Hagan’s victory at Houston serves as a reminder: Enjoy!

REACTION TIME

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By Susan Wade


The overhead television camera captured one of the most memorable images in modern sports celebrations. Dikembe Mutombo fell to the basketball court, clutching the game ball, laughing like a little boy after his underdog Denver Nuggets completed their stunning upset of the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the opening round of the 1994 NBA playoffs.

That same pure joy radiated from Al Unser Jr., that May afternoon in 1994, when he won his second Indianapolis 500. As he sat on the back of a golf cart with his children and rode through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Garage Area, tapping his feet together playfully, it was hard to imagine that he was the adult of the bunch.

It would be hard to forget Funny Car driver Del Worsham’s elation Aug. 1, 1999, when he won for the first time in eight years. “You do not understand what we’ve been through. We’ve been in the hospital. We’ve been runner-up. We’ve not qualified. We’ve run out of money. We haven’t had sponsors. We’ve gotten sponsors. We’ve done it all. I just want to thank my sponsor, Checker Schuck’s Kragen, and my dad and my crew and my family and everybody who stuck by us. This has been a long time in coming. And we’re so grateful. Thank you,” Worsham said in machine-gun-fire delivery, easily in less than the 5.283 seconds it took to defeat opponent Whit Bazemore that day. Written, his words are separated. Spoken that day as he clutched the Wally statue like a lots child found, his words ran together nonstop.

This past weekend, at Houston Raceway Park, another young Funny Car rising star celebrated with that same fervor, that same explosive delight. Don Schumacher Racing’s Matt Hagan recorded his first NHRA Funny Car victory at the O’Reilly Spring Nationals.

And maybe it was fitting that he did so at Houston — famous for its livestock shows and rodeos, and even its cattle auctions at the storied Shamrock Hilton Hotel — for Hagan, 27, is an Angus cattle farmer from Christiansburg, Va.

He had ridden the 7,000-horsepower, nitro-powered bull that had bucked him so violently at the previous race, the Four-Wide Nationals at Concord, N.C. But tough as a rodeo rider, Hagan got back on board at Houston and rode it for the 4.390 seconds it took to defeat Jeff Arend in the final round.


“Other than [being with] my wife and kids, this is the best feeling in the world,” gushed Hagan. But maybe crew chief Tommy Delago captured Hagan’s passion best.

“I’ve seen him get better and better. But I’ve never seen him drive the way he drove today. He drove like a man possessed,” Delago said. “He’s the biggest reason that we won this race.”

Said Hagan, “You don’t understand how frustrating it was coming into the final round and you’re ready to have that first win. You can taste it. You can feel it. It’s there and you’re ready to just grab it. And thank goodness we did that today, because that’s the first little hurdle that you have to jump over before you go hunting the championship. I think with (crew chiefs) John Medlen and Tommy Delago working well together and all the crew doing such a great job, it’s going to happen for us.

“I felt that we’ve always been capable of winning,” Hagan said. “And I think Don (Schumacher) has seen that in me and Tommy and everybody he puts around us. I think if Don doesn’t think you’re the best fit, whether you’re Tony Schumacher or not, he’s not going to put you in that race car. He wants to win. He’s a very motivated, very driven person, and he’s going to put whoever he feels like is a winner in that car. Hopefully we can stack a few more of these for him before the year is over.”

DeLago said, “The first race is always special, but I think it’s more special for the guys on this DieHard team who have been close and worked for all year last year and then this year. It’s really special for him because it’s really showing how good a driver he’s becoming.”

To prove what a popular victory Hagan’s was, even teammate Ron Capps, a fierce competitor, said, “We’re third in points right now after Matt won the Houston race. It was great to have my teammate Hagan go around us in points. I’ve never said that before where I was actually happy that somebody went around me in points. Hagan’s team is a young team. (Crew chiefs) Tommy DeLago and John Medlen have done a great job, and it’s neat to see their communication with Ace (Capps’ crew chief, Ed McCulloch). It was neat to stick around and watch Matt win.”

Hagan spent the few days between his victory and his departure from home for this weekend’s race at Las Vegas enjoying his family and planting crops in his one-acre garden. “We passed the trophy around among the family. Everyone was checking out to see how heavy it was,” he said.

The DieHard Charger driver, who successfully drove a Pro Modified and a Nitro Funny Car in IHRA competition before joining Don Schumacher Racing in 2008, is not content with just one Wally trophy.

“We’re looking to really keep the ball rolling heading to Vegas,” he said. “It’s been great to get our first win behind us, but we’re now looking toward getting that second, third, and fourth win of the season.

“We have a lot of confidence coming into this (Las Vegas) race, but we have to qualify before we can even think about winning,” he said.

