Ingram: Hagan Reflects On ‘Tremendous’ Season
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief ™:
Christiansburg, Va. – It’s been a longer winter than usual for Matt Hagan on his hilltop farm nestled in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Back-to-back snowfalls have kept him busy getting feed to his herd of Black Angus cattle. In the evenings, there’s the memory of a near miss of the Funny Car title in the NHRA’s Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
In just his second year in the NHRA, Hagan was the No. 1 qualifier four times and set a national record en route to his victory in Chicago last summer. He was the brightest new face in a Funny Car category in need of more fresh talent. But a championship slipped away on what became the final pass of his season in Pomona.
“This season was tremendous,” said Hagan in between keeping his cattle fed and mending fences several days before the New Year. “We came in just trying to win a race. We ended up winning three races and fighting for a championship. We had a lot of opportunities to go head-to-head with some of the best guys out there.”
One of those guys was John Force, a legend in the re-making after his horrendous crash and injuries in 2007. Following five losses to Force in head-to-head matchups, Hagan finally beat him for the first time at Sonoma this summer. Then during the six-race Countdown to 1, Hagan, just shy of his 28th birthday, was relentless in his pursuit of 61-year-old.
Hagan won in Dallas versus Force in the finals, then took the points lead from him in Reading, where a parts failure stranded Force in the first round. Hagan met Force again in the finals in Las Vegas, the young counter-puncher on the big stage versus the charismatic, savvy veteran.
Intent upon his comeback after a winless season in 2009, Force claimed the title by beating
Hagan in the final event at Las Vegas and winning at the World Finals in Pomona, where it was Hagan’s turn to suffer a parts failure in the first round. For a guy never content with runner-up, Hagan took the loss hard in Ponoma, despite his stand-up job of talking to the media afterward and trying to put the best face on a painful situation.
He needed to stay at least two rounds ahead of Force, but a burned piston claimed his Don Schumacher Racing entry while leading at the 700-foot mark against Bob Tasca III. Force clinched the title by winning the second round and then went on to win the Wally for the event.
“It’s been very, very disheartening not sealing the deal there,” said Hagan. “It’s something I still lay in bed at night thinking about every night what we could have done differently, if we hadn’t had a parts failure or anything like that. You can sit there and wonder you’re whole life away. You’ve just got to justify it in your own mind and turn it into a positive.”
The last three years have been a whirlwind for Hagan, mostly ups and a few downers. Shortly after buying the farm just down the road from his house and establishing his cattle herd, in 2008 Hagan moved from making a living on the Pro Mod tour into the IHRA’s Funny Car ranks. Aboard a car purchased from Tim Wilkerson, Hagan scored the most points and victories (three) in the IHRA, only to miss the title after losing points for oil downs.
That same year, Hagan dipped his toe into the NHRA waters and posted a strong qualifying performance in the Big Go at Indy, where he was quicker than Force, Gary Scelzi and Tommy Johnson Jr. After an exchange of e-mails with Don Schumacher, Hagan made the jump full-time to the NHRA in 2009 to one of the premier teams in the business.
All along, Hagan’s father David has been his biggest supporter. A self-made man who grew up
in a house trailer with six brothers and sisters in nearby Shawsville, Va., David Hagan excelled in the car business before also getting into real estate development. He’s helped provide Matt with equipment, including the Funny Car purchased from Wilkerson. Unfortunately, a sponsorship lined up by David that helped seal the deal with Don Schumacher disappeared several months into a three-year contract.
But Schumacher chose to keep Hagan under contract for 2009 and found new sponsorship in the form of Diehard for 2010. “I don’t know if Don saw something in me, just maybe being a young kid in the sport, he thought he’d be able to acquire some more sponsorship,” said Hagan. “Whatever happened there, I’m very thankful for.”
As a teenager, Hagan discovered the joys of bracket racing in cars borrowed off the used car lot at the Motor Mile, the dealership co-owned by his father and the biggest used car dealer in the state.
Hagan confesses he didn’t follow the sport while growing up, even though the family-owned Motor Mile Speedway near Radford, Va. has an eighth-mile drag strip along with a short oval. The first time he met Ed “The Ace” McCullogh, Hagan thought he was a nice guy but had no idea he was one of the fiercest Fuel class competitors in NHRA history before becoming a crew chief for DSR. But Hagan has been around long enough to hear the horror stories of drivers who have quickly received the hook from team owners in the dog-eat-dog realm of drag racing.
