CONCORD Matt Hagan enters the National Hot Rod Association’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs as the top seed in the Funny Car division, thanks mostly to his four victories and a talented new crew chief.
With the Countdown beginning Friday in the Carolina Nationals at Concord’s zMax Dragway, Hagan appears to be in excellent shape to contend for a title he won in 2011 but let slip away during a disappointing 2012 season.
Only a few weeks before this season began, regaining the championship he’d won in 2011 wasn’t Hagan’s chief concern. He was more focused on finding a crew chief after his Don Schumacher Racing team underwent a major shakeup.
Changes needed to be made: Hagan slumped during 2012, going winless and not making the Countdown. He admitted he would wake up in the morning hoping the season quickly would come to an end.
Finding a new crew and, more importantly, a new crew chief took time. And as the ’13 season opener in Pomona, Calif., drew near, the stress level also went up.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Hagan. “Everything has been picked through by that time of year. You’re just hoping you can find the right people.”
Hagan and Schumacher eventually found their crew chief in veteran Dickie Venables, who had tuned Tony Pedregon’s Funny Car to a 2007 championship.
It was a risk. Hagan and Venables only knew each other in passing.
“I didn’t know his personality, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Hagan.
But hiring Venables proved to be a brilliant move. Venables, who had experience with drag racing legends Shirley Muldowney, Don Prudhomme, Don Garlits, Connie Kalitta and Gary Ormsby, brought together a team that jelled immediately.
“It’s come down to Dickie being such a great team leader,” said Hagan. “He’s kept the guys motivated. Now we’ve got a couple of wins under our belt and the guys can taste (a championship). They’ve seen what it takes to get this done.”
Hagan won the Four-Wide Nationals at the Concord strip during April. He hasn’t always had that kind of luck at zMax Dragway: Hehas had three car explosions over the years at the Four-Wide event, most famously last year, when a video of the accident went viral.
“I’m trying to win a championship,” he said. “I don’t need anything like that happen again.”