Champion Hagan Can’t Wait To Show Off New Car

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 6 2015

Matt Hagan begins 2015 with a brand new flopper. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Matt Hagan begins defense of his 2014 NHRA Funny Car world championship this weekend armed with his typical optimism and a new body, courtesy of his manufacturer.

Hagan’s offseason included a visit to the Fiat Chrysler Automotive headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., where the 2015 Dodge Charger R/T carbon-fiber body he will campaign during the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series was designed and brought to life over the past year.

“Having a new Dodge Charger R/T body is just huge,” said Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane/Rocky Boots car fielded by Don Schumacher Racing. “The guys at Mopar and SRT did a phenomenal job with this body; there are so many improvements to it and the visibility is much better for me as a driver. All-in-all, I think it’s a great piece and I can’t wait to race it.”

Hagan will debut his new flopper Friday during the first two of four rounds of qualifications for the 55th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals. The event at historic Pomona (Calif.) Raceway is the season-opener of the 24-race schedule.

Hagan scored four national event victories and two runnerup results in 2014 en route to a 43-point finish over John Force, the 16-time world champion. After qualifying sixth in last November’s Auto Club Finals, Hagan defeated Force in the final round after clinching the world championship in the semifinals.

Hagan ramped-up his driving with three victories during the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, including the season-ender at Pomona Raceway. The native Virginian posted a 39-20 won/loss record highlighted by a class-best 18-3 during the playoffs.

Hagan, who won his first Funny Car title in 2011, has rolled into Southern California as National Dragster’s 2-1 favorite to repeat as world champ. Hagan and the team led by crew chief Dickie Venables and assistant Michael Knudsen are winless in the Winternationals but have advanced to championship rounds the last three times they’ve raced at Pomona. Hagan has, however, earned Wally trophies at the past two Auto Club Finals in November. In all three finals Hagan faced-off against archrival Brute Force.

“It’s going to be another tough season, for sure,” said Hagan, 32. “I’m ready to get going. We have a great car and we had a great couple of test sessions during the offseason. We’re rolling into Pomona with the combination we left there with so I’m feeling confident.”

During a December 2014 test session in Florida, Hagan’s Dodge recorded the unofficial quickest run ever by a Funny Car with a 1,000-foot time of 3.954-seconds at 323.97 mph.

“We just have to make sure our car goes down the racetrack and continue to do the things we’ve done that put us in the position we’re in right now, with that No. 1 on the side of our car,” Hagan said. “We have a lot of positive things going for us right now, but it’s a 10,000-horsepower car and anything can happen.”

Former Funny Car world champion Jack Beckman heads into the 2015 NHRA season determined to snap a 51-race winless streak.

To that end, year-long funding for Beckman’s new 2015 Dodge Charger R/T was secured in December when Terry Chandler committed to back her second Funny Car team at Don Schumacher Racing. Chandler has added Beckman’s team to the financial backing already planned for Tommy Johnson Jr. and his Make-A-Wish Dodge. Beckman’s team plans to announce a major sponsor during this weekend’s Circle K NHRA Winternationals.

Meanwhile, team-owner Don Schumacher scored a major coup by hiring former world champion crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen, both formerly of John Force Racing. Prock is Beckman’s crew chief with Medlen serving as assistant crew chief alongside Chris Cunningham, the only holdover from “Fast Jack’s” winless 2014 team.

“I’m terrible with names, and I’ve never learned names this fast,” said Beckman, who won his 15th and most recent national event during his 2012 title season. “There is an immediate comfort level. Most of last year’s crew went to other DSR teams and they’re going to get into some winner’s circles this year.

“With Jimmy Prock I realize the expectations are real high. We’re going to be expected to win and I’m going to be expected to drive at a consistently high level and I love feeling that way. I’m not going to take it as added pressure, I’m going to take it as an opportunity to go out there and achieve what we are capable of.”

Beckman finished 11th in points in 2014, failing to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship for the first time since the playoff format was instituted in 2007.

