Matt Hagan, the 2011 NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car world champion, sits second in the points. He has won four races in 2013, which is a single-season record for him, as well as posted four runner-up finishes. He also has five No. 1 qualifying positions, also a single-season career high.
Q: You relinquished the points at the Reading event, but during the test session here in Indy, you said the team was obviously still focused on the championship hunt. What is your mind-set going into the last eight rounds of racing?
Hagan: Well, you know, to start off, we did have a good test, and it's one of those things where our guys were beat to pieces. Four races in a row — for a fuel team, that's tough to do. So the biggest thing is we wanted to get our guys healthy, back, and get some R & R in them and make sure they have a positive attitude to come out here and be competitive and are driven to win. I think they needed a little break. I mean, I needed a little break, and I get to fly around.
You know, it's a neat deal that we have a little time off, and I'm back home right now spending some time with my family. I'm about ready to open up Matt Hagan Outdoors, and we're doing photo shoots and stuff like that today. Racing is kind of the last thing on my mind until I roll into Vegas. You can't help but think about it every now and then when you're lying in bed at night, and a lot of this stuff is out of your control. We prepare, we plan, and we practice to win. But sometimes, it comes down to just everything kind of lining up and the cards fall where they may. But you've got to do your job out there, and that can't be something that we take lightly, so we definitely have to stay focused and work hard. But yeah, we went out there and tested, and we tried to do some different things in the bellhousing, and not really the direction I think that Dickie [Venables, crew chief] wanted to go in, so we're going to keep focusing on some stuff that we're doing and just one less thing to look at and kind of put the blinders on and keep moving forward.
Q: You held the points lead through the whole regular season and into the Countdown. John Force has just been on a tear. How tough is it to maintain what he's done the last couple of races?
Hagan: It's very tough. Nothing but respect for that man. He built fuel Funny Car racing. Without John Force, it's hard to say that there's NHRA. He’s that type of guy. But honestly, I think it's going to be really hard for him to keep moving forward like that. You see a lot of guys come out, win back to back, and then they struggle. I've kind of grouped my guys together and told them, I said, “You know, these guys, they come out here, and they win the next two races, and we can't catch them, then you tip your hat to them and go over there, and you shake their hand and tell them they did a hell of a job. But if they fumble the football, man, we've got to pick it up and run with it. There's no room for error. We've got to have two good races, he's got to have one bad, and it's got to play out that way.” It did for me in 2010, man. I came out of this points lead in Reading 65 points ahead, just like John did just now, and he come back and spanked me again, man. It's very doable; it's possible. You have to be confident. Confident, cocky, call it whatever you want to be; you have to be driven to win. I mean, if you're not confident, and I think I read a sports book the other day that said if you're not confident, you find a way to lose, and we're not going to find any ways to lose; we're going to find a way to win out here.
Q: You mentioned John Force. What's it like for you to be back three rounds knowing that you're chasing that icon?
Hagan: Well, it's tough. The cards are stacked against us, but it'll make it that much more special when we win. Definitely, you look at a guy like that, and you look at your career, and a lot of guys out here would just love to be in my position to do battle with this guy. He's a 15-time world champion, and I'm working on my second championship, and hopefully it comes together for us in these next two races. But if it doesn't, we'll get back together; we'll work hard and make it happen the next year. We'll go out and win it the next year. I'm still focused on that. John is a legend, but I think some of that stuff gets in people's heads. The biggest thing that we have to think about, that I have to think about, is just not who's beside me because that's out of my control. A lot of it is just what I can control in the race car. It's leave on time, keep it in the groove, and turn the win light on.
When you get to thinking about all that other stuff that's out of your control that's so variable anyway, I think it really goes and messes with people. For me, it's put the blinders on and just kind of dig deep. The guy, like I said, he's drag racing, man, and I have nothing but respect for him. He's always been super-kind to me, but it doesn't mean that I don't want to beat him anymore. Nobody has been giving me anything out here all year long, and we're not going to give up any rounds to anybody else.
