This all started with an email out of the blue from Cruz Pedregon in early 2012. He was looking for photos of the California Charger, a Funny Car that was built in the late-1970s by John Keeling and Jerry Clayton. Keeling & Clayton had always been known for their beautiful dragsters that were built to run, defeating Top Fuel luminaries and setting early e.t. records on the West Coast at the same time. We found the layout in the Sept. 1977 issue of Hot Rod magazine.
The original California Charger is a 1977 Trans Am body on a Don Long chassis and was powered by what was then referred to as a late-model Hemi (426 ci or more) and represents one of the last Funny Cars built by the team. The car had a J&E fiberglass body that was painted by Ken Potts in lacquer and lettered and striped by Sir Nat Quick. It's what Cruz calls a "barn-stormin' beauty."
"My dad [Frank Pedregon, Sr.] knew [driver] Neil Leffler but only casually; John and Jerry were based out of Chicago, and my dad was in California," Cruz said. "They did have a shop in Gardena. They used to start up the car, and we'd run over there as kids to watch. Neil invited us to Orange County and Irwindale, so we watched them race at both places." Cruz continued, "That's where the connection started, so when I decided to build another car, it was a natural fit. I was able to pay tribute to my good friend, Joe Pisano, with my first [nostalgia] car, and had it not been for the California Charger, I probably wouldn't have built another. This car was a must for me."
In Nostalgia racing, the chassis are usually sourced from a retired Big Show car or an Alcohol Funny and trimmed down to work with the nostalgia bodies. One of those Big Show builders is Steve Plueger. "I wanted a Plueger chassis because it's a design I am familiar with, narrow, and very nostalgic-looking," Cruz said. "I [got] the chassis from John Lawson, a former Scotty Canon/Oakley car from 1999."
Cruz dropped the chassis off at Bowen Race Cars in Montrose, Michigan, where alcohol Funny Car builder and onetime driver Scott Bowen did the work. "We built the Violator 1977 Trans Am Nostalgia car in 2006 and ran it around the Midwest," Scott recalled. "A friend of the family, Shawn Dill, worked on Cruz's AA car, and in 2008, Shawn introduced me to Cruz, and I lent a hand to help them with the Gainesville race." After that meeting, Cruz called and they talked about building Cruz's first car, the Pisano Plymouth Arrow, a car Scott built and Cruz raced until it was sold to Bucky Austin.
In 2011, Cruz was looking to build another Nostalgia Funny Car to replace the Arrow and called Scott again. After they made a deal, the chassis arrived at Scott's in the back of a pickup truck to be stripped and repaired where racers had cut and welded parts during pit thrashes. Cruz wanted the car to be low, so Scott took 2 inches off the rollcage to get the low profile. "Funny story," Scott said, "Cruz showed up and got in the car, then said we need to lower the seat 2 inches." The car is low. The rear fender covers the first quarter of the tire, and bumps were added to the body to clear the front tires. "It's not the most comfortable car," Cruz said. "But I was willing to sacrifice comfort for coolness, and I think we achieved that."