No Sophomore Slump For Matt Hagan

HAPPY HAGAN: Matt Hagan celebrates his first NHRA Funny Car win in April at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Texas. ( Photo)

Second-Year Driver Hagan Focused On Claiming 2010 NHRA Funny Car Title

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published Sept. 14, 2010.

HAPPY HAGAN: Matt Hagan celebrates his first NHRA Funny Car win in April at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Texas. ( Photo)

Matt Hagan was never so happy to count to 10.

When the engine on his DieHard Dodge Funny Car grenaded into a 300-mile-per-hour fireball near the finish line on the first pass of the third session of Funny Car qualifying for March’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway outside of Charlotte, N.C., the second-year driver was so stunned by the concussion that he thought he had lost several fingers.

The explosion, which happened milliseconds after Jeff Diehl blew the body from his Chevrolet in the far-right lane, littered the track with Funny Car body shrapnel, lifted the rear wheels from the ground and sent Hagan’s car careening dangerously close to Del Worsham in the left-hand lane.

“It was one of those things where I heard the motor changing pitch. It exploded right in the lights. I was about ready to put my foot out of [the gas] anyway…at the finish line. I heard the motor kind of diesel-down into a different, a lower pitch, and the next thing you know there was a really bad bang,” Hagan recalls. “It blew my hands off the wheel. I thought it blew a couple fingers off my hand. I couldn’t feel them; it was real stinging and tingling everywhere. There was blood all over my visor; I couldn’t figure out where I was bleeding from. I had oil and fire burning me everywhere.

“It was just one of those explosions where you’re going so fast and you’re covering so much ground and things are happening so quick, you’re just trying to pull your fire bottles and get on the brakes.”

Fortunately, Hagan managed to bring the scorched remains of his Funny Car to a stop and climbed out under his own power with no more than a gash to his head and a sore body from the jarring, wild ride.

“You crawl out and you count your 10 fingers, and you just don’t know how grateful you are to count to 10 at that point. I even asked the guy (with NHRA’s Safety Safari), ‘Am I still gonna be pretty?’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re gonna be just fine,’” Hagan jokes. “It scares you, but you just try to calm down and you make sure you’re OK and check yourself over. Then you crawl back in there and do it again.”

And that’s just what the 27-year-old Angus cattle farmer from Salem, Va., did just two hours later when his Tommy DeLago-led Don Schumacher Racing team brought his Funny Car — the same charred chassis sporting a new body — to the line for the final session of qualifying and through three rounds of competition on race day.

“Crawling in that car fourth round, you think about it (the explosion), but to be honest, I put it out of my mind. I trust my guys that put our car together 100 percent; I trust them with my life every time I get in that car. To question about that next round, it’s kind of like, if I do that, I need to question them every time I get in it,” Hagan explains. “Tommy DeLago, I know he’s got my best interests at heart and he’s going to make sure I’m gonna crawl into a safe race car. Those guys have built my trust, earned my trust, so I never thought twice about it going up there for the fourth round.

“We understand the risks and the dangers of getting in [these cars], and we know it’s going to happen. When you drive a bomb, stuff’s going to explode sometimes. We just try to make them live long enough to last, but sometimes it’s just a little shorter than we like.”

Two weeks later at Texas’s Houston Raceway Park (now Royal Purple Raceway), Hagan was in the headlines again, but this time it was for earning his first Funny Car Wally with his final-round defeat of Jeff Arend in just his 33rd event. After another five races, Hagan drove his Funny Car into the winner’s circle once more, this time in Joliet, Ill., his sponsor’s backyard.

Now 18 races into his second full-time season of competition, Hagan is experiencing anything but a sophomore slump. With three No. 1 qualifiers this season — including one Labor Day weekend at the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, site of his first start in 2008 — in addition to his two Wallys, Hagan sits third in the NHRA Funny Car standings, 61 markers shy of 14-time champ John Force in the hunt for the 2010 Full Throttle Championship with five events left in the season. With the wealth of resources team owner Don Schumacher has put into his six-car operation, which now includes longtime John Force Racing mastermind John Medlen, Hagan says, “It would be shocking and surprising for us not to do well.”

Hagan’s performance this year is a definite improvement from his rookie campaign in 2009 when the Automobile of Southern California Road to the Future Award candidate narrowly missed the 10-driver Countdown field. Hagan finished 11th in the final standings, but it’s still something that haunts him.

“It was kind of a shock to me last year that we didn’t do well and didn’t make the Countdown. I still have dreams that we didn’t make the Countdown this year, and you just start the day in a bad mood,” Hagan says. “I think that was a growing year for us last year, and this year we’re starting to grow together. We’re learning everybody and everybody on the crew, they know what their next move’s gonna be. Tommy and me, we’re really growing together as a crew chief and a driver. I think a lot of it has to do with confidence, and we definitely have a lot more confidence this year than we did last year.

“It’s one of those deals where Don supplies us with everything we need; you just gotta go out there and win it and it’s ours to win, so we’ve just got to make sure that we go out there and do that.”

The same applies to this year’s Funny Car title fight, where Hagan will be battling nine other competitors, including teammates Ron Capps and Jack Beckman, to be the last driver standing at the NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., in November.

“We have the cars, we have the drivers, we have the capability. I plan to be the driver holding the trophy up at the end of the year, but you never know what can happen with these things. These cars can be so humbling. You think you’re on top of the world one day and then you can’t get qualified the next,” Hagan says. “We’re not focused so much on the Countdown and trying to win it as much as we’re trying to win each race and every round we come up to. You put enough pressure on yourself; you don’t need any more by thinking about a championship. You just have to take every round and understand it’s very important and do the best we can do out there.

“We all have one goal in mind and that’s win, but you can’t add any pressure to yourself because you’re just going to stumble. My goal and my crew chief’s goal is just to take it one lap at a time, and the cards will fall where they fall.”