After the opening day of qualifying at the In-N-Out Burgers NHRA Finals, Matt Hagan remains in the driver’s seat in the Funny Car championship battle, and that’s exactly where he wants to be.
Hagan is built like an athlete and he’s the epitome of the guy who wants the basketball in his hand with the clocking ticking down, the quarterback dropping back on Fourth and Long with the game on the line, the batter at the plate with two outs in the ninth and the bases loaded.
“I don't feel any pressure,” he said. “This one of the first times I've rolled in here and not been knotted up a little bit about, 'Oh, we got to do this. We got to do that,' I'd like to say it's because we've been in this situation before but, for some reason, I just don't feel to feel the pressure. I just know what I've got to do. I know that I'm capable of doing it and we just got to go out there and believe in our guys and do what we got to do."
Who can forget the indelible image of Hagan's lonely walk back done the return road in 2010 after losing in the first round with the championship in his grasp? He's come a long way from there and learned how to manage the championship emotions.
"For me, it's turning it into something helpful, like excited energy instead of nervous energy," he said. "It's taken a long time for me to learn how to do that as a competitor, but I'm definitely that guy who pulls up there, and you turn the corner and you get to do your burnout, and you 'This is my moment. This is what I worked for all year long to be here to do this, to be able to go down that dragstrip and be able to have a fast race car underneath me,' and, and I that's what excites me, that's what keeps me coming back every year. I keep crawling back in this race car because I get to create these moments, and you get to create these memories.
“I truly wake up every morning going, 'Damn, this is my job. I get to do this.' And it's cool. But it's also such a team sport. You have to have everybody clicking on all eight cylinders to make this work. You've got to believe in the people that you have around you, and I truly do, man. I've surrounded myself with the best people I can find.”
Hagan came into the season finale with a 15-point lead over Bob Tasca III and 17 over fellow three-time world champion Robert Hight, and collected seven of eight possible bonus points to extend that lead slightly and, most importantly, not let either of those drivers get ahead of him in points heading into eliminations.
Entering eliminations, even a single-point lead means the other driver has to go one round further than you. With a great day of qualifying today, and a lackluster showing by Hight, he could put Hight two rounds behind him, so he and dickie Venables are not taking their foot off the gas because he doesn’t want to potentially race Hight in the final with the championship on the line, not at Hight’s hometrack where he’s had so much success.
Hagan reflected on the team mindset coming in. "When Dickie and I had our conversation to start the weekend off, I said, 'Hey, man, I believe in you and whatever you decide to do.’ He said, 'We're gonna press until we find that other side and we're gonna race hard,, so I really feel like he's gonna keep pressing until we find that other side we'll see how that goes.”
But he also knows it’s about more than just racing Tasca or Hight or even three-time champ Robert Hight. The Pomona field is full of quality teams.
“There's just no easy hitters out here in Funny Car, but that's why we do it,” he said.” That's why I truly love pulling the helmet on and being able to have an opponent beside me that just makes me rise to the occasion and makes me want to have the ball I think that people a lot of times go like, 'Oh gosh, I'm in this pressure situation, and if I mess it up, it's gonna be on me.' I don't care if it's gonna be on me, I hope the Wally is on me.
Hagan also knows that the team lost a golden opportunity two weeks ago in Las Vegas where they lost to Tasca in the semifinals, a round win and another possibly behind that in the final round that would have made this weekend easier.
“I was a little disheartened because we got outran by Tasca,” he admitted. “That would have been close to a 40-point swing for us and that's really tough to swallow. You go up there knowing you have to leave on time and you do that and you keep it in the groove but the win light don't come on and you have to go back there and look at your guys and still pat them on the back and tell them they did a good job, but they would do the same thing for me. When the Tree doesn't come down my way, they still pat me on the back and say, ‘Hey man, we still love you, we believe in you, we'll get them next time.’ It was a super tough loss for me to walk away in the semifinals knowing that we should be in the finals but we just got outran. It's tough to look in there and your crew chief knows it, too. I think the biggest thing was that we started the year off, we're not going to say sorry to each other because we're all trying as hard as we possibly can and sorry doesn't fix anything. We just know that we missed it here or I missed it there and we just have to work harder and make better decisions, so you look everybody in the eye and say, ‘I love you brother and I know we’re going to work harder and we're going to fix it and I we're going to do better.’ That's all you can do as a team.
“I look at myself as like the quarterback on the team, you got your guys out there as linemen, Dickie and Mike [Knudsen] and them are coaches. It really has that same mentality as a quarterback role where you have to go in there, you have to slap hands and you have to keep your guys excited. Drag racing is like being a manic depressive, there are a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and there's just not a lot of in-between. Keeping the morale is very, very important moving into the next race. It's so easy to harp on stuff, but I'm not paid to think, I'm paid to do. I know that sounds bad but at the end of the day, you just simplify it down and you just go out there and do what you're paid to do and rise to the occasion and hope for the best.”