NHRA: Hagan Returns To Scene of Last Fall’s Fall

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 24 2011

Matt Hagan collected three Wallys in 2010. He also collected a large helping of final-weekend of disappointment at Pomona, site of the 2011 Winternationals, which start on Thursday. (File photos courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

Three months after getting hit “square in the chin” by NHRA Funny Car icon John Force, Matt Hagan will begin the 2011 season with renewed accountability – and an unexpected endorsement.

NHRA’s 60th anniversary season will roll into the staging lanes at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., this afternoon for the first round of professional qualifying of the 51st annual Kragen O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals. It’s the same track where Hagan’s bid for the 2010 championship ended with a thud during the season-ending Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.

An emotionally drained Hagan watched his 38-point lead heading into final eliminations disappear after a failed piston led to a first-round defeat against Bob Tasca III. Force, 61, won his first-round match against Gary Densham, then won again in the second round against Bob Bode to take the points lead en route to his record-setting 15th championship.

Hagan finished the six-race Countdown to the Championship 42 points behind Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang and a five-time Winternationals winner.

“Last year, was last year. It’s behind me and I just want to finish some unfinished business,” said Hagan, driver of the DieHard Dodge Charger R/T fielded by Don Schumacher Racing. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to get back into the car, into the groove.”

Hagan, 28, ended 2010 with three wins in five final rounds, six semifinal and seven quarterfinal finishes, four No. 1 qualifiers and a round-win record of 37-20. “I’m holding myself – and the team and (crew chief) Tommy DeLago are holding themselves – to a higher standard after our success last season,” Hagan said. “Our goal is to be in a position to win (the championship).”

Qualifying continues Friday and Saturday, with final eliminations on Sunday. Force, Larry Dixon (Top Fuel) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) are defending event champions.

Hagan will begin the season with a new chassis that was tested during the PRO Winter Warm-Up in Florida. “The new car is great,” said Hagan, an Angus cattle farmer from Christiansburg, Va. “I got to knock some offseason rust off me and Tommy and the guys took care of any gremlin which popped up. I felt really comfortable driving it. Tommy and the crew worked hard all winter to get ready, and I think we are. I’m 100 percent confident in him and the team.”

In 51 NHRA Funny Car races, Hagan has won three times in seven final rounds, reached seven semifinals and 15 quarterfinals, qualified No. 1 six times, set two national elapsed-time records while posting a career round-win record of 53-45.

Additionally, Hagan will start his third Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season after having received an inspiring vote of confidence from another NHRA icon.

“I got a really cool letter from (three-time Top Fuel champion) Shirley Muldowney,” Hagan said. “She wrote that she and her son were big fans and they expected me to be a champion some day. She didn’t have to write it, but she did and it means a lot to me. It was really cool.”

In recognition of its 60th anniversary season, NHRA recently released 60 moments that fans will debate throughout the year and ultimately rank in order of their favorite.

Larry Dixon cruised to the 2010 Top Fuel championship. (Photos courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

Three-time/reigning Top Fuel world champion Larry Dixon wasted little time in selecting his favorite moment from the Winternationals.

“Probably my first Winternationals win in 1998,” said Dixon, a native of Van Nuys, Calif. “It’s a race my dad won (Larry Dixon Sr., 1970), and winning that race was definitely on my priority list.  We won it that year with my dad there to see it so that made it even better.  I even got a picture from the winner’s circle with my dad, so that’s still one of my top memories.”

Dixon won that race for legendary driver/team-owner Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.  It also was the first of four Winternationals victories for Dixon, who will start the season with the car he ran in 2009.

Dixon said winning the NHRA’s traditional season-opener at his home track never gets old.  “It ranks as high up as the U.S. Nationals,” said Dixon, who also claimed Winternationals victories in 2002 and 2003. “It’s the season-opener and it brings back a lot of memories for me as a kid growing up going to that race.  You get to see all of the new cars, new drivers and new paint schemes, so it’s a fun start to the season.”

Dixon, driver of the Al-Anabi Racing Dragster tuned by Jason McCulloch, dominated the division last year with 12 wins – twice as many as seven-time Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher of Don Schumacher Racing. Al-Anabi has strengthened its lineup in NHRA’s premier division by adding former Funny Car driver Del Worsham as Dixon’s Top Fuel teammate.

Worsham, who raced briefly in Top Fuel in the early 1990s, drove the Al-Anabi Racing Toyota Camry to a sixth-place Funny Car point finish last season.

“I’m sure the hope and plan is that it makes our team – and when I say ‘our team’ I mean the Al-Anabi team – the strongest and best team,” said Dixon, who finished 102 points ahead of Schumacher’s U.S. Army Dragster.  “That’s the hope and the intent.  As much as I’ve looked up to Del racing during the years, now I get to race with him in the same category. I hope Del and I can meet in the finals every week.

“The edge you hope to have is the increased data.  With two Al-Anabi cars racing in the same conditions in the same sessions in qualifying and on race day, you hope you’re able to improve the cars by having more shots at the racetrack on every session on every day.  It should double the amount of information for Alan, (team manager Alan Johnson), Jason and Brian (Worsham crew chief Brian Husen) throughout the season.”

Don “The Snake” Prudhomme is synonymous with the Winternationals, and his career accomplishments will be a focal point throughout the anniversary weekend. Prudhomme, who won

Funny Car driver Ron Capps.

four Funny Car world championships and posted 49 victories during his career, will be honored as NHRA presents the “Snake Pit” car corral at Auto Club Raceway. The “Snake Pit” will contain a collection of Prudhomme’s greatest race cars.