Q: You've had a lot of success in your career so far. What has helped you along the way that you think it'll help you most when you get up to that next round in Las Vegas?
Hagan: I've had a very blessed career. I mean, the last three years of my five years of racing, I've been battling out for championships, and it usually comes down here to the wire. Anybody would trade me tomorrow for the season that I've been able to be involved with and the group of people I've been around, and I think that's the biggest thing. I surround myself with eight guys that work on the car, and they're just passionate about what they do, the chemistry with the group, everybody is working hard, and it comes down to people, man, and making the right smart wholesale changes on the race car, good decisions out there, and surrounding yourself with the best.
You know, I feel like we've got the best group of guys out here. The points showed it all year long. John has gotten on a hot streak, man. I mean, that's just one of them deals that sometimes that stuff happens. Unfortunately, we've had a few bad races. It's showing. But we've got to gather it all back up and go back out there and make it happen. I still feel like I've got the best crew chief out there and we've got the best group of guys, and I'm coming to win in Vegas.
Q: It seemed like at Indianapolis we saw a different, more aggressive Matt Hagan. It may be just me, but did something happen halfway through the season to motivate you to take this new stance? You seemed definitely more aggressive.
Hagan: Yeah, you know, it's just you have to be aggressive with any sport. You get to thinking about it and looking at it, when you're playing baseball, when you're playing football, any type of sports I've ever been involved with, you know, you don't put your pom-poms out and cheer for the other team, so why are we doing it here? That's just my mentality with it. We've got a group of guys that are working really hard to go out there and win. Their salaries depend on the bonus money, their paychecks, their wives, their kids, their house payments, that kind of stuff, and, when you put it in perspective, I've got eight guys that are really counting on it. Fifteen grand, 20 grand, whatever they're about to make, that goes a long way for these kids. I just don't take it lightly. I just want to be aggressive and make sure that I feel like I've left it all out there on the racetrack. You'd hate to look back on your career one day and say, “Well, if I'd have tried to get up on the wheel a little bit more, if I'd have been a little bit more aggressive, if I'd have done some things to maybe get in somebody's head, it might have had a different outcome.” I just want to put it all out there, just like in sports when you put your body out there. You just throw it out there and hope for the best. But you just do your best job that you can, and at the end of the day, it is what it is.
Q: Did you feel that you had been pulling out your pom-poms and being a nice guy? Did something tell you or did somebody point out to you that you need to stop that?
Hagan: No, not at all. I don't think that anything should be fake out here. I mean, it's one of those deals where you can't make up stuff. That's the worst thing that could happen for our sport. But our sport, I just want it to grow. I love what we do. I love what I do. I've always worn my emotions on my sleeve and try to call it how it is and say what it is. If I'm wrong, then I admit I'm wrong. It's one of those deals where I just think everybody, sometimes they just try to say what people want to hear or what they want to hear than what needs to be said sometimes.
Q: You guys went testing. That's something that Dickie has kind of been putting off; he did not want to go testing; he didn't want to get confused. Why now before the last two races?
Hagan: I think he saw some different ways to maybe run the clutch and run the race car and do some different stuff like that. If you see something there, you've got to try it. You don't want to go out there and say, ‘Well, it might look better if we do this.” You either take the time and the opportunity that we had out there to do that and see if it really worked or if it didn't, and that was for Dickie to decide.
Q: Between you guys, between all of Don Schumacher's Funny Cars and John Force's Funny Cars, it's two very different team atmospheres. What advantages do you think you guys have with the way your program is run?
Hagan: None. I mean, nobody is going to give us anything. Nobody is going to help us out. Everybody is against us. My teammates actually have been the guys that have been killing me the most. It's one of those deals where my teammates, I've been beat three out of four races by teammates this year in the Countdown, and it's tough. It's one of them deals where you look up and say, “Man alive, that just happened.” But nobody is going to give you anything out here. They're making their best runs against us every weekend. We're not looking for any love from anybody, so we don't have any advantage other than just knowing that we've got to go out there and work hard, and it all depends on us. We can only count on ourselves.
