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Matt Hagan Looking To Put Force Out To Pasture

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 28 2010

Funny Car driver Matt Hagan is looking to harvest an NHRA championship.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Matt Hagan is a guy who is comfortable not only in his own skin, but also in his own bib overalls.

It’s the outfit of choice on Hagan’s 800-acre farm and Angus cattle ranch in Christiansburg,Va., where the NHRA’s Funny Car points-leader is an authority on all topics agrarian.

“Farming, I’ve always been around horses and cattle growing up and stuff,” Hagan said during a recent teleconference. “What I do out here is definitely strong-back, weak-mind kind of stuff, so I don’t have to think a lot about it. Just get out there and relax a little bit. But, you know, it’s just …it just works for me.”

Similarly, Hagan’s workmanlike rise through the Funny Car ranks peaked at Maple Grove Raceway on Oct. 10, when he replaced 14-time world champion John Force atop the Countdown to the Championship standings. A three-time winner this season, Hagan will take a 64-point lead – a little over three rounds – into qualifications for the 10th annual NHRA Las Vegas Nationals this weekend.

The event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the fifth of the six-race Countdown schedule, with Robert Hight (Funny Car), Larry Morgan (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) the defending event champions. Spencer Massey , who is not competing this season, won in Top Fuel last year.

Countdown-wise, Hines has a 72-point lead over rookie LE Tonglet in PSB, while two-time Top Fuel world champion Larry Dixon is 89 points ahead of Cory McClenathan. In Pro Stock, three-time world champion Greg Anderson has built a 36-point advantage over reigning champ Mike Edwards as the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series sets up in Sin City.

Hagan’s monster weekend in Mohnton, Pa., was highlighted by a 4.011-second qualifying pass that was backed-up as the Funny Car elapsed time national record at 1,000-feet. The 20 points awarded by NHRA for the record, combined with Force’s first-round exit due to a mechanical problem, placed Hagan eight rounds away from his first championship.

“You know, I think there’s definitely pressure the whole season,” said Hagan, driver of the DieHard Dodge Charger R/T fielded by Don Schumacher Racing. “It was pressure to get into the Countdown. It’s pressure to try to win every race. So you know, obviously, there’s extra pressure. I mean, you’ve got a camp like Force and my teammate, Jack Beckman, right there knocking on the door. Force has led the points all year long and we just got lucky enough to take that lead over.

“But these points change so quickly. One day you’re on top and the next, you’re sitting second or third or fourth. So we’re glad to have them, but right now we have two big races ahead of us. We’re just going to treat them like every other race and go out there, try to get it past the first round.

“So I will try not to add any extra pressure on myself. Obviously it’s there. We just have to step-up and do what we are paid to do, and that’s drive these race cars and have fun doing it.”

Hagan’s ranch duties run the gamut from the care-and-feeding of livestock to the planting of crops.

“Run about 300 cattle,” said Hagan, a stout 6-foot-1 and 210-pounds. “We have all feeder cattle and we sell calves when they are about 600, 700 pounds. I take them to the market, then weigh them, grade them, sell them out West, wherever there’s grain or whatever to put another 600 or 700 on them and sell them to a packer to slaughter. It’s an all-grass operation. No corn, just alfalfa and millet. We’ll plant crops and stuff like that, but mainly we calf twice a year and we calf-out 200 calves twice a year.

“Between keeping them alive and putting up feed over the winter to trying to play daddy back at the house (to son Colby Matthew and daughter Penny Louise), I haven’t had a whole lot of time to worry about racing that much. It’s something that kind of works for me as far as being able to come back home, decompress, let it all go.

“I’m never going to get rich farming but it’s a rich, honest, hard-working job and it’s the kind of work I like to do.”

Hagan, who qualified No. 1 at Vegas-2 last fall, has won only two of five head-to-head races against Force and his Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang this season. Hagan is counting on crew chief Tommy DeLago and assistant crew chief Glenn Huszar to continue to match wits with Force’s famed tuning triumvirate of Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and Mike Neff.

“I can’t say enough about my guys and Tommy DeLago tuning the race car,” said Hagan, who will turn 28 one week after the season ends at Pomona, Calif., on Nov. 11. “That Force camp over there is a first-class operation and John, he’s a world champion for a reason.

