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After losing a heartbreaking title fight to 15-time champion John Force in his second, 2010 season, Hagan returned to shine in the Countdown to the Championship six-race playoffs that closed the 2011 campaign.
Hagan earned his first professional title through consistency, winning twice in 22 races and taking three No. 1 qualifying positions.
He was the runner-up in two races and was the first driver to break the 3-second barrier in Funny Car competition in the 1,000-foot era, accomplishing a stunning national-record-setting 3.995-second pass at zMax Dragway in Concord, NC during the fall race. At the same event, he established a new NHRA speed mark to 1000 feet of 322.27 in the flopper class.
Driving a Dodge Charger for the four-car Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car team, Hagan found the largest group of competitors was within his own camp as he battled teammate Jack Beckman to the championship. Hagan was more worried about beating his teammates than taking on the challengers: John Force Racing's (JFR) Mike Neff and two-time champ Cruz Pedregon, who drives for his eponymous team.
"Frankly, I was more worried in the Countdown about our own team cars," he said. "You look at Johnny Gray, who didn't even make the Countdown but probably would have won the championship if he had," with a late season surge of competitiveness in his first full year in the class. "And Jack Beckman, who finished second in the world? I was more worried about them and Ron Capps than I was about the JFR cars."
"I really think Don Schumacher has taken this program to the next level. His R&D program has just been huge and he has taken all the right steps to put his teams in a place that, I guess, John Force was several years ago to win as many championships as he has. We're really glad that it worked out in our favor this year."
While it's the driver who gets much of the credit when winning a title, Matt Hagan gives the most credit to "the guys who work on the race car. They're putting together the race car and they have so many opportunities to mess up, just like Tommy (crew chief DeLago) and me. They were flawless all year long. They don't get to be in the limelight; as the driver, I come in late and leave early, and these guys come in early and stay late. They are the ones who make sure we have a phenomenal hot rod at the race track."
One large advantage Hagan enjoyed in the 2011 was actually a losing one - he reduced his personal weight by 37 pounds prior to the season, allowing the team to move weight around the car and gain balance. "Also, it makes you mentally focused and physically you're feeling better," Hagan said of his diet change. "I want to lose another 10 pounds, give or take. I'm 202 right now--I put on five pounds during the season and I want to be about 190-195 pounds before the 2012 season starts in Pomona."
Hagan cited teammate Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster as "being a big influence on me this year. He's always been kind and shared techniques, trying to help me out. I also have great guys like (teammate) Ron Capps I can go to with technical questions and off-track advice. And then (three-time Top Fuel champion) Shirley Muldowney has been like the best cheerleader I could ever have."
With his first championship, Hagan is now looking for more. "I can see why Force has 15 Funny Car titles. It just makes you want it that much more. As bad as it is to say, you're greedy. It makes you greedy!"
Away from the racetrack, Matt Hagan has a different type of lifestyle. He tends to as many as 600 head of cattle at any given time, on a 1,000-acre ranch. While his family is happy for his accomplishment, "It's back to business."
In that vein, Hagan has a five-year plan to "grow a strong relationship with a sponsor that will last for a very long time. In the next five years I'd love to be racing, but it reality it's very tough to do. You have to stay ahead of the game and you have to secure solid sponsorship. I think, by being with Don Schumacher Racing, it puts me a step or two ahead of the rest."
His ultimate goals are a little less racing-related. "I'd like to have a good life, enjoy the ride, enjoy what's happening and enjoy the opportunities that come along," Hagan stated. "Great people are made out of great moments, and I think you have to see what comes your way in life, whether it's on the race track or not. Don't take anything for granted and don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Be grateful for the opportunities that are there."
Now those are the words of a champion.
© 2011 Anne Proffit