Hagan, Force discuss Funny Car championship battle

Points leader Matt Hagan and class legend John Force are in a dogfight for the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Funny Car championship. With only two races remaining on the schedule, both took part in a recent national press teleconference to talk about their hopes and the battle ahead.

Matt Hagan

After failing to win an event in all of 2009, Force has come back strong in 2010, winning the first race of the season, the 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals, and following with wins in Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Bristol. Force held the points lead for nearly the entire season until a first-round loss at the recent Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals dropped him to second place. He sits just 64 points behind first-place driver Hagan with two races left.

John Force

Hagan’s third season in a Funny Car has been more than just a Cinderella story. He raced to his first win in Funny Car in Houston, then followed with wins in Chicago and Dallas. After setting a national e.t. record at the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals, a feat that secures a driver 20 bonus points, and powering his DieHard Battery’s Dodge Charger to the final, Hagan moved from second to first in the Funny Car points standings.

Q: John, it’s been an impressive season thus far. What do you need to do to move back into the top spot and win your 15th world championship?

Force: Well, No. 1, I have got my daughter Ashley still trying to shoot for this championship, and [Jack]Beckman’s still got a shot. But at the end of the day, we can’t count on Hagan to make mistakes. Too good of a race car with the tuners they have got and the financial backing that they have got from Schumacher. And the driver’s good.

So we have to come home and make change. First of all, you can’t allow errors, and we had an error on the race car first round. And we have addressed that.

But we try to look at why Hagan’s car would run and our car wouldn’t run. And basically, the weight factor is the thing we found as the biggest problem; even though he’s much bigger than me, the Schumacher cars are light.

So we put our car on a diet. I guess we have taken like 40 pounds off it. So we have got to go into Vegas, scale it, make sure it’s right. We have got to do everything we can to gobble up the points like he did at the last race. He did everything right. We did everything wrong. And the fact that Cruz [Pedregon] was able to get him in the final, it still kept our hopes open.

So some of the good news, the national event are tests, bad for us that we couldn’t run for it in that late session. We only ran 4.05, and he ran the .01. We were trying to get qualified. We have to get in on that first session so we can get in on that session.

The good news is the air is supposed to be a whole different front than we thought in Vegas that we are going to have, even with the altitude, that record is still out there, and I need every point I can if I’m going to catch this kid.

Q: Matt, you had a storybook season all year long. What do you need to do to finish that story with a world championship?

Hagan: We have had a great year all year, and you know, I can’t say enough about my guys and Tommy DeLago tuning the race car. That Force camp over there is a first-class operation, and John, he’s a world champion for a reason.

We can’t make any mistakes. We have to go out there, do some good, solid racing, go some rounds. I don’t feel like we have to set the world on fire, but we need to go some rounds and keep kind of matching John round for round, and it will hopefully fall the way we want it to. This drag racing, you never know how it’s going to end up.

Q. John, what’s it like to come down to championship battle with a driver like Matt who is young enough to be your grandson?
Force: I always try to find a way to get my head again, the kid already has me with my back up against the wall. I always try to look at it that things happen for a reason. A good driver, I saw his emotion when I couldn’t make the run there first round, and you know, he ran over to me at the end of the track and said, “Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to see it happen this way,” and I liked that attitude.

Maybe I watch too many movies, but I when see movies about the warriors in the old days, they want to die by somebody worthy. And he wanted to fight the fight. And he didn’t want me going home because I had some dumb mistakes. I told him, “Hey, that’s all part of the deal.” Hey, we made the mistakes, and you gain on it ,and I’m hoping he’ll make mistakes, but he doesn’t make too many. Not as a driver that I can find, and the car is just — it just seems to have the magic.

But I went and saw a movie over the weekend, Secretariat, about a young racehorse that just talked him in the round, and I have to look over the years that they called me Seabiscuit because I was so old, and it was Seabiscuit that made a run that came from behind. It’s just a movie, but my life has been about dreams. Seabiscuit went to California and won the last two.

Well, I’ve got to make a stop in Vegas, too, first, and that’s what I’m going to have to do, I’m going to have to win two races if I’m going to get this guy. The air is coming in, and we know there’s going to be a shot at maybe the national record. [Mike] Neff told me no national record in Vegas, altitude is too high and sessions are not at night, but if we get a cold front, I’ll get that shot that he got to get that record and gobble up some of them points. And then every round, you’ve got to run hard because he picked up a bunch of points on me there. I think he got points every round, and I got him in one session. So, that’s what I’m up against.

