Hagan Finally Overcame NHRA’s Irresistible Force
With his first NHRA Funny Car title in 2011, Matt Hagan joined an elite “Gang of Four” roll call of world champions operating outside the John Force Racing juggernaut.
Beginning with his first title in 1990, Force and respective former/current teammates Tony Pedregon and Robert Hight have captured 17 of 22 National Hot Rod Association Funny Car championships. The short list with the temerity to interrupt JFR’s domination includes Cruz Pedregon (1992 and 2008), Gary Scelzi (2005), Tony Pedregon (2008) and Hagan.
Otherwise, the Funny Car Wally Trophy haul back to JFR’s headquarters in Yorba Linda, Calif., regularly has featured Force (1990-91; 1993-2002 and 2004, 2006 and 2010); Tony Pedregon (2003) and Force son-in-law Hight (2009). Through the years, that staggering run of success often has left the likes of Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, Al Hofmann, Tim Wilkerson, Whit Bazemore, Del Worsham and Ron Capps in a state of perennial frustration – a fact not lost on Hagan during a season-ending teleconference.
“It’s huge,” said Hagan, who joined teammate Jack Beckman to give Don Schumacher Racing a sweep atop the final point standings. “John Force, that whole JFR camp over there, they win team championships. It’s not so much individual championships, you know, so they do a really good job with that. For us to come out as an individual team – you can call it what you want – but everything over here
is 110 percent straight-up. I’ve got my teammates beating up on me left-and-right.
“It’s one of those deals where those (JFR) guys make you dig deeper because they’re going to do everything and anything they can to win, and so you know the odds sometimes are stacked against you. You’ve got to give those guys credit. They do a great job with it. Makes you want it more.”
Fittingly, Hagan clinched his crown during the 47th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona on Nov. 13 – one year after he saw a 38-point lead over Force disappear after a first-round loss to Bob Tasca III. Force’s subsequent final-round victory over Jeff Arend secured “Brut” his record 15th title by 42 points.
In addition, Force’s 2010 championship recently was voted by fans as The Greatest Moment in NHRA History, as the sanctioning body celebrated its 60th anniversary. Three years after devastating foot and leg injuries suffered in a crash at Texas Motorplex in Ennis nearly ended his career – and after soldiering through a winless 2009 season – Force redefined “job security” by clinching his 15th title at age 61.
Hagan admittedly was emotionally devastated after losing the title during the final event of the six-event 2010 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
“I hate the phrase ‘You’ve got to lose one to win one,’ but that really happened here,” said Hagan, driver of the DieHard Dodge Charger R/T tuned by Tommy DeLago. “I know last year when I had that bad taste in my mouth, I told myself I don’t ever want this again. I’ll do everything in my power to keep from that. Sometimes it’s out of your control and you just have to live with it. But if I have anything to do with it, that’s the way I want it to come out. Things fell in our favor (this year). We had some really great racing, and we were able to be on the side of the ladder to take out the guys we needed to win the championship.”
After losing that 2010 title to Force, Hagan raced into the final round at the first two events of the 2011 season in Pomona and Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway. Hagan, who ended the 16-race “regular season” fifth among the 10 drivers to qualify for the Funny Car playoffs, earned his first win of 2011 at the Countdown-opening event at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., on Sept. 18.
Hagan qualified No. 1 and then set the national record for elapsed time, picking up a 20-point bonus
in the process. More significantly, Hagan also made NHRA history by becoming the first Funny Car driver to break the three-second barrier with a 1,000-foot pass in 3.995-seconds.
Hagan, who entered the season-ender at Pomona with the point lead, defeated Jon Capps in Round 1, Beckman in the quarterfinals and clinched the title after a semifinal round win over Cruz Pedregon.
“When we raced Beckman in the second round was big,” said Hagan, who made his professional debut and qualified for his first race at the prestigious U.S. Nationals in Clermont, Ind., in 2008. “We were one-and-two in points. If we didn’t get around that, we probably weren’t going to win the championship. I knew that Jack has a very consistent crew chief (Rahn Tobler).
