Nine-year-old Cruz Pedregon was sitting on top of the world, not to mention a few pillows, as he drove his father Frank's Peterbilt truck along what Frank thought was a deserted street in downtown Los Angeles. But Cruz's glee disappeared a few blocks later when flashing red and blue lights appeared in the truck's mirrors. Summonses with fines of $100 each were issued to father and son.
"Oh, man, was I crying," Cruz says now, laughing. Besides using the makeshift booster seat, he also had his baseball cap pulled down low in a futile attempt to convince the cop that he was old enough to drive, that he had just forgotten his license. "I thought I had committed the worst of sins. I thought I'd never drive again."
Instead of the end, it was only the start of a life behind the wheel. Twenty-five years later, Cruz and brothers Frank Jr., 35, and Tony, 33, have one of the fastest sibling rivalries in sports, roaring down quarter-mile strips at 300 mph on the National Hot Rod Association's funny car circuit.
"It's definitely unique," says Frank, who won last week's event in Hebron, Ohio. "A fan will come up to me in the pit area and say, 'You're going to kick your brother's ass today, right?' And I'm like, 'Which one?' Then I'll see that same fan asking Cruz or Tony the same thing, and I'll say, 'Hey, I thought you were on my side.' "
Cruz has won twice in the 10 circuit events he has entered this season and sits third in the point standings, but he has been far less successful in fraternal competition. He's 0-2 against his brothers this season despite being the most accomplished driver of the three, having won the 1992 points crown as a rookie. "But it's still early," says Tony. "I think all we've done is make him mad."
The younger Pedregons owe their racing acumen to the elder Frank, who drove top fuel dragsters on the regional circuit in the 1960s and employed his wife and the boys' mother, Cora, as his tow-truck driver. He never got a chance to see his boys race funny cars—he died after the private plane he was piloting crashed in '81—but Cruz says his dad would have been proud of the road his sons have taken. "He just wanted us to take care of each other and stay a family," Cruz says.
As the only Hispanics on the funny car circuit, the Pedregons, whose parents were born in Texas, have attracted new fans to their sport, especially at tracks in areas with large Latino populations. In the wake of the Pedregons' popularity, McDonald's and Castrol-Syntec, among others, have created budgets to address the Hispanic drag racing fans. "It may or may not have anything to do with us," Cruz says, "but I've seen the growth. The three of us have different personalities, but we're all fan-friendly and we don't forget where we come from."