Kevin Haskin: NHRA driver finds solace on tractor, farm | CJOnline …

18 May

Sometimes NHRA dragsters find themselves needing to unwind from a weekend of racing.

Matt Hagan slows it down about as much as possible. He hops on a tractor.

No, it is not souped-up.

?I can?t hardly get my tractor to do 15 miles per hour,? Hagan said. ?Just a regular John Deere. Maybe pop a clutch to have some fun with it.?

Hagan lives in Christiansburg, Va., where he farms slightly more than 1,000 acres. He grows sorghum, alfalfa and grass as part of his cow-calf operation.

?It?s not a big chunk of land, but it?s about all I can say grace over, and I can raise my kids on,? Hagan said. ?We try to keep it as simple as we can and do as much as we can.?

Plenty of time exists to get more sophisticated given he races a Funny Car that burns nitro.

That regular transition from farming to fast lane does not faze Hagan in the least. Entering the Kansas Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, he was inching toward the top of the Funny Car standings.

Hagan was the top qualifier at the Southern Nationals in Atlanta last weekend before reaching the finals and losing to Johnny Gray. The runner-up finish moved Hagan within 13 points of division leader Cruz Pedregon.

More importantly, the finish in Atlanta boosted Hagan?s budding respect for crew chief Dickie Venables. The two were teamed by Don Schumacher Racing at the beginning of the season and continue to work out various tuning details.

Entering the Southern Nationals final, Venables declined to get even more juice out of the car Hagan drives and instead kept most of the specs intact. The run was good, 4.160 seconds at 309.49 mph, but Gray sailed down the 1,000-yard strip in 4.077 seconds, pushing his dragster to 314.17 mph.

?We would do the same thing if we could do it over again,? said Venables, mechanic for two world championship runs by Tony Pedregon. ?We looked at the track and felt that we could win if we ran close to a 4.14. We never expected Johnny or anyone else to go out and run like that.?

Venables gambled a bit. He anticipated an opponent encountering some misfortune attempting to squeeze too much out of his car.

It did not happen. Gray ran great. Still, Hagan was impressed.

?Dickie showed me he knows how to race. We went out there and backed the car down to run it down the race track,? Hagan said.

?He was playing the chess game, and he showed me he?s got a lot of maturity in this deal, even though we didn?t walk away with the win, I was real proud of him.?

Hagan is only 30. Still young in the NHRA pro ranks. So the conclusion can be drawn a mature influence is necessary.

That assumption, however, is inaccurate. Hagan is quite grounded. Remember, he farms. That means he knows how to grow things, including the relationship with his new crew chief.

The combination was forged after Hagan finished a disappointing 11th last year in the points standings and missed the season-ending Countdown to the Championship. This, after Hagan claimed his first world championship in 2011.

?Like in any sport, when you?re at the pinnacle, it?s easy to float away,? Hagan said. ?But I?ve got a lot of great folks that bring me back down and keep me humble. That?s why we?ve had so much success. Our team?s humble.

?We were thrown together at the beginning of this year without a test run on a car. To come into Pomona when everybody else has 15 to 20 laps on you … and they still have, we haven?t tested yet so everybody is 20-30 runs ahead of us, yet we?ve done so well. It just says a lot about Dickie Venables.?

And, for that matter, Hagan.

Although he will tell you the stops on the NHRA circuit tend to blend together rather quickly, he has an affinity for HPT fans. A lot of them are just like him. Down to earth, with rural roots and concerns they treasure and share.

?It?s farm country, so I love it,? Hagan said. ?I stand at the ropes and talk about farming as much as I do talking race car stuff. It?s cattle country out there, too. It?s good ol? boys, and it?s nice to sit back and listen to what?s going on in their world. Topeka just reminds me of home.?



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