Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Christiansburg drag racer Matt Hagan is back after a disappointing end to 2010

CHRISTIANSBURG -- While the 61-year-old racing legend John Force stood on the podium, thanking his sponsors and delivering his signature one-liners -- "I'm 40 again! I'm still ugly, but I feel 40!" -- the what-ifs started for 27-year-old Matt Hagan.

What could we have done better?

Where did it go wrong?

How did we let it slip away?

Seven months have passed since Force surged past Hagan to win the 2010 National Hot Rod Association Funny Car title, rallying from a 38-point deficit to beat the Christiansburg driver on the final weekend.

Seven months are not enough to make the images disappear.

"Still not over it, man," said Hagan, back in his hometown Thursday before heading to this weekend's race in Bristol, Tenn. "I don't think there's ever any getting over it when you get that close. I'm human. It's like anything -- you get greedy. I wanted it. I think everybody that was involved in that deal, they wanted to win that thing too."

It was the first major disappointment in a drag racing career that had only seemed to know one direction: skyward. Hagan, who runs a Christiansburg cattle farm when he's not at the track, was only in his second full season of NHRA racing.

Yet there he was, taking on a 14-time series champion in front of thousands of fans and a national ESPN audience.

Hagan was calm and cautiously optimistic in the days leading up to the event. ("I feel like the book has already been written," he said in November. "We've just got to read it.") But when race day arrived, there was a new sensation he hadn't felt.

"I woke up that morning, and I told myself, 'If it was anybody else, I wouldn't be so nervous.' " Hagan said. "When it's John Force, it's a tough deal."

And it was. Hagan was upset in the first round, then watched Force clinch the title with two rounds of victories. Force then went on to win the event itself.

"We could have Monday-quarterbacked it all day long, but he won it fair and square," Hagan said. "You've got to go over there and shake that man's hand and pat him on the back, because it was a dogfight right down to the last race."

Hagan hopes to be in a similar position this year. Through eight of 22 events, he sits fifth in the Funny Car standings, 226 points behind leader Mike Neff. One spot below Hagan is Force, still going strong.

"That's kind of the rivalry that everybody wants to see -- those two powerhouses going at each other, kind of like two big college teams coming together and playing it off," Hagan said. "It's also become a relationship. I have so much respect for him. It's one of those deals where he earned every bit of what he got last year, and I was still pretty young in the sport. He didn't have to show me any respect, but he did."

Their battle brought them closer together. Hagan and Force chat and joke with each other nearly every weekend. Of course, the genial Hagan can chat and joke with just about anybody.

Fans lined up for more than two hours at Shelor Motor Mile on Thursday to meet the star and take pictures of his car.

"That's pretty awesome to me," he said. "I never in my wildest dreams would think that we'd have a line out the door for people to come see us."

The scene is similar at the racetracks -- particularly Bristol. Hagan says he meets countless fans from the Roanoke and New River valleys during the Thunder Valley Nationals, as well as those from other areas who've followed his rise.

Some want to talk to him about farming. Others, about November.

"The biggest thing there is that we learned a lot of life lessons," Hagan said of losing the title. "Sometimes the way you think it's going to go, it doesn't always go that way. It keeps you very humble, very grounded, and I think that's a good angle and approach to take with this stuff.

"It seems like this stuff is like being a manic-depressive. The highs are high, and the lows are low. There isn't much middle ground in between there. But I think if you can stay grounded and stay humble -- and when the car does throw you a bone, be gracious that it did -- things work out pretty good."

Two weeks ago, Hagan and Force faced off for the first time since that memorable November day, meeting in the first round of the NHRA SuperNationals in Englishtown, N.J. Again, Hagan felt more butterflies than usual.

This time, though, he won.

"That was a huge matchup," Hagan said. "My crew chief -- you would have thought we won the race. It's one of those things where you want to get that back. He won the championship, and even though we only won one round against him there, it felt big."

Big enough to remove the sting? Not yet.

But it's a nice start.

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