Matt Hagan, a name known to only the most dedicated drag racing fans two years ago, is not just competing with Funny Car's biggest stars this season; he's pounding them on a regular basis. In just his second full season on the NHRA tour, Hagan entered the closing stages of his first Countdown to the Championship playoffs as the odds-on favorite to win it all.
So, just who is this guy? The top-ranked NHRA Funny Car driver is a 27-year-old from the farm country of Christianburg, Va., and a former Pro Mod driver. Winless entering 2010, Hagan is now a three-time Funny Car winner and a two-time national record holder.
“Racing these guys is cool as hell,” he says. “I grew up watching John Force, Ron Capps, and all the rest of them. Getting a chance to take 'em out is still a little unreal for me. I mean, this is only my second year out here.”
Two-thirds of the way through the Countdown playoffs, Hagan had a win (Dallas) and another final-round appearance (Reading), had advanced to at least the semifinals at every event but one, and had yet to get taken out in the nerve-racking first round of eliminations. With the 20 points he received for lowering the national record to 4.011sec in Reading and the bonus points for dominating qualifying there, Hagan accumulated more points for finishing second there than he did for winning Dallas.
With just two races left in the 23-race Full Throttle Drag Racing season (Las Vegas Nationals and the NHRA Finals at Pomona), he held a commanding, 64-point lead over Force – Hagan's favorite driver when he was a kid.
“Sometimes I step back and think, ‘A few years ago, I was home watching this on TV,' Hagan says. “Then again, so what? You can't let stuff like that creep into your head. The way I look at it, I'm no better than they are, and they're no better than I am.”
Just a few races into last season, his first full year on the NHRA tour, Hagan had already established himself among other drivers as a capable pro. He would finish 11th in the Funny Car standings with 16 round-wins, but to him, 2009 was just a learning experience.
“We didn't do that well, if you ask me,” he says. “It was a growing year, for the team and for me. My crew chief, Tommy DeLago, was still relatively new on the scene, like I was. I'm one of the younger drivers out here, and Tommy  is pretty young for a crew chief. He's gotten to be a better racer, just his way of thinking about things and going about things. He races the racetrack not the guy beside us, and he swings for the fence every time. I wouldn't want anyone else tuning my racecar. When I crawl in there, I trust him completely. He's badass.”
Hagan has excelled under all conditions this year. In oppressive heat, he backpedaled to outduel veteran Jeff Arend in the Houston final for his first NHRA title. In Chicago, under ideal conditions, he not only won, but won with a then-record 4.022 and iced reigning Funny Car world champion Robert Hight in the final. In Dallas, under the pressure of Countdown competition, Hagan scored for the third time this season.
Yet his only qualifications for driving a Funny Car before last year were the rounds of experience he had behind the wheel of probably the only drag racing vehicles harder to drive than Funny Cars: Pro Mods, which have supercharged 500cu.in. engines, pedal clutches, manually
shifted transmissions, and doors. They're basically Pro Stockers with Alcohol Funny Car engines sticking out the hood.
“There's a lot going on in a Pro Mod,” Hagan says. “It has a suspension, and they take a lot of finesse to drive. When they get out of shape they get keep getting out of shape, and it takes a little longer to realize what's going on, because of the suspension. That's why two or three of them crash at every race. When a Pro Mod starts to get sideways, it only gets worse; it never gets better. You have to swap feet on the starting line and jam gears all the way down the track, and they're just wild. But they're not as wild as Funny Cars – nothing is.
“A Funny Car, you have to drive more aggressively,” Hagan says. “You're wrestling that thing from the time you leave the starting line all the way to the other end. They're so fast, your mind is playing catch-up the whole time. You never get ahead of them – it takes a while for your brain to process what's going on. The first couple of runs I made in a Funny Car, I was at the other end of the track, coming up on the finish line, and didn't know how I got there.”
Some still wonder how Hagan got here, leading the Funny Car standings late in the first playoffs of his career. Before 2009, he'd competed in just four NHRA events – including the 2008 U.S. Nationals, his second ever start, where Force himself and Gary Scelzi, the four-time NHRA world champion whom he replaced at Don Schumacher Racing when Scelzi retired, missed the cut.
“That's where it all started,” Hagan says. “Don noticed. He sees something in people. He sent me an e-mail after Indy and said, ‘Let's talk.' I know a lot of people were like, ‘You've got some big shoes to fill, replacing somebody like Gary Scelzi,' but I didn't look at it that way. I thought, ‘It's my racecar now.'”
Hagan hit the ground running last year, a full-blown member of one of drag racing's true superteams. “Don gives us everything we need,” he says. “This DieHard car is a championship car. It's a matter of us all doing our jobs. It's all right there.”
If he was feeling any playoff pressure, Hagan, staked to that 64-point lead heading to Vegas and with everything he ever wanted in racing right in front him, didn't show it. He's been consistent all year, losing in the first round just four times in 21 starts. Among the leaders with a 61.5 winning percentage in the regular season, he only got better in the crucible of Countdown competition, upping that percentage to 71.4 after four events.
“There's pressure, but there's always going to be pressure,” he says. “I try not to look at it that way. I try to enjoy it. You can lay in bed at night and think, ‘What if this happens? What if that happens?' but it doesn't do you any good. It's all about how you deal with everything. I told all our guys, ‘One day, we're all going to look back on this year and say, ‘Wasn't that something? Let's just make the most of this, have fun, and see where we end up.'
“It's a little surprising that this has all happened so fast,” he adds. “Guys have been out here for 10 or 15 years and haven't gotten to the point we're at right now – so I'm just going to ride this horse until it bucks me off. Drag racing is so sponsor-dependent, and you never know when it's all going to end. I could still be doing this 10 years from now, or it all could be over tomorrow.”WHERE'S MASSEY?
No ride for '09 TF rookie
Last year, Spencer Massey was what Matt Hagan is now: a young driver with limitless potential, living the dream with national event wins early in his career. Massey (BELOW) won Chicago and Las Vegas for Don Prudhomme's Top Fuel team and was named 2009 NHRA Rookie of the Year – edging Hagan – but when sponsor U.S Smokeless walked at season's end and the team folded, Massey found himself, like so many talented drivers before him, out in the cold.
“If we had known a couple of months sooner that we were going end up losing our deal, I might have been able to put something together with somebody else,” Massey says. “There are only so many car owners out there and, in this economy, companies aren't running to
Word spread late this year that Massey, 28, might be in line for a ride with Don Schumacher Racing, but nothing materialized. “I've heard the rumors,” he says. “It's out there, and it would be nice if something worked out, but until it does, it doesn't really mean anything.”
For now, Massey drives Mitch King's Top Fueler in IHRA competition and helps his former team owner, Gene Snow, tune the A/Fuel car that Chase Copeland wheeled to victory last month in Dallas with the best run all year in Top Alcohol Dragster, 5.21sec.
“I'm doing the same things I did when I used to drive that car, and it's nice to watch it run great and know that I had something to do with it,” Massey says. “But it's not the same as driving – not even close. No way. My heart is in Top Fuel, going for an NHRA championship. I still have dreams about it every other night. Helping out my old team keeps my face out there, and, hopefully, people won't forget me. But standing there watching doesn't cut it.”