That typical early-season excitement turned into something even more special for Matt Hagan in 2017. The Funny Car standout won the first two events of the year for the second time in his career, and the two-time world champion is looking for another hot start to open the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series campaign.
It begins with its annual iconic opener, the 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com, Feb. 8-11 at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, and Hagan who has two wins at the season-opening event, knows what a third win in his 10,000-horsepower Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T at the race would mean when it comes to setting the tone for the new season.
“We won the first two races last year and that just puts you on such a high,” said Hagan, who has 26 career wins. “It’s a clean slate to start the year and you kick it off with all the opportunity in the world. You start fresh and everyone even, but getting that win, it’s a huge confidence-builder. We had a lot of changes last year and that win told us we’re going to be alright.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Hagan (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including live finals coverage beginning at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 11. It is the first of 24 events during the 2018 NHRA season and after a number of personnel changes heading into 2017, things have been relatively quiet for Hagan on that front as the new year opens.
Veteran crew chief Dickie Venables is back, as is the bulk of Hagan’s standout team that finished fifth in the loaded Funny Car standings a year ago, and Hagan believes that is a good thing. Hagan, who won four times in 2017, is confident his team can have another quick start, with the hope of that consistency continuing throughout the year.
“I’m happy with our team and our guys, I’ve got nothing but confidence with Dickie,” Hagan said. “I wouldn’t trade that guy for anybody. I believe in him when it comes to making great decisions and I’m excited to get going. Our goal is to be a little bit more consistent throughout the year. That’s going to be key. We’re going to roll into this year and keep whipping the horse we’ve been riding.”
Hagan has four final round appearances at the Winternationals and the usual ideal conditions often make for incredible performances. That’s the goal this year, though Hagan will once again be challenged by the top names in the class. That starts with defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight and also includes the likes of Don Schumacher Racing teammates Ron Capps, the 2016 world champ, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Jack Beckman, 16-time Pomona winner John Force, Courtney Force, J.R. Todd, Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and class newcomer Shawn Langdon. For Hagan, though, starting the season in Pomona is more than enough to get him excited.
“Pomona is a historical place and it’s where champions are crowned,” said Hagan, who has five career Pomona wins. “It’s just an awesome atmosphere racing there. There’s been so many great drivers and legends who have raced there, and there’s a lot of history with it. To get the ball rolling in Pomona, and you see the snow on the mountains when you’re there, it’s just cool.”
In Top Fuel, Brittany Force returns to the track where she clinched her first world title last fall, and is after her first Winternationals win against stars like defending event champ Pritchett, Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta and Steve Torrence, who had eight wins in 2017.
Line won the Winternationals for a fifth time overall in Pro Stock, and the three-time world champion will look for another stellar start in the loaded class against standouts like reigning world champ Bo Butner Greg Anderson and Tanner Gray, who was NHRA’s top rookie in 2017.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills and the Mickey Thompson Tires NHRA Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series.
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 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 Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 12:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 9, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 12:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 11.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call 800-884-NHRA (6472). Tickets also are available online at www.NHRA.com/tickets. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. All students can save 50 percent on general admission at the gate with a student ID. To honor the Salute to First Responders, military and first responders can save 20 percent on general admission tickets at the gate.