Since the original Million Dollar Race in 1996, winners of the Mickey Thompson Tires Million have been catapulted to bracket racing fame and fortune. Whether it’s a legendary bracket racing name like Williams, Richardson, and Underwood or a relative unknown, Million Dollar Race winners earn a distinction that goes with them for the rest of their careers.
This year, that distinction went to Michigan’s Donnie Hagar. But this isn’t news to most anyone with an internet connection, as Hagar’s win at the 28th annual Mickey Thompson Million Dollar Race broke the proverbial drag racing internet. The 25-year-old firefighter and EMT became the first driver in the history of the event to win without the use of a delay box. Racing off the bottom bulb in his green ’72 Vega, Hagar raced past nine other drivers to meet 2012 Million winner Shane Carr in the final round. The tree dropped on Hagar’s side first, with a .005 reaction time popping up on the scoreboard. When Carr’s side dropped, he let go just one thousandth of a second too soon to hand the win to Hagar.
While these figures changed during the late-round splits negotiations between drivers, the 471 entries in the Million meant $590,000 would go to the winner and $50,000 would go to the runner-up. No matter what Hagar’s cut worked out to be after splits, it was a life-changing win.
Hagar’s win made headlines and will go into the history books for multiple reasons. For one, the car count and resulting payout set new records for the Million. Two, Hagar’s win was a first for no-box racers. But the factor that really turned Hagar into a household name in the drag racing world? He’s the bracket racing Everyman.
Hagar rolled into World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis in the early hours of the morning on Friday after driving through the night. He drove his Chevy Silverado with 350,000-plus miles on it, with his race car on an open trailer in tow. Without living quarters, Hagar set up a tent in his pit area for his short stay at the Million. He usually races at his local tracks in Michigan, like U.S. 131 Motorsports Park, where he’s a back-to-back track champion. He’s not one to enter the numerous big-money bracket races around the country, but when the stars lined up for Hagar to make a trip down to St. Louis for the Million, Hagar went all-in.
The Million win gave Hagar a little extra funding for his trip South to Darlington Dragway for the WDRA World Finals, where he was due to represent U.S. 131 Motorsports Park as the 2023 No-Box track champion. His winning streak continued there when he won the Laris Motorsports Insurance Free $5K on Friday and the WDRA Summit No-Box world championship on Saturday. The title came with $20,000 and a slew of prizes from WDRA sponsors.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #185, the 30 Under 30 Issue, in Nov/Dec of 2023.]
Hagar, who thanked his parents and Phil Veldheer Racing for their support of his racing endeavors, sat down with Drag Illustrated for a look back at his almost unbelievable 2023 season.
Before the Million, how was your season going?
It was going really good. I would say I won probably five local points races in Modified, or No-Box as they call it now. I runnered-up in a 10-grander at Mid-Michigan and I won a $5,000 32-car shootout at 131 back in August. I saved that money specifically for the Million entry. It was pretty consistent all year with wins, locally.
Was there a point in the Million where you felt like you were going to win it?
I was taking it round by round in the beginning. I wasn’t thinking too much in the future. I was really focused on one round at a time. It was a 10-round race. I would say the sixth round is where it hit me. We started splitting the money up and it was a pretty significant amount to lose that round. I realized, Wow, I could win this thing. I really just gotta keep focusing. It really hit me then.
At that point, I was in the zone. There wasn’t much thought going on. It seemed like I was just making the right decisions and I was getting lucky. It just felt like everything was working out. I just felt it in the middle of the race. It just seemed like it was going to be my night, but I didn’t ponder too much on it. I didn’t want to jinx myself. Sure enough, it worked out.
When that final win light came on, what was going through your mind?
I was in shock. For some reason, I didn’t really get excited. I was excited internally – a lot of relief. It was just overwhelming. I was at a loss for words, really. I still am. I was just in shock. I couldn’t believe it.
Your story blew up on the internet – NHRA Top Fuel star Clay Millican even mentioned you in his interview when he won at St. Louis. What was it like having that kind of response to your win?
Let me think of the right word…surreal. It was really amazing, especially Clay. That was really nice of him to say that. It was all just very overwhelming. It still feels like I’m dreaming.
A few weeks after the Million, you competed in the WDRA World Finals as a U.S. 131 Motorsports track champion. You won a total of 11 rounds to go undefeated on the weekend. How rewarding was it to close out the year with another big performance like that?
Very rewarding. It was just like the cherry on top. Without trying to sound cocky, it just felt like that was supposed to happen. It’s what I’ve always dreamed of. I’ve always wanted to be the best, and this season matched what I’ve always wanted to be. It felt like that was supposed to happen. It felt really good. Super thankful.
You won one of the Millions and a world championship in one season. Is there one that means more than the other, or do they both have their own merits?
I would say they both have their own merits. It didn’t dawn on me until recently that [the original Million Dollar Race] is like the Super Bowl of bracket racing. I don’t think you can outdo that. But the World Finals, this was my fourth try and it always meant a lot to me. It was really important for me to win there. I finally did it. I feel like they’re both equally ranked for me for some reason.
How do you plan on taking what you’ve learned this year and applying it to 2024 and beyond?
I plan on hitting more bigger races and just try to keep that same hungry mentality. I really dug deep this year. I really wanted to prove it to myself that I could do what it takes. I just realized I gotta go out there and want it and earn it. No easy rounds. Sometimes I want it to be easy, but I gotta remind myself that if you want to be the best, you’ve really gotta earn it. I really want to keep trying to stack up some wins and prove to myself I can keep doing it and prove to myself it wasn’t a fluke season.