The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series returns to Heartland Park Topeka, May 17-19 for the NHRA Kansas Nationals and 2011 Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan is in contention for his first career win at Heartland Park as well as another Funny Car championship.
Hagan, in his Magneti Marelli/Rocky Footwear Dodge Charger recently raced to his first win of the season at Charlotte, breaking a 23-race winless streak. Last weekend at Atlanta, when Hagan raced to the No. 1 qualifying position he ended a 29-race drought from the top of the qualifying order.
“You never doubt yourself; you always put that first foot forward and know it could be your weekend at any time,” Hagan said. “It really just helped our team come together. We have a new deal, a new outlook and I think as far as having a new leader here with [crew chief] Dickie [Venables] tuning this car, it didn’t take as long as I thought it would with a change like that.
“I’m very excited about that. I’m excited that we ended our drought. I think that we kind of created our own drought so it was nice to come out of something that I think we created ourselves.”
When the 2011 Funny Car season came to a close, Hagan was on top of the world. He won the season-ending event in Pomona, was crowned the Funny Car world champion for the first time in his career and his focus was set on 2012 and the defense of his championship. But four first-round losses and one failure to qualify in the first six races of 2012 derailed his championship defense hopes and the team never rose higher than 11th in points.
This season is turning out to be a complete opposite for the team with one win, two runner-up finishes and one No. 1 qualifying position. They have also led the points and are currently second, only 13 behind leader Cruz Pedregon. Not only is Hagan’s confidence high following the win, but also that of his entire crew.
“It was phenomenal,” Hagan said. “To watch [the crew] light up; we had a new kid on the car that had never won before. It was very exciting. You’re making memories that they won’t ever forget for the rest of their life. That’s something that they’ll take with them even when they are done with the sport.
Hagan has found success this year with the addition of veteran tuner Venables as crew chief of the 8,000-horsepower Funny Car. Venables, a two-time Funny Car champion crew chief with Pedregon Racing in 2007 and John Force Racing in 2003, brings decades of experience and success to the car.
“Tommy DeLago [former crew chief] and I had a lot of success; he’s a brilliant tuner and a great crew chief, but the chemistry and communication between Dickie and I surpass what I’ve had in the past,” Hagan said. “Dickie is just a great guy and he’s easy to get along with. We hang out outside the race track and at the track. When you have that kind of chemistry, it definitely helps out on the racetrack and I think it shows.”
The NHRA Kansas Nationals is the eighth race of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season and numerous rounds of racing remain before a champion is crowned at Pomona. Hagan knows what it takes to win a championship and hopes the momentum continues during the remainder of the season.
“I’ve never felt this excited about a team, a car or a crew,” Hagan said. “We’ve won a championship, we’ve been runner-up, set world records, but I’ve just never had this kind of chemistry with a team up until this point. For me it is very, very exciting and I just want to grow that and continue to build on that chemistry that we have.
“These kids working on the car are very, very positive; they are learning fast and are dedicated to their job. It makes me want to be more dedicated and step up and make sure that I’m getting us a couple hundredths on the tree, they get us a couple hundredths on the race track and that’s a tough combination to beat.”
When Hagan isn’t behind the wheel of his Funny Car he can often be found on a tractor at his 1,000-acre cattle ranch he owns and operates in Southwestern Virginia. As he interacts with the fans at the event he shares a common bond with many of them.
“I can relate to a lot of folks in Topeka and Kansas because it’s a farming community,” he says. “I sit at the ropes and talk more about farming than racing. It’s always nice to get out there and see how everyone’s doing and what the farming community is into and maybe do a little bench racing too at the ropes.”
Along with Hagan, many drivers in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will be vying for wins at the crown jewel of the Midwest. David Grubnic (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) will try to defend their 2012 event victories. The event will be televised on EPN2HD with five hours of event coverage.
Hagan has shared the points lead this season with teammates Ron Capps and Johnny Gray as well as Courtney Force and Cruz Pedregon, all leading the standings early in the season. Alexis DeJoria, Tim Wilkerson, Robert Hight and veteran Del Worsham will all be looking to grab their first win of the season at the NHRA Kansas Nationals.
(Photos by Ian Tocher; Click to enlarge)