JOLIET – Often, it’s the crew and the crew chief that has to encourage a driver who isn’t winning.
With Matt Hagan’s Funny Car team, it’s been the other way around.
Since triumphing at Ponoma, California in the final race of the 2013 season, Hagan has had to pat the backs of Dickie Venables and the 10-man crew that works on his year-old Don Schumacher Racing Dodge Charger.
“My pom poms have been out all year long,” Hagan said late on Sunday afternoon.
It was a few minutes after the crowd of about 17,500 at Route 66 Raceway cheered him after he captured the Funny Car title in the 17th NHRA Route 66 Nationals, defending the title he won last year.
Hagan knocked off fellow Schumacher driver Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final, getting off the starting line more briskly than top qualifier Johnson, and staying ahead of him by barreling down the 1,000-foot track in 4.098 seconds.
His first victory of 2014 came in the 12th race of the season, and on one of the longest days of the year.
“You don’t want this day to end,” Hagan said. “We’ve got 10 guys working together for one common goal. It’s been a very humbling year for us. We kinda fell off after Ponoma, but the guys have been keeping after it.”
Technical problems had plagued the team, at least in comparison to last year. Those gremlins seem to have been eliminated.
Johnson advanced to the final despite his engine losing a cylinder about 100 feet into his semifinal run against Courtney Force. She smoked the tires and Johnson passed her halfway down the track.
Hagan’s victory over Ron Capps in his semifinal was textbook, and narrow (0.0156 seconds), but it stuck. It was another hint that his 4.095-second qualifying time, which was 10th best, and his first-round clocking of 4.086 seconds to eliminate Jack Beckman, was repeatable.
Hagan moved from 10th to eighth in the standings with the victory, while Johnson climbed from fifth to second place, 248 points behind leader Robert Hight, who was knocked off by Capps in the second round.
With Hagan and Johnson both in the final, Schumacher, the north suburban owner of the Brownsburg, Ind.-based team, couldn’t lose.
“If you’re not running for a championship, Don’s not happy,” Hagan said.
On this day, Don was happy. Along with a crew chief who had struggled and a crew, which had sweated out change after change.
And on Sunday, the semifinal and final were less than an hour apart to satisfy the demands of ESPN, which was televising live rather than the usual recorded presentation. The 65-minute turnaround was shortened to about 55 minutes.
“I can’t say enough about the crew guys with the short turnaround on live TV,” Venables said. “We’d just been trying to work out some new parts and pieces. It takes time.”
Like every other team, Hagan struggled with the heat and humidity that made it a struggle for several teams to dial their engines and clutches properly to create traction and avoid wheel spin with 10,000-rpm engines.
“For the crew chief, it’s tough, but we seemed to have a car that would go down this race track,” Hagan said.
The $50,000 first prize and the trophy he was holding reiterated that.