Q: With NASCAR, it’s like, OK, which two drivers are going to try to crash the other one out. A lot of comments directed toward their competitors are not the nicest in the world. Listening to you, it’s a whole different world. You guys respect each other, aren’t afraid to say it. You like each other; you’re not afraid to say it. Is that just the drag racing community? I mean, you guys seem like you’re going into this hunt where you sure want to win it, but there are positives to be gained if the other guy does. So could you guys maybe comment on that? John, you can go first because you’re the oldest.

Force: I’ve had the media and the PR people say this is bad for ratings, you guys got to get in each other’s face, and every time I ever got in somebody’s face, I got a $10,000 fine.

And it’s kind of like, you get mixed emotions here. But at the end of the day, I’ve seen drivers die out here, you know what I mean? And I’ve seen people on fire, and I’ve seen Hagan shoot the body into the air, and I stand there praying, is he OK, yet I know he’s in the points chase.

At the end of the day, I don’t know why they do what they do in NASCAR. But I know in this world, I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, you know what I’m saying. I want to race the safest we can because I care about these people. Probably the only friends I got. I’ve got a helmet that sits in my museum with a big set of horns on it that says DieHard that comes from this kid.

He did it because he cared. I just can’t seem to find the hate that they seem to find in NASCAR, and if that’s wrong, I don’t know what to say. But by the way, earlier, you said on a serious note, I was being serious, about going west to California.

I dropped 10 pounds off myself, I have a few pounds to go to get to where I want to be and still trying to figure out how his car runs and stays light. But we are bringing a race car with no paint on it. We are putting letters on it, we are going everywhere we can to lighten the load. You are not going to see me fight with nobody unless somebody gets in my face.

Q: First time in two years, you’ve been in the car for two years, your first time leading the points and late in the season, two races to go for the championship, how much extra pressure are you feeling?

Hagan: You know, I think there’s definitely pressure the whole season. It was pressure to get into the Countdown. It’s pressure to try to win every race.

So you know, obviously, there’s extra pressure. I mean, you’ve got a camp like Force and my teammate Jack Beckman right there knocking on the door. Force has led the points all year long, and we just got lucky enough to take that lead over.

But these points change so quickly, I mean, one day you’re on top, and the next, you’re sitting second or third or fourth. And you know, so we’re glad to have them, but right now, we have two big races ahead of us, and I think that we are just going to treat them like every other race and just going to go out there, try to get it past the first round, and what will be, will be.

So I will try not to add any extra pressure on myself. Obviously, it’s there. We just have to step up and do what we are paid to do, and that’s drive these race cars and have fun doing it.

Q: John, after your devastating accident in Dallas, to be in the position that you are in, right now, how excited are you to be able to have that 15th championship in sight and in reach?

Force: You want to get it, naturally. You know, it’s funny, but in a light time, I’ve been real lucky. I’ve got a lot of chances to win. I did. I took every opportunity, against great drivers like Ron Capps and just over the years, the guys that I fought with, and luck is a big part of the game.

But at the end of the day, the investment that Auto Club’s made, and Castrol, and 25 years with Castrol, Ford Motor Company, all of the money they spend on engineering studies.

I want to clarify, when we drop the weight on our car, we didn’t drop any safety. We looked at the things we could do – [like the driver], as much as I’ve been in the gym, I tried to build muscle, and I built body weight, and I’m trying to take some of that back. But at the end of the day, I’ve got an opportunity here because with Mike Neff leading the charge in tune-up with Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, I may not have a car that’s as good next year.

And I’m not young, so I know my day of going downhill, you know, I can’t go out and arm wrestle with Hagan. I can’t get in a fistfight with Hagan, and you don’t intimidate a cowboy. I know the game. I’ve seen this kid. I’ve studied him on the farm with his bulls. I’ve met his lovely wife, a little gal that plays piano. I’m starting to understand where he comes from.

So I’ve got a competitor here that I’ve got to keep my nose clean, do what I do, and take every opportunity, and weight is the only place, and a few mistakes that I think that we are missing. I just can’t figure out, this kid’s big enough to run fullback for the Green Bay Packers, how in the hell is he carrying all that body weight? I can’t seem to figure it out. So we are making changes, and I just hope we don’t go the wrong direction. Hell, maybe my car needs more weight because he sticks his foot in places, you know, that we can’t do, and we are trying to figure that out.

Q: You have 14 titles, and you’ve been in this business for a long time; considering the adversity that you’ve overcome the last couple of years, do you consider this to be your greatest achievement in the sport?