Prudhomme, who wrapped up his career in Top Fuel, won consecutive Funny Car titles from 1975-78, a run of dominance snapped by Raymond Beadle in 1979. Der Snake said his favorite car now is a fulltime resident of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona.

“It’s the Army (Chevrolet) Vega that I won the first championship in,” Prudhomme said during a recent teleconference. “One year I won seven out of eight national events – and they only had eight.  I was a runnerup at that one.  It won the championship by huge, huge numbers. That was probably my most favorite.  And the Prudhomme Top Fuel Dragster ranks right up there; fortunately I’ve had a few really great cars.”

Prudhomme also will be present to sign autographs for fans and catch up with his colleagues in the drag racing fraternity. Among those looking forward to reminiscing with Prudhomme is Ron Capps, who raced to the first of two Winternationals victories in Funny Car while driving for Snake in 1998.

“Pomona is such a special place,”  said Capps, driver of the NAPA Dodge Charger R/T for Don Schumacher Racing. “If you want to win a race – I know Indy’s our biggest race– but for me growing up in California, it’s kind of where the season starts and ends, so it’s a family race for me. But more than anything else, I got to win a double-up there for Snake, with Larry Dixon and I winning there in ’98.  That was huge.”

Capps, who also won the season-opener in 2009, finished seventh in points last year with one victory after starting the season with veteran crew chief Ed “The Ace” McCulloch and finishing with John Medlen.

Backed by a stack of impressive test time slips, Pro Stock veteran Allen Johnson has emerged as preseason favorite to unseat four-time/reigning champion Greg Anderson. Johnson exited the PRO Winter Warm-up with a 6.498-second quarter-mile pass that is the unofficial record for Pro Stock.

Johnson logged a solid 2010 season behind the wheel of the J&J Racing/Team Mopar Dodge Avenger tuned by Mark Ingersoll. Johnson logged one victory in four finals and a career-high eight poles en route to a sixth-place point finish.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to get the year going,” said Johnson, who qualified No. 1 in the season’s final four races. “Our preseason testing numbers have been awesome, posting a 6.498-second run. I think the consistency we had in testing is the biggest thing. It was very consistent. It might not be as ultra-fast right now as we want it to be, but the new chassis is more consistent with a bigger window on the set-up. I believe we’ll have the Mopar Dodge at the forefront, but there will be about six or eight teams that are right there.”

Anderson, driver of the Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GXP, won five events while finishing 112 points ahead of Greg Stanfield’s GXP in 2010. Anderson is a four-time Winternationals winner.

The entire stable of John Force Racing Ford Mustangs received a make-over during the offseason. Gone is the 25th anniversary look of Force’s Castrol GTX High-Mileage Mustang, its silver scheme replaced by the traditional green-and-white look that represented the 15-time champion the previous 24 seasons. Designs for Force, 2009 world champion Robert Hight and Mike Neff were unveiled and raced for the first time during the PRO Winter Warm-Up test in Florida.

“I really like the new look,” Force said. “Everyone from our graphic design team to our painters did a great job. I think these hot rods look fast just sitting in the pits.”

Hight’s Auto Club Mustang is sporting AAA blue and Neff’s Castrol GTX Mustang carries the traditional white, red-and-green look. Courtney Force’s BrandSource Mustang will be redesigned to follow the motif of the other three JFR Funny Cars in coming weeks.

Two-time Funny Car world champion Tony Pedregon has hired veteran Jimmy Walsh to tune

Tony Pedregon has a new tuner. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

his American Racing Wheels Chevrolet Impala, beginning with this weekend’s Winternationals.

“Jimmy will be a welcome addition to this program,” said Pedregon, Funny Car world champion in 2003 and 2007 and a multiple Winternationals winner.  “My job is to provide and position this team for the best chance of winning.  Our goal will be to pull together our experience and resources in a short amount of time to get competitive right from the start.”

Pedregon, who struggled with financial limitations during 2010, went winless for the first time since 2004 while finishing in the top 10 (ninth) for the 15th consecutive year. Pedregon, who hasn’t missed qualifying for a race since 1995, was only 14-23 on race day last year.

Walsh spent two decades on the team of five-time Top Fuel world champion Joe Amato, and later worked with six-time champion Kenny Bernstein during his return to Funny Car in 2007. Walsh’s most recent stint was as crew chief for Morgan Lucas’ Top Fuel team last year.

ESPN’s 11th season of exclusive NHRA coverage will include a new element, with live eliminations action for all 22 Full Throttle Series events on ESPN3.com, ESPN’s live sports broadband network. Live eliminations will air from Pomona starting at 2 p.m. (ET) Sunday on ESPN3.com, first time the coverage will include the full season.

On television, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will continue to air qualifying and eliminations for all events on a same-day basis, starting with the Winternationals. Two hours of qualifying highlights will air Saturday at 11 p.m. (ET). Three hours of eliminations are scheduled for Sunday beginning at 7 p.m. (ET).

ESPN2 also will continue its coverage of the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, the premier Sportsman series in drag racing and, for many aspiring racers, a stepping stone to the Full Throttle Series. And for the second season, the NHRA Get Screened America Pro Mod Series will appear on ESPN2. Both the Lucas Oil and Pro Mod series will air on a tape-delay schedule.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 24 2011
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