HAGAN KICKS OFF SEASON WITH HUGE WINTERNATIONALS VICTORY
Sometimes, you just have to keep moving forward.
After a turbulent and extremely emotional offseason for two-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan following the unexpected passing of his brother back in January, the only medicine that could possibly ease the soul and make the world right again is the one that comes from stomping the gas of a nitro-powered Funny Car.
So that is exactly what Hagan set out to do this weekend.
With a heavy heart, Hagan returned to the seat of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car and dominated the weekend with the quickest pass of the weekend and an exciting, albeit sometimes lucky, round of eliminations as Hagan drove to his 23rd career victory and second at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona at the 57th annual Circle K Winternationals.
“This is a really special race for me. A lot of stuff happened over the offseason with losing my brother and just to come out motivated has been awesome,” Hagan said. "My lights have been great. The car is running great. We just have a real powerhouse team right now. And I have to say thank you to Don Schumacher. There are a line of drivers that would sit in that car and take my job tomorrow. I just try to do a good job for him and, right now, we have a great team around us.”
Hagan helped secure an all-Don Schumacher Racing winner’s circle with a win over Courtney Force in the final, as teammate Leah Pritchett joined him in the championship celebration from the Top Fuel side.
In a testy final between two teams that made waves throughout the weekend through the back-and-forth banter between the two team patriarchs, Hagan bested JFR’s Courtney Force in a close and extremely exciting final round.
After getting to the line late and almost facing disqualification, Hagan fired first, completed his burnout and awaited the same from Force. When the light flashed green, Hagan held a narrow advantage at the hit and held that advantage throughout in taking the win with a 3.875-second pass at 330.07 mph. Force, in the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro, had a 3.901 at 326.95 mph.
“We were a little behind in our warm-up. We had a brand new guy strapping me in and we were just a little rough around the edges,” Hagan said. “But it is coming around. I have much respect for Courtney, that she waited for us. We would have done the same thing. It was very sportsmanlike of them to wait and we appreciate that.
“During the run, I could hear her right beside me. I couldn’t see the win light because of the sun, so I was just trying over the radio, ‘did we win, did we win.’ As soon as I hit the chutes, I saw her nose pop out in front of me so I knew it was really close. When I heard my guys screaming and yelling over the radio, I’m thinking we must have got it.
“Anytime we can put those Forces on the trailer, that is what we need to do. We are here to win and Don expects us to win. I am excited. I am pumped up. It is a very special win for me following an emotional offseason and it is good to put the mouthpiece in and get it done.”
Hagan’s road to the final included a pair of wins over his Don Schumacher teammates as Hagan bested Ron Capps and Jack Beckman to reach his 43rd final round. In round two Beckman gave the eventual winner all he had in an extremely close race with Hagan turning on the win light with a 3.882 to a 3.893, while Capps gave away the semifinal round with a huge red light.
To add to the excitement, in the semifinal round, Hagan’s solo pass proved a bit more tumultuous than he would have hoped as he dropped a cylinder just past the 330-foot mark and came dangerously close to the centerline. After close inspection, NHRA determined that Hagan did not cross.
“I had a little luck today. Both Jeff Diehl and Capps red-lighted on me, but I guess I’d rather be lucky than good any day,” Hagan said. “In the semifinal, we smoked the tires and put a couple of cylinders out and really washed over there hard and it was all I could do to reel it back in and not cross the centerline. You can only do so much and the steering wheel will only turn so far, and even when you’ve got it turned all the way across, the car still has to wash and momentum has to come that way and sometimes you just have to ride it out.
“But that’s what makes life fun. That is why you saddle up everytime. It is just a neat feeling to crawl in a car where you never know what’s going to happen. I think that’s what makes these cars so exciting. In a Funny Car, there is something new every lap.”
And Hagan’s path to victory wasn’t his alone. While any driver will be quick to plug his or her crew as the reason for their success, in the case of Hagan, it was the teamwork of a crew just coming together that truly made the difference on Sunday.
“It’s a cool feeling to hear (my team) get excited. I wish sometimes I could trade with them and see their excitement,” Hagan said. “Those are the guys who have really worked all day long. I’ve got a nice lounge to sit in, but those guys are out there all day long. You look at their shirts and they are drenched in sweat. They are busting their butt.
“But you have to put it in perspective. You have a couple of guys who almost can’t get through the service because they have never had to work that hard yet where we are trading some guys around. One guy is cramping up and another guy is jumping in there to do his service and you look at that and see that those guys are really killing it. I have a lot of respect for that.”
Through that team effort, Hagan starts off the season with a win and the points lead with 23 more races to go.
“This is the first race of the year and you say, ok, that is great. But there is a long season ahead of us,” Hagan said. “We just have to keep some of this momentum going and we will be fine.”