Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hagan celebrates 1st drag racing victory

He told his wife he would win before he left Christiansburg. He told his sponsors he would win before he even climbed in the car.

Eventually, after all these bold predictions, a nerve-jangling thought struck Matt Hagan: Hey, I'd better actually win this thing!

Humble by nature -- he runs a cattle farm in Christiansburg when he's not racing -- Hagan delivered on his premonition. Last weekend, he notched his first victory in a NHRA Funny Car national event, winning the Spring Nationals in Houston.

"To be on this circuit, with it being this competitive, this is huge for me," the 27-year-old Auburn High School graduate said Tuesday, as he juggled multiple interview requests and a little gardening work with his wife and two children. "The only thing I can really compare this to ... would be watching your kids born. It's something that you work so hard for and you're so proud of that it's just one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences."

Hagan, who got his racing start at Elk Creek Dragway, has been running full time in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series for two seasons. Sunday marked his third career appearance in the finals.

The victory over Jeff Arend -- notched in 4.390 seconds and at a speed of 245.57 mph -- vaulted Hagan to second place in the series standings behind iconic drag racer John Force.

Back home in the New River Valley, the ESPN-televised victory immediately created a stir.

"I could not believe the amount of people here locally that watch drag racing," Hagan said. "When I got back to my motor home, I had 67 text messages and e-mails within 30 minutes of winning. It's really cool to see everybody keep up with the local guy."

Hagan's been a hard man to keep pace with ever since he discovered the sport in high school. He took rookie-of-the-year honors in the NHRA AMS ProMod Series in 2006. He qualified for the U.S. Nationals two years later, then latched on with six-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher last season.

So the career already was thriving. But he was still looking for his maiden national victory as of last week.

Once he won his first elimination race in Houston, he knew the weekend would be a success. All three of the drivers above him in the points standings heading into the event went out in the first round.

But as he prepared to race in the finals, Hagan realized there was a lot more to be gained than just points.

"There's a lot of guys out here that I talk to that go nine, 10 times in the final before they get their first win," he said.

Not Hagan. Despite having to "pedal" the car -- adjust the throttle to stay under control -- he saw his victory light come on, fulfilling his pre-race promises.

"I was a little late pulling the parachute," he said with a chuckle. "I was in there clapping and jumping up and down, and then I was like, 'Oh, yeah. I've got to get this car stopped.' "

Next stop: Las Vegas this weekend, where Hagan will try to keep the momentum going. He made the finals at that track last season.

Hagan wishes he had a week off to celebrate the win a little longer. Fans have one last chance to watch the milestone victory; ESPN2 will replay the Houston event at 1 a.m. Friday.

Hagan might want to watch to confirm this whole thing hasn't been a dream.

"It's been big for our whole team," Hagan said. "You've got to win one before you can win two, so that was a big hurdle for us."

Bowling for dollars

Joining Hagan in Vegas this weekend will be another local man on a sporting high -- only he'll be lugging bowling balls, not a race car.

Roanoke resident Brian Correll has a flight scheduled this morning for Sin City, where he'll join 107 other bowlers as finalists in the $500,000 National In-League Tournament on Friday and Saturday at The Orleans Hotel and Casino.

"What's cool about this whole deal is everything is free," said Correll, a 40-year-old sales rep with Foot Levelers. "They pay for the airfare and the hotel. As long as you go to the scheduled meals, your meals are paid for. This is an awesome deal."

Even better? Even if he finishes last in his division, Correll will pocket $250. A $50,000 grand prize will be awarded to the winners of the four divisions, each of which features 27 bowlers.

Those who've known Correll a long time might think he's overqualified for the 180-average division he's bowling in. Correll, who's bowled five perfect games in his 15 years in the sport, used to be a scratch bowler before injuring his left knee and seeing his average drop.

Correll qualified for the AMF-sanctioned, best-pins-over-average event through league play at Hilltop Lanes. Last month, he won the district finals in Fredericksburg, Va., with games of 191, 196, 257 and 213, taking the top spot after his closest rival opened in the 10th.

"I won it on the very last frame of the last game," he said.

Now he'll try to compete against a national field. The top four survivors in each division will bowl ladder-style in Saturday's finals.

"As long I can just concentrate on making my spares and hitting over my average each game, " he said, "I think I've got a pretty good shot."

No guarantees, though. He's not in Matt Hagan territory just yet.

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