and went out in the second round in his Q Racing backed ride

Do you operate separate teams?
We work under the same umbrella, which means we share shops, data, and try to help each other out, but at the same time, we both have our own crews and cars, although mine is pretty much identical to Tony’s – he could jump in my car and race without too much of a problem.

Story: Andy Kirk
Photos: Andy Willsheer, Cox Marketing, Cruz Pedregon, Pat Foster, Jim Sorenson

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