“I’ve known all along we had a great race car. I even thought last year we’d get a win. It’s just a matter of putting four solid runs together on Sunday and you have to have a little bit of luck. We have a winning car and a championship car. Everything just had to fall into place for us.

“I’m just extremely excited to have the crew we have on our race car,” Hagan said at Houston, “because we didn’t have any bad problems. And I couldn’t ask for a better crew and crew chiefs. They get a game plan together up there, and John and Tommy and Glenn (Huzar), our assistant crew chief,  all put their heads together and go out and do it and they kind of pat me on the back and say, ‘Go do your job, Kid.’ Hopefully I did that today. I felt like my lights were spot-on today.”

Hagan’s achievement was particularly satisfying after the spectacular explosion the car had — and the slight injury (tweaked wrist, cut face) he sustained — at Concord.

Said Hagan after his victory two weeks later, “It’s just kind of a tough race track out there a little bit. We had to pedal in the semifinals and the finals and when you get that far out especially after having that big boom in Charlotte like that, you draw up a little bit, not knowing if that thing’s going to blow up or not that far out. But when you look over and the guy’s not beside you, you have to keep your foot in it and do whatever it takes to get that win.”

Team owner Don Schumacher said, “I think it’s fantastic for Matt to win his first NHRA national race. I wish his mom and dad had been here, but I know Matt is thrilled. I’m thrilled for him. I’m thrilled for Tommy DeLago, John Medlen, and that whole DieHard team. They’ve had their challenges with the explosion they had in Concord, but he did a great job to come back and win this race.”

What some might not know about Hagan is that he has laid a strong racing foundation before he ever landed at DSR.

After two years in the fast-paced Pro Mod world, which has three sanctioning bodies and a choice of eighth-mile or quarter-mile venues, Hagan switched to the IHRA’s Nitro Funny Car class in 2008 and won three times.

Back then his funding came from his father, and when Hagan beat Paul Lee (another NHRA regular who came from the IHRA ranks) at Rockingham, N.C., for his first IHRA victory, Hagan said his father, who received the trophy, “is paying for everything and he deserves this.” His crew chief was Jay Lewis, IHRA’s 2006 crew chief of the year, and an IHRA regular like Delago was. And back then Hagan’s sponsors were Rupture Wear, Shelor Motor Mile, TX7, and Hedman Hedders — along with Torco.

That Rockingham victory came in just his second race in a Funny Car “It’s just super-super-fast,” Hagan said of his new ride.

“It takes a lot more skill off the starting line, swapping feet. There’s just a lot going on. It’s so overwhelmingly fast that your mind is playing catch-up,” he said. “These things are so much faster. They’re violent, They want to blow up all the time. You’re just preventing it from happening.”

Two-time IHRA Nitro Funny Car champion Dale Creasy Jr. was a big help to him as he made the transition to the unpredictable floppers. He found out just how unpredictable and unforgiving they can be the weekend he won at Edmonton and Torco stablemate Creasy suffered his sickening accident that sidelined him for months with severe leg injuries.

Hagan immediately took action himself after Creasy’s accident. By Monday afternoon, following his Edmonton victory, his Chevy Monte Carlo was headed straight for builder Murf McKinney’s shop at Lafayette, Ind. And one of the top items on his makeover agenda was eliminating the reverser handle in favor of a push-pull cable. That was the part of the car that malfunctioned and hurt Creasy so terribly.

“I know money’s a big issue when it comes to updating and improving a car,” Hagan said that week. “If you talk to Dale Creasy, he’ll tell you it’s worth it.”

Again, maybe it’s fitting that Hagan is hooked up with John Medlen, who heads The Eric Medlen Project for race-car safety.

“We’ve got to come up with innovative ways to protect ourselves. I’m 25,” Hagan said back in 2008. “And I plan on walking around for another 45 years or more.”

He and wife, Rachel have a three-and-a-half-year-old son, Colby Matthew, and a seventh-month-old daughter, Penny Louise. Although Penny wasn’t born at the time of Creasy’s crash, Hagan said of his family, I definitely want to come home to them.” Then, referring to Eric Medlen’s and Scott Kalitta’s fatal accidents, Hagan said, “I’m like Tim Wilkerson — I’m tired of burying friends.”

So Hagan had a overwhelming intorduction to the Funny Car class and a decisive plan about how he would conduct himself before he joined the NHRA ranks. So the Houston victory definitely was not a lucky first by a new driver — not by a long shot. But it was, for sure, one of the most joyous.

At Rockingham in 2008, Hagan said with a sly smile, “I think we found a home running Nitro Funny Car, you know?”

Yep. Everybody knows it now.

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