Q: You raced to the semifinals in Las Vegas in the spring. How much data can you guys transfer from that event to this event, or is the car kind of a different beast than it was early in the spring?
Hagan: You know, that's probably a really good question for Dickie. I think as long as some of the conditions are similar, we can look at some of that data. But a lot of it has to do with the altitude. We're halfway there to Denver when you're talking about Vegas. A lot of that stuff changes with head gaskets and compression and different things like that. There's just so many variables that these cars have to deal with and these crew chiefs have to deal with; it's overwhelming sometimes. You know, I really believe that Dickie has got a pretty good handle on this car still. We've had a couple things that we've went back to our notes and Dickie got to see and some things on the timing systems and different things like that that kind of might have messed some of our train of thought up, and we've done some things differently. But now, I mean, everything that has happened so far, we know why it's happened. There's been a rhyme or reason, that kind of thing. It's not like the car went out here and did something and we don't understand why it did that or we're not sure of what was going on there. I think a lot of the problems that we've been seeing and facing are fixed. So I'm very, very confident about coming into Vegas, qualifying well. It's all about Friday night, laying down a good number on Friday night, that first session, and setting yourself up for the rest of the weekend.
Q: You've been through every emotion for the last three years, the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. How would you compare this championship campaign to 2010 and 2011?
Hagan: I think it's a lot more stress-free. 2011 was just so unpredictable. I'm with a different group of guys. They're a little bit, I would say, more focused. Not that our other group wasn't, but after you've been there before, the hardest part is winning your first one, I believe, not that I've got a second one to talk about. It's just so hard to win that first one. Ask Ron Capps how hard it is. It's so tough, and after you've been through that pressure and you understand kind of how to internalize that and use it as a positive, I think that you just grow from there. Maybe that's why John has so many. He knows how to do it; you know what I mean? We're racing with the best out there, and it's not to say that there's a couple boys back there right behind us that can't sneak up here and do this thing, too, but I really think it's turned into a two-horse race here, and we just have to focus on what our car can do and not really who's beside us, as hard as that is to do with a 15-time champ out there. But we can't control how he qualifies, we can't control who he runs, we can't control how many rounds he goes. We've just got to go out there and try to go four rounds on Sunday and turn four win lights on and do it two more races. I believe we can do it. I know that's a steep hill to climb, but I've never won back to back, and I sure would like to these last two races.
Q: You've spoken at length today about John Force, racing him. Given how popular he is and all that, do you almost feel like you're the villain in this drama? When you're trying to beat Force and maybe the world is rooting against you?
Hagan: Well, if you read Facebook, there ain't no Matt Hagan fans out there. That drives you. People either love you or they hate you. I don't want anything in between. That's just racing and the fan base and that kind of stuff. Yeah, I feel like we've got the cards stacked against us, but if we can come out here and pull this thing off, it'll make everything that much sweeter for us. Yeah, it's tough. I mean, but John Force has been out here 30-some years doing this. He's built a humongous fan base. This is my fifth season out here doing this. I don't expect everybody to cheer for me. It's one of those things where I'm not asking you to. I just want to go out there and race my race car and hopefully turn on four win lights on Sunday.
I don't know, I mean, you can't help but like the guy. I like the guy, and I'm racing him. He's always been very kind to me. He's a stand-up guy. He's the same off camera as he is on camera, just a good all-around guy. So yeah, I understand why people like him. But when it comes to racing, I want to beat him so bad I can't stand it. I think about it at night, I think about it in the morning, I think about it when we're out here doing this deal. And I try not to think about it because sometimes I feel like it consumes me. That's why I've got to get out here to the farm and do some different things to occupy my mind and spend some time with my family. But it is what it is. That's why we race. We have a passion for it. Hopefully, I can just grow my fan base. I love my fans. The ones that support me, I just can't say enough about them. And I got to really see that when we had such a bad year in 2012 after coming off winning the championship, and there was still a pile of people at the ropes asking for autographs and a pile of people still cheering us on. I know that I'm a long ways from John Force, but we're building them every day, and I just can't say thanks enough to the ones that support us.