“It really came down to just us going down the racetrack and we happened to do that. It played into our favor to set us up for another huge match-up against Cruz to win the championship. I tried to stay calm, cool and collected and go up there and focus and make sure that we give our team the opportunity to win this thing and not do anything stupid or mess-up or try to make something happen. Sometimes when you chase after it, you try to make something happen and you step on your toes.
“So for me, it was just kind of to breathe, focus, and when the light turns on – go. But it just was one of those things where you have to simplify it as a driver, and you have to just take that pressure and turn it into something small and just do your job and simplify your job. That was big for me. For me being able to do that took all the pressure away.”
The combined seven Funny Cars fielded by DSR and JFR appeared in 35 of 44 possible finals this season. A former drag racer, Don Schumacher has enjoyed considerable success as a team-owner in Top Fuel, where son Tony has bagged seven world championships, including six in a row, between 1999 and 2009.
“It means a lot to him (Don Schumacher) to try to get the Top Fuel championship that Army car (driven by Tony) dominated for years,” said Beckman, driver of the Aaron’s/Valvoline Dodge Charger. “But in Funny Car, John Force has been the best for a long, long time. And in 2005 when Don won his first Funny Car championship with Gary Scelzi driving, I think if you asked him, that might be one of his proudest moments in drag racing.
“It looked like the Force cars (paced by Mike Neff) were going to run away with the championship again this year. (But) you knew Matt and Tommy were going to be right back in it. They barely lost the championship on the last day last year, and I think that just motivated them that much more.”
Hagan earned $500,000 for the championship he won by 72 points over Beckman. “It really is truly amazing to win the event and win the race,” said Hagan, who trailered Hight in the final for his fifth career win via a track-record run of 4.009-seconds at 317.79 mph in the quickest side-by-side race in Funny Car history. Hight ran 4.031-seconds at 318.92 mph in his Auto Club Ford Mustang.
“We had some phenomenal things happen this year and to win this is amazing,” said Hagan, whose 2011 performance record included a pair of runnerup results and three poles. “These Wallys in Funny Car are really hard to come by so this means so much to get the win and the world championship.”
A 29-year-old resident of Christiansburg, Va., Hagan and wife Rachel are quite comfortable in their non-racing lives as cattle ranchers. At 5-foot-8 and 158-pounds, Hagan keeps in shape playing golf, hockey and racquetball…and tossing the occasional baseball.
“It’s kind of like this year I’ve gotten to throw out two first-pitches at baseball games, and I kind of pride myself on being athletic a little bit and want to throw a strike in there,” said Hagan, referring to his mounting list of promotional duties. “I bounced my first one in. That’s kind of what that world championship last year felt like – like I bounced the ball. So I got a do-over again this year, and I finally threw a strike.
“It all worked out. I just can’t say enough for my guys and for Tommy DeLago. What a phenomenal crew chief. He’s a bad-ass when it comes down to it. He’s the guy you want to put yourself around and you’re going to have a long career and a great career. My guys have worked so hard. I’m just a small piece in this puzzle. Without them, this could have never happened.”
Before turning his undivided attention to the 2012 season, Hagan and his team will celebrate this title with a party sponsored by Shelor Motor Mile on Friday, Dec. 16, open to fans, media and competitors. The event is scheduled from 6-9 p.m. at the Event Centre, 1655 Roanoke St., Christiansburg, Va.
“It’s finally sinking in that we’re the 2011 Funny Car champions and we want to share that feeling with all our friends,” said Hagan, whose 30-22 won/lost record in 2011 was fourth-best in the class. “I don’t think there is a whole lot of pressure coming in. You know, it’s a new start, new slate. That’s the way I look at it anyway. We have a new opportunity to go win another one. I don’t look at it as somebody can take something away from you as much as we can go out there and win another one.
“It’s something that I don’t think you can ever replace how hard you work to get to that situation, how much you’ve prepared yourself. Then when it all happens and comes true, you’ve got to take it in and enjoy it. They can never take away from you that you’re world champion. There are a lot of guys out here competing, a lot of good race cars and good drivers. To be at the pinnacle of the sport here and to be able to wear that ring is something else. I don’t think it will ever lose its luster.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com