Matt Hagan does not have to wonder about the mind-set of his Funny Car team after a slow start to his 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. The constant phone calls and text messages are the only indicators Hagan needs to know that everyone is eager for a turnaround.
After four first-round losses in the first six races of the season, Hagan is just as excited as his team to return to the track and get back on the right path. It could come as soon as this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, which could start the type of run the 2011 world champion is more accustomed to during his standout career.
“Now is the time to get going and get it turned around,” Hagan said. “The crew guys have been blowing up my phone, and they’re ready to go. Seeing that energy pumps you up, and with this stretch starting now, if you get a little momentum, you can carry that into the next race. The ball gets rolling and you just start running with it.”
A year ago, Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Johnny Gray (Funny Car), and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) won the event in Atlanta that will once again be televised on ESPN2. The race, the seventh of 24 on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit, also marks the start of a critical time for Hagan and his team.
The slow start couldn’t be much more confounding, but Hagan knows a turnaround can be swift in his 8,000-horsepower Mopar Express Lane/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger, especially with the next seven races coming in an eight-week stretch. Hagan’s first-round loss at the most recent event in Houston was his fourth in five events, but he and crew chief Dickie Venables have worked hard to keep the team’s energy high, which means team morale hasn’t been a problem during the slow start.
“Dickie knows the potential of this team and what we’re capable of,” said Hagan, who is currently eighth in points. “I know things are going to turn around and come back, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. After we won the title (in 2011), we didn’t win a race in 2012. That was really humbling, and I learned a lot from that. I have to keep the spirits up, and I have to lead by example.”
Hagan’s drive, work ethic, and enthusiasm can’t be questioned and are several reasons why his team believe a swift reversal of fortune is due soon. The team has already showed potential in 2014 by advancing to the final round of the season-opening race in Pomona, and Hagan, who advanced to nine final rounds a year ago, is confident his Charger will return to championship form.
“We wanted to start the year off right, and it hasn’t happened,” Hagan said. “We tried a new clutch and motor combo and it didn’t work, and this past race, we went back to our combo from 2013 when we won five races. It’s still taking some time, but we’re confident about Atlanta, and we think we can lay down some huge numbers. I’m excited to get back behind the wheel.”
Hagan advanced to the final round at Atlanta Dragway a season ago and is eyeing more quick runs at the fan-friendly track this weekend. But he also has to contend with the likes of 16-time Funny Car world champ John Force, who has seven wins in Atlanta. Hagan is also chasing points leader Robert Hight after Hight won for the third time in four races in Houston. Two-time Funny Car world champ Tony Pedregon has three wins in Atlanta, and 2012 world champ Jack Beckman has two while other standouts include Tommy Johnson Jr., Alexis DeJoria, Courtney Force, Ron Capps, Del Worsham, and Cruz Pedregon.
“That first lap starts everything,” Hagan said. “I love Atlanta and the fan support we get there, and our goal is to come out strong.”
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food, and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins Friday, May 16, with sessions at 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, May 17, at 12:30 and 3 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 18. Pro Mod qualifying is set for Friday, May 16, at 3:45 and 6 p.m. and Saturday, May 17, at 12:45 p.m. Pro Mod eliminations are scheduled for Saturday at 2:45 p.m.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, log on to www.nhratix.com or call 800-884-NHRA (6472). Children 12 and younger are free.