HAGAN SWEEPS WINTERNATIONALS FOR SECOND-STRAIGHT YEAR
It is one of the oldest and most prestigious events on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series calendar. A win here can make your season and place you onto a who’s who list of drivers that have accomplished the feat in the 57 prior trips at the southern California track.
But winning back-to-back? That list is even shorter. And sweeping back-to-back events - taking home the Wally along with being fastest in qualifying - then you are talking about a rare few.
In fact, it hasn’t been since the late 70s that a nitro driver has swept the Winternationals with a No. 1 qualifier award and a win.
That is, until this weekend.
Matt Hagan became the first driver since Don Prudhomme in the 1976-77 season to accomplish the weekend sweep when he drove past defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight in a tremendous drag race to win the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway.
“To watch my guys come together and work like they did this weekend is pretty special. You can tell the extra prep they put in during the offseason. It’s not so much parts and pieces, it’s looking at those parts and pieces and putting your hands on them and putting in that little extra,” Hagan said. “I’m so proud of my team and I’m proud of this racecar that Don Schumacher owns. It’s a car that these guys have put together that I know can win on any given Sunday I go out there and that is a crazy feeling. There are a lot of guys that race out here that are just hoping to go some rounds and I know, every Sunday, I can win this race. It’s just a cool feeling.”
Hagan drove from the No. 1 position on Sunday to match-up with the other top driver from qualifying and the pair put on quite the show in the season’s first nitro final. With both drivers close throughout the weekend, Hight took a .021 head-start at the tree, but Hagan was around the defending champion by the 60-foot sensors and the pair remained welded together through the finish line.
But it was Hagan who flipped on the win light by the narrowest of margins, crossing the stripe with a 3.823-second pass at 335.90 mph in the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car. Hight also had big numbers finishing in the runner-up position, posting a 3.866 at 336.99 mph.
It was yet another tremendous drag race in a rivalry that has become one of the fiercest in the sport between champion drivers, champion owners, and champion crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and Dickie Venables.
“You have to run good against Jimmy Prock and that is all Dickie. Those two guys throw down. Everybody talks about fast and when it comes to Funny Car, those are the two guys,” Hagan said. “We go back-to-back on speed and ET and that is because we’ve got good, fast crew chiefs. But I’m sure Don (Schumacher) is grinning from his boat right now because we loaded up a Force car and turned the win light on. It’s a rivalry, a healthy rivalry for the sport. Not everybody wants to see handshaking and kissing on the top end. It’s competitive, but still respectful.”
Hagan added wins over Jim Campbell, Cruz Pedregon and Ron Capps to earn his first Wally of the season and the 27th of his career.
In the second round, Hagan had to overcome a massive deficit at the starting line to drive around a resurgent Pedregon, winning with a 3.954 to a 4.006, before eliminating Capps in a very close 3.938 to a 3.968 to punch his ticket to the final.
“I needed every millisecond in the race against Cruz. If he is that good, hats off to him, but he had a .010 light and I saw him poke his nose out there and I was like, ‘we might get our butts kicked here’ and then we just drove around him,” Hagan said. “It was just one of those deals that’s just racing. You have to be on your game and be good enough on the tree to get it done.
“Dickie just really has it dialed in right now. He isn’t messing with it too much, it is just gas and go. But these nitro cars are pretty finicky and walking a razorblade where you can fall off either edge. He isn’t up there scratching his head, he knows what he is doing and that gives me confidence as a driver knowing that I can do what I need to do. Three lights in the .50s today, that allows me to zone in and focus on the tree and what I need to do.”
Hight had wins over Jeff Diehl, J.R. Todd and Jack Beckman in finishing in the runner-up position.
With the win, Hagan opens the season with all the confidence in the world coming off of a tremendous test session last weekend and now a win in one of the biggest races of the year. Now the key is to keep the team performing at this high level for 23 more races.
“Confidence is a big thing, but these Funny Cars are just so humbling. You feel, sometimes, like you are on top of the world and you can’t do anything wrong, but then they can rip your heart out and run over it,” Hagan said. “I’ve been on both sides of it and I feel like keeping our team upbeat and confident and starting the year off on a positive note means a lot. We had a team meeting last night and I feel that we are working as a group. It is no different than any other sport - you have to work together. And at the end of the day, (Dickie) and Mike Knudsen have a gameplan and they are working hard to execute it. We have to do the same.”