Force: You know, probably my greatest achievement is my daughter Ashley. Watching her every day, the explosions, two of them that she went through. She was shell-shocked at Reading, and getting out of it, “Where am I in the points, Dad?”

I said, “Boy, you look dizzy, like you can’t even stand up, and you’re wondering where you’re at in the points.”

But just to put a woman into that position, that was huge for me. You know, even though Shirley Muldowney had done it and others had done it. I always looked at Funny Car as a different animal. It takes a guy like Hagan, big and strong, to muscle that thing, and could a little girl do it, and she does it well.

Me, when I laid in that hospital bed, I just wanted to race again. They kept telling me it was over, but when I came back, it wasn’t good. My kids were growing up seeing me when I was winning, but now they are in the sport, and now Dad can’t hit his tail end. I have a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason is this economy; we are in almost a Great Depression that Seabiscuit raced in, and at the end of the day, people need to be entertained, and I want to be part of that.

If Hagan takes me out, I ain’t going to like it, but I’m going to shake his hand, and he’ll do the same to me because it’s what we do. It’s good to have a job in this economy. But if I can’t prove that I can come back and win, then as much as I want to win for my family, for the fans, for my sponsors, and for myself, that I’ve got to be real careful here. If I can’t deliver as a driver, I’ll be replaced, even though I own the car, because when you take away the money, then you can’t drive.

And then when they start thinking that I can’t compete, and I was looking real good all year, until Hagan did all the damage on me. So you know, luck is part of it, but you make your own luck, and right now, I’m in a fight right now to keep my job. And I’m going to give that kid everything I’ve got, but I’ve always played the game straight up. If I can’t do it, I can’t do it, and that’s why we addressed everything from tune-up, who has got mental problems, is anybody on too much medication, and where are the problems. And I will not give up my safety because I know a lot of the things that we run other teams don’t run, and that’s why my Fords are dump trucks.

They are heavy. So we went back because in the economy, we can’t afford to put lightweight bodies on it. We run them until they are packing too much weight. I said go home, throw the bodies off, get brand-new ones; don’t even paint them, put the decals on them, and let’s send them and see if we can do what Hagan did to me at Reading, and that’s get every point that’s on the table.

If it wasn’t for Cruz, he would have got it all. I show respect where due, and he earned that right at Reading, but he’s got two races to go, and my daughter and myself and Robert Hight, we’ll be in the thick of this.

Q: Matt, in Fort Worth [Texas], there’s a big history of cattle ranching and taking care of livestock and all that. I didn’t know that was a part of your background in Virginia until you got on the scene. Can you give me some background about your family business, how big the operation is, and how much you do hands on at the ranch and a little background about your racing before you got to the NHRA big time, how you got through the ranks.

Hagan: Texas has been good to me, first of all. We won Texas — Dallas and Houston — and got my first win there in Houston. I told them when we won Dallas, we ought to try to buy some land down here or something.

Farming, I’ve always been around horses and cattle growing up and stuff. And then I kind of came across some land and had the opportunity to farm it aggressively, and actually make a little bit of money doing it. I’m never going to get rich farming, but it’s a rich, honest, hardworking job, and it’s the kind of work I like to do.

Run about 300 cattle. We have all feeder cattle, and we sell calves when they are about 600, 700 pounds. I take them to the market, then weigh them, grade them, sell them out West, wherever there’s grain or whatever to put another 600 or 700 on them and sell them to a packer to slaughter. It’s an all-grass operation. No corn, just alfalfa and millet. We’ll plant crops and stuff like that, but mainly we calf twice a year, and we calf out 200 calves twice a year.

Between keeping them alive and putting up feed over the winter to trying to play daddy back at the house, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to worry about racing that much. It’s something that kind of works for me as far as being able to come back home, decompress, let it all go.

What I do out here is definitely strong-back, weak-mind kind of stuff, so I don’t have to think a lot about it. Just get out there and relax a little bit. But you know, it’s just, it just works for me.

Q: Can you talk about your drag racing career before you got to Schumacher?
Hagan: I started off bracket racing a four-wheeler. I didn’t have enough money to buy a race car at the time. I had a family friend come over, and he said, “You know, you need to come to drags with me,” and I went and had a blast and didn’t have a car at the time. But I had a four-wheeler, and he started loading his four-wheeler up in the back of his race car trailer and took me up there, and Thursday nights, when they were doing test and tunes, we would run four-wheelers.