“Winning the race is always my goal. I just want to win a race,” said Beckman, a 48-year-old resident of Norco, Calif. “It’s been over two years since I held a Wally up at the end of the day on Sunday. I miss that. I miss that sense of being around a group of people that were the best at what they did on that day. You don’t want to be cliché, but to win the trophy you first have to qualify and you have to get past first round. The points will take care of themselves. I’ll take six runnerups to get in the Countdown.”

Alan Johnson Racing reportedly has entered former Top Fuel world champion Shawn Langdon in the first two events of the 2015 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season as it continues to search for a full-time sponsor.

The team announced on Jan. 5 that Qatar Racing Club was terminating its funding to the team. With the separation from Al-Anabi Racing, team-owner Johnson released 2014 Winternationals champion Khalid alBalooshi. Brian Husen and Jason McCulloch are serving as co-crew chiefs on the AJR Racing dragster booked for this weekend’s Circle K Winternationals and the 31st annual Carquest Auto Parts NHRA Nationals in Chandler, Ariz., Feb. 20-22. Beyond that, Langdon’s season is in question.

“Everyone at Alan Johnson Racing is looking forward to getting back on the track at Pomona this weekend,” said Langdon, the 2013 world champion. “We’ve had some distractions in the last month, but we’re excited to start the new season; we’re optimistic. This weekend, it’s all about winning the Winternationals. Our team won this race last year, and our plan is to do everything we can to repeat as Winternationals champions and get Alan Johnson Racing’s next chapter off to a great start.”

Langdon won one race and posted five runnerup finishes in 2014 en route to a fourth-place point finish after the six-race Countdown to the Championship. Langdon compiled a 35-23 won/loss record last season, but only 7-6 during the playoffs.

“Having Jason and Brian working together as co-crew chiefs on the Alan Johnson Racing dragster is a great thing,” said Langdon, a 32-year-old native of Mira Loma, Calif. “We struggled quite a bit last year with some changes we made on the car. Having Jason and Brian working together, maybe both of them can learn a little bit from each other under Alan Johnson’s ‘master plan.’

“I think having more eyes on the car will definitely be positive this year, and still having (assistant crew chief) Nick Peters on the car is also very positive. The majority of our crew guys came from what was our gold team last year so we have some guys with a lot of experience.”

With considerably less fanfare than A Man Named Force, Pro Stock veteran Larry Morgan has switched brands heading into the Circle K Winternationals. Morgan’s five-year (2010-2014) association with Ford Motor Company ended last November without a victory. Morgan will begin his 29th season of Pro Stock racing in a Chevrolet Camaro built by Jerry Haas with engine power provided by Gray Motorsports.

“You can tell the rest of the Pro Stock guys to stay home!” said Morgan, driver of the FireAde Camaro. “No, I wish it was that way, but my guys and Johnny Gray’s guys are working real hard on my car and on engines.” Morgan drove Ford Mustangs during his tenure with the Blue Oval.

Morgan’s primary backer is Fire Service Plus Inc., a global leader in innovative and environmentally friendly firefighting equipment. “I can’t even say how excited I am because we hooked up with a company that saves lives and is really good for the environment,” Morgan said. “There are so many good things I can say about this product. On top of that, I’m going to race a car that has good horsepower. I’m more excited about the start of the season than anybody.”

Morgan scored the most recent of his 10 Pro Stock victories in 2009, the final season of a 10-year stretch during which he drove Dodge products. The longest-tenured full-time driver in the class at age 60, Morgan last raced a Chevrolet in 1999. “I look forward to racing a Chevy again and getting hooked back up with GM,” Morgan said. “They were good to me in my time with them, and I know they will be again.”

Morgan’s in-house engine program has been set aside in favor of leasing engines from the Gray Motorsports camp. “For us to start over from scratch on an engine program would have been more costly than it would be to lease,” said Morgan, of Newark, Ohio. “We felt the Grays were the best fit for us right now. We’ve been friends for more than 35 years. It’s an honor for us to be able to race with them again. We feel they’re at the top with horsepower, and we look forward to having a good time.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 6 2015
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