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1977 Pontiac Trans Am - The California Charger

Cruz Pedregon’s Nostalgia Nitro Funny Car

By , Photography by Richard Shute/Auto Imagery

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."

Uncomfortable it might be, but it is also much faster than a car this pretty should be. Cruz gets into the 5.70s at almost 250 mph, so there have to be rules for safety and competition. Cruz's Big Show parts pile is handy in this respect. There is a 500-inch rule, so the TFX block is somewhere under that number and filled with lightweight billet exotica from the likes of Bill Miller, Winberg, and CP. The heads were whittled from a solid billet of aluminum at the Allen Johnson factory. Nostalgia fuel pumps are belt-driven at 1:1 and are limited to 21 gph. All competition pumps are sent to K.J. Crawford to be certified and sealed for use. Nostalgia cars can only use one magneto instead of the standard twins on the big cars. This one is from Cirello.

There is a little wiggle room in the rules for transmission types and rearend parts. The Trans Am uses a hand-shifter Lenco two-speed and a 9.5-inch Strange ring-and-pinion and axles in a custom-fabricated housing. Cruz even played with the wheelie bar, swapping the single wheel for a vintage-looking, spring-loaded, dual-wheel design. He had it chromed, of course. The wheels are 16x16 Weld Racing Torque Thrust Pros with racing spec 34.5x17.0-16 Goodyear Eagle Dragway Special tires.

The body was purchased from John Powers out in Arizona. It's a new partial carbon/fiberglass mix with carbon reinforcements from an ERC Composites mold. While the chassis was in Scott's shop getting race prepped and polished, the body went to Steve Dekkenga from SD Enterprises in Michigan for paint. SD Enterprises is a high-end paint shop with a big staff and a reputation for being accountable and getting the job done on time and within budget. Steve's background is in the grocery business, but he always had a dream of being a Fuel racer. "In the '90s I worked for Whit Bazemore and thought I was going to either drive a Top Fuel car or tune one," Steve said. "After traveling for a while, I decided home was where's it's at."

Steve had always painted cars and did "fun stuff" on the side, but as word got around that he was reliable and talented, racers with corporate sponsors and real money started to show up. Twenty-five years later, Steve's company is responsible for many of the paint jobs used by professional Funny Car teams, including Cruz's Snap-On Big Show car.

"I painted the Pisano car for Cruz and he liked what he saw," Steve said. "He asked me to paint the California Charger...the original was a beautiful car, I remember seeing it as a kid." Steve used pictures from Hot Rod, a model kit that they found, and a pile of scavenged racing photography to put together a plan for reproducing the 1977 paint scheme. As they started to lay things out, they sent photos to Cruz for his feedback.

In an amazing two weeks Steve and the crew prepped the body, sprayed a House of Color White Pearl base with TruBlue Pearl, and Majik Blue Pearl on top. There are several other colors in the pallet, including darker blues and black, to get the edges to stand out. The headlights, "chrome" trim, windows, and even fake defroster bars were airbrushed on the body to get it to look more like a real Trans Am. After paint, the body went back Scott who did the finish work with the tin and fiberglass using photos from 1970s cars to get all the looks correct. "Then sometimes we change it when were done," Scott said with a laugh.

"My goal was to build a car that complemented the original California Charger that was a beautiful car and equally competitive," Cruz said.

It took 12 months to get the car from bare chassis to running race car. The first time out, it was the looker of the show at the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, California, and on the second time out, it won a 16-car shootout at the Cordova Dragway Park in Cordova, Illinois. Photos are nice, but the sights, sounds, and smells of a mega-polished Nostalgia Funny Car on a 5-second pass cannot be described in words. You have to see this car for yourself.

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