“We can’t make any mistakes. We have to go out there, do some good, solid racing, go some rounds. I don’t feel like we have to set the world on fire but we need to go some rounds and keep kind of matching John round-for-round, and it will hopefully fall the way we want it to. This drag racing, you never know how it’s going to end up.”

Hagan speaks from the experience of a racing career that was launched atop a four-wheeler, of all vehicles, and advanced to the NHRA’s Pro Modified and IHRA’s Funny Car classes.

“Call it beginner’s luck or what, I got in the final first time I got on a four-wheeler in Bracket Racing and I was hooked from there,” Hagan said. “Bought a Chevy II Nova with a stick and started winning a little bit there and got a taste for winning. I wanted to go faster and faster, and one thing led to another. I got a little bit of local sponsorship on the car and we started to branch out. And next thing you know, you step into a Pro Mod and get corporate sponsorship on the car.

“Well, my sponsor called me up and said, ‘Look, kid, we love what you’re doing but we want you in a fuel Funny Car. You’re going to drive it or we’re going to find somebody else.’ I said, ‘Absolutely, let me go out here and get licensed.’ I drove the car, obviously the economy turned bad and the sponsor went away and we funded out of our pocket for a year and then got on-board with Don. He said, ‘Let’s crunch some numbers and see what we can work out.’

“Long story short, it’s been great. I’ve been fast to get here, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. You have a guy that you’re racing like John Force – I grew up watching this guy. He’s a legend, and to be able to go out there and race the guy is something else. I mean, I never would have dreamed me and him would be hunting out a championship here. Pretty cool, for me, anyway.”

Force, a four-time winner this season, was trailered at Maple Grove by a broken clutch pedal assembly. Force promised that problem won’t re-appear, and added that he and his team since have managed to knock 40 pounds off his hot rod in an effort to match numbers with Hagan.

“The kid (Hagan) already has me with my back up against the wall,” said Force, 61, who failed to win a national event in 2009. “I always try to look that things happen for a reason. A good driver, I saw his emotion when I couldn’t make the run there first round, and you know, he ran over to me at the end of the track and said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to see it happen this way.’ And I liked that attitude. He wanted to fight the fight. And he didn’t want me going home because I had some dumb mistakes. I told him, ‘Hey, that’s all part of the deal. We made the mistakes and you gain on it.’ I’m hoping he’ll make mistakes, but he doesn’t make too many. Not as a driver that I can find and the car is just – it just seems to have the magic.”

Force, whose championship career has included often bitter battles with outspoken characters like Al Hofmann and Whit Bazemore, is genuinely intrigued by Hagan’s laid-back, bucolic lifestyle.

“I can’t go out and arm-wrestle with Hagan,” said Force, who made his NHRA debut in 1978 – four years before Hagan was born. “I can’t get in a fistfight with Hagan, and you don’t intimidate a cowboy. I know the game. I’ve seen this kid. I’ve studied him on the farm with his bulls. I’ve met his lovely wife (Rachel), a little gal that plays piano. I’m starting to understand where he comes from. So I’ve got a competitor here that I’ve got to keep my nose clean, do what I do, and take every opportunity.

“If Hagan takes me out, I ain’t going to like it, but I’m going to shake his hand and he’ll do the same to me because it’s what we do. It’s good to have a job in this economy. But if I can’t deliver as a driver, I’ll be replaced – even though I own the car – because when you take away the money, then you can’t drive.

“I was looking real good all year, until Hagan did all the damage on me. So you know, luck is part of it but you make your own luck and right now I’m in a fight to keep my job. And I’m going to give that kid everything I’ve got, but I’ve always played the game straight-up.”

Hagan, 34-18 this season, insisted it would be an honor to outhustle Force for a championship he most recently won in 2006.

“It’s huge. I look at what he’s done for the sport, and obviously a fan favorite,” said Hagan, who will be racing in his 50th career NHRA national event this weekend compared to Force’s 564th. “I like how Force is – straight-up, no games – and that’s how I race, too. We just let the cars…the cars will finish it out and it will be what it will be.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 28 2010
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