Rivalries can also be rough in the NHRA. Force, known to be antagonistic toward some of his
competitors over the years, chose to merely needle Hagan about the fact he was big enough to be a linebacker in the NFL. “He was real stand-up,” said Hagan. “Never said a bad word about us. That guy, as long as he’s been out there, he could have said, ‘He’s just a punk kid. We don’t need to worry about him.’ But he was really stand-up and very respectful. That earned a lot of respect for him in my book.
“When we beat Robert Hight and we beat Ashely (Force Hood) in Chicago,” continued Hagan, “every one of those guys came over and shook our hands. I really gained a lot of respect for them as a class organization, not because they beat us in the championship. That’s the race that stands out in my mind. Every one of those guys, even though we beat them and set a national record, they came over and shook our hands.”
Hagan, who has started a new conditioning program this winter, finds some advantage in his size and strength. A former defensive end during his high school football days, Hagan says the 300 mph Funny Cars and their 8,000 horsepower demand as much muscle as finesse. “The majority of the time these things are trying to ride the ring gear and they’re left and right,” he said. “You’re really trying to stay on top of them.”
The hilltop farms helps Hagan prepare himself to stay on top of his drag racing – in addition to being a hedge against the future when it comes to income. “It’s a pressure-driven, adrenalin-driven sport,” he said. “We’re expected to do well. You don’t want to be the weakest link out there. You don’t want to be the one messing up. It’s a pride thing also. You have to commit 100 percent. You can’t come in there halfway and say this is just another race, because those guys that work on the car, they give 100 percent every time.
“It carries a lot of pressure and you’ve got to come out here to the farm and let that go,” he
continued. “For me, it just works. Every guy just does something a little differently. There’s not anybody else involved, I’ve got one guy here besides myself, but there’s a lot of times you’re on the tractor by yourself. You’ve got time to mellow out and decompress and think about what I could do differently or do better to help our team do better. You’ve got to have that place you can go and get right in your head and prepare to come back and battle it out the next week.”
Although the Schumacher team is well supplied with parts and equipment, Hagan doesn’t begrudge the decisions that ultimately led to a burned piston at Pomona. The team had thought the problem was fixed after qualifying and stuck with the same set of cylinder heads in Round 1, only to have the problem crop up again.
Heading into a third year with his team led by Tommy DeLago, Hagan has reason to be optimistic about the 2011 season, especially given the split from John Force Racing by longtime tuner Austin Coil. “But we may come out and fall on our face,” he said. “You never know.”
One way Hagan has decided to improve on last year’s outcome is by arriving at February’s Winternationals in Pomona in better shape to tackle the Funny Car wars. At 200 pounds, the six-foot-1 Hagan intends to arrive looking more like his high school football playing days and less like an NFL linebacker.
Hagan’s attitude about how the races are won or lost hasn’t changed. “It’s no different than football, basketball or baseball or any ball sport,” said Hagan. “Everybody has in some way directly affected the outcome of what you’re doing. You win as a team and lose as a team. Just because I drive the race car doesn’t mean I won the race. Those guys who work on it and put it together and those guys who are tuning it and dealing with all the variables, we all affect the outcome of that deal. To say that this is your fault or my fault is not going to be productive in any sport.”
Quote of the Week: “We can’t count on Hagan to make mistakes. (He’s got) too good of a race car with the tuners they have got and the financial backing that they have got from Schumacher. And the driver’s good. So we have to come home and make changes. We try to look at why Hagan’s car would run and our car wouldn’t run. And basically, the weight factor is the thing we found as the biggest problem, even though he’s much bigger than me, the Schumacher cars are light. So we put our car on a diet. I guess we have taken like 40 pounds off it. So we have got to go into Vegas, scale it, make sure it’s right.
“We have got to do everything we can to gobble up the points like he did at the last race. He did everything right. We did everything wrong. And the fact that Cruz (Pedregon) was able to get him in the final, it still kept our hopes open. I need every point I can if I’m going to catch this kid.” – John Force prior to the penultimate round of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series in Las Vegas
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com Comments