Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: In a deafening sport, Matt Hagan is a quiet force of change

OK, so now I'm confused. Who, exactly, is the underdog here?

Is it our guy? I think it's our guy. Here's a 27-year-old family man who runs a cattle farm in Christiansburg, a guy who graduated from Auburn High School, a guy who didn't start drag racing until he was a teen -- and even then, it was only at the local track in Elk Creek.

Now he's on the precipice of a season championship in the NHRA Funny Car Series. You know, the big time. Those races they show on ESPN, where the parachutes fly out the back at the end.

Are you kidding? Matt Hagan hadn't won a Funny Car race before this season, and now he's won three, and suddenly he's got a 37-point lead heading into the final weekend. But to win the title, he's got to hold off the most recognizable name in drag racing, a 14-time series champion.

Yeah, our guy's the underdog. Our guy's the protagonist, the everyman.

Or so I thought.

But then I got on an NHRA conference call Monday afternoon that included Hagan and John Force. You might have come across Force's name while Googling his daughter. He's the one with the 14 Funny Car titles, the guy chasing Hagan. This is a titan in the land of 8,000-horsepower hot rods -- a major, major leadfoot.

No chance Force is the underdog.

Or so I thought.

"I've got a chance in my career to come back for sponsors that, maybe at my age and because of my injuries, should have let me go," the 61-year-old racing legend said.

(At this point, you could almost hear the violins start to play in the background.) "They want a kid that's strong like Hagan, and I have to work every day just to be able to play the game with him," Force said. "At the end of the day, this isn't just John Force trying to win 15 championships. This is John Force trying to stay in the business. Because I've always said when I can't cut it as a driver, I'll step out of the scene. I'll try to get this win and keep my job, and if the fans keep rooting for me like they do ... I will go down swinging."

Oh, dear Lord.

You remember that cheesy scene at the end "Rocky IV" -- "If you can change ... and I can change ... everybody can change!" -- that you knew was cheesy but couldn't help yourself from buying into, if only for a second? That's what happened to me Monday. I bought into this. For a second.

And then it hit me: This man is John Flippin' Force! And he's talking as if he's heading straight to the bread lines if he loses this thing?

Nah. Our guy's the underdog. But you can see how this final race in Pomona, Calif., is being framed across the nation, and how the story likely will be cast by the ESPN family of networks beginning with Saturday's 10:30 p.m. qualifying.

Poor John. If only he could catch a break and win No. 15.

"The story will be what it'll be at the end of the day," Hagan told me about an hour before the conference call Monday. "We're hoping that the story's going to be about us when we're holding up the championship trophy. Then it has to be about us."

Don't misunderstand. Hagan's not jealous or bitter or mad. He's gotten a lot of great national media coverage during this magical season. He's just realistic. He himself grew up admiring Force -- "He's a good guy, he's a great showman and he's good for the sport," Hagan said -- but understands that his own fan base will pale in comparison to the veteran's this weekend.

"You've got to realize, John Force is probably one of the most famous guys in drag racing," Hagan said. "He's probably the fan favorite, period, in Top Fuel, Funny Car, whatever -- just drag racing in general. So you've got a lot of guys pulling for John. But I tell you, we've got a lot of support in our corner. I've been shocked at how many people are following us and pulling for us."

That includes the locals at BT's in Radford, who watch the races on the weekend and text him congratulations.

Meanwhile, Force -- despite his points deficit -- was predicted to win the title by 71 percent of fans on an NHRA.com poll Monday.

Yeah, our guy's the underdog.

When I asked Force on the conference call if he'd seen Hagan's success coming this season, he admitted that he had not.

"You only know them when they get there," Force said. "And it was like, 'Who in the hell is running in that car over there?'

"I like his style," Force added. "They all have a different style. It's like right now in this conference [call], I'm talking way too much. You need to get in there, Hagan! This is your day, too! But Hagan is respectful. I watch him. And I'll be honest, that's the kind of guy that bothers me. And even though I'm saying that I've won championships, I'm a big-mouth guy. He's not. He's very quiet. And you've got to watch that guy who's quiet. Because while you're talkin', he's thinkin'. So I'm going to shut up here, Hagan."

Just like an underdog, our guy.

Silent but deadly.


For more quotes from Hagan on his quest for the title, check out the blog at http://blogs.roanoke.com/aaronmcfarling/2010/11/09/more-from-matt-hagan/

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