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Wed, 11 Sep 2013, 12:39 PM

Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship
Courtesy of NHRA Communications
Photo copyright 2013 NHRA

One-on-One with Matt Hagan




Matt Hagan win at Charlotte earlier this year.
THE MODERATOR: The NHRA Mello Yello Series regular season is officially in the history books, and the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, the six race playoff, is set to begin at the Carlyle Tools NHRA Carolina Nationals presented by NAPA Auto Parts zMAX Dragway, September 13th through the 15th. Joining us on the call today is the Funny Car No. 1 seed going into the playoffs:

We are joined now by 2011 Funny Car world champion, Matt Hagan as the No. 1 seed. Matt has four win