Call it beginner’s luck or whatever, I got in the final the first time I got a four-wheeler in bracket racing, and I was hooked from there. Bought a Chevy II Nova with a flat stick and started winning a little bit there and got a taste for winning. And you know, I wanted to go faster and faster, and one thing led to another. I got a little bit of local sponsorship on the car, and we started racing a little bit, started to branch out a little bit, and next thing you know, you step into a Pro Mod and get corporate sponsorship on the car.

Well, at the time, my sponsor called me up and said, “Look, kid, we love what you’re doing, but we want you in a fuel Funny Car; you’re going to drive it or we’re going to find somebody else.”

I said, “Absolutely, let me go out here and get licensed,” drove the car, obviously the economy turned bad and the sponsor went away, and we funded out of our pocket for a year and got onboard with Don. He said, “Let’s crunch some numbers and see what we can work out.”

Long story short, it’s been great. I been fast to get here, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. You have a guy that you’re racing like John Force, I grew up watching this guy, he’s a legend, and to be able to go out there and race the guy is something else. I mean, I never would have dreamed me and him would be hunting out a championship here. Pretty cool, for me, anyway.

Q: Without giving away any secrets, what would you tell young, aspiring drag racers? What would help them most be most like John Force?

Force: To be like John Force? I don’t know if anybody wants to be like me. I have loved it all these years, when I was driving a truck when I was a kid, when I was just out of school, and trying to raise a family, I would spend my weekends down at the racetrack. There were days I stood outside of Lions, and I didn’t have the money to get in. I just was caught up with these fuel Funny Cars back from the beginning. They were fuel coupes and ugly and mean-looking things, and it was just a turn-on, and it just became a dream.

You have to chase a dream. You don’t chase it for a paycheck. You don’t chase it just for a championship. I mean, I always said, I dreamed to do a burnout for Tom “the Mongoose,” never thought about beating them. Just wanted a photograph; and every week you follow the paper, just the hope that you would get in that Drag News. And then it became National DRAGSTER, and you just want to be a part of that.

Get an education, and only thing I don’t know about my race cars are computers and the stuff that they do now. Hagan was talking he found money; I talked to his dad, sharp cookie, and that’s why they work with Schumacher. Schumacher, it takes money to run these teams, and at the end of the day, if you can get a good education, that will help you find the money if you want to own your own team, or even if you want to drive for someone, because you can bring money to the plate as part of your negotiation. So many kids have.

And the rest of it is, do it because you love it. Do it because you love the fans. And the dream is a journey, and I’m still on that journey. I don’t want to get off this train. I don’t want Hagan to knock me off this train, so I’m going to keep punching away.

Q: What do you think you have that just kind of comes along the lines of what John Force has?

Hagan: I think that you have to have a passion for the sport. You’re not going to get on a plane and go 30-some weekends on the year doing PR stuff and racing and everything else if you don’t love what you’re doing. It all comes down to like John said the other day in qualifying, you have to have the heart for it.

You’ve got to want it. You’ve got to dig deep for it, and you have to have that burning desire to go out there, and you have to feel it in your gut that this is yours and this is what you’re going to work hard to get; whether it’s this year, next year, or 10 years from now, you’re going to do everything that you possibly can to be on top. And you’ve got to have that burning desire to win. I mean, you know, some people, they like to go to the races. They like to show up and just be there. And others come to race. I think that you have to be that guy that wants to be there that has that burning desire to win.

Q: Obviously you are paid to win, but you have the opportunity to knock off a guy who is arguably the most popular driver in the whole sport. Have you thought about that? Does that enter your mind? Do you think about that possibility?

Hagan: You know, absolutely. We have a job like you said to do with this DieHard Funny Car. But to be able to race John Force, first of all, is an honor, and to be able to win against the guy is something else, you know what I mean. He’s got a great race car, and he’s got a lot of strong cars running against us. Back to kind of what he was saying about weighting stuff, my teammates, we are all running the same stuff, and they are all little guys, too. I keep telling Ron, “You need to eat some more,” but I’m just messing around.

Anyway it would be huge to be able to win this championship, and you know, to beat John Force at this deal, too, it’s huge, you run a guy, I look at what he’s done for the sport, and obviously a fan favorite.

We just got to go up there and basically just race our race and not worry about who is beside us. We are just going to line him up and let the cars do the talking. I like how Force is straight up, no games, and that’s how I race, too. The cars will finish it out, and it will be what it will be.

source http://www.nhra.com

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