Matt Hagan has seen his fortunes fluctuate to an almost absurd degree over his five seasons in NHRA Funny Car. But in 2013, there's no question that the Dodge Charger driver heads into the Countdown as firm favorite, as Todd Veney reports.
Matt Hagan probably should have won the NHRA Funny Car championship in 2010, did win it in 2011, is a solid favorite to win it again in 2013, and didn't make the Countdown at all in 2009, his first full season, or in 2012, when he was the reigning champ. He has been at the pinnacle of the sport and at the bottom – usually one year after the other – but never anywhere in between. With him, it's all or nothing, which affords him a unique perspective for the upcoming Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Hagan's Mopar/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger Funny Car has been the car to beat all season, with more victories (four) and more final-round appearances (seven) than any team in drag racing's most popular class. And to think that two weeks before the season began, he didn't even know who his crew chief was going to be…
“[Team owner] Don Schumacher called me before Pomona and told me that Dickie Venables was our guy,” Hagan says. “I knew what Dickie was capable of, but we never even made a lap before the season. Where we are right now, compared to where we probably should be, is unbelievable.”
In just their second race together (Phoenix), the duo advanced to the final round. Hagan went on to make the quickest run of the entire season (3.986sec) in Sonoma, win Charlotte, Englishtown, Chicago, and Seattle, and reach finals in Atlanta and Brainerd.
“Dickie is like no one I've ever worked with,” Hagan says. “He lives and breathes that car, and it shows on the racetrack. He's got two championship rings on his fingers, and now I can see why. I never really knew him until this year. I'd talked to him in the front of the hotel before our teams went out to the track maybe once or twice over the years – that was it.”
The turnaround since Venables came aboard has been nothing short of remarkable. Not only did Hagan not defend his 2011 title last year; he didn't win a single race, didn't even make it into the Countdown! Yet the 2010 season, when he finished second, was harder on him mentally. That year, just his second full season after making his debut five years ago this weekend at the 2008 U.S. Nationals, Hagan led the standings down to the last day. But after reaching three finals in a row, he was beaten in the first round at the Finals at Pomona and watched helplessly as NHRA's superstar John Force won the race and stole the championship that seemed destined to be his.
“It was very disappointing – overwhelming, really – because you never know if that opportunity is going to come again,” Hagan says. “It happened so early in my career. I mean, guys spend 10 or 15 years trying to win a championship and there I was, still learning how to drive the car, and I was right in the hunt. When we lost it at the end, I had no idea how to handle it emotionally. The internet blew up when I didn't want to do a TV interview right after I got out of the car, and I got a lot of flak for being a bad sport. Later that day, I shook John's hand and congratulated every guy on the whole team, but that was off-camera – nobody saw it. People thought I was pouting. I learned a lot of life lessons that day.”
Hagan underwent a rigorous offseason workout program, entered the 2011 season more committed than ever, and won the title. “It was incredible,” he says. “It got down to crunch time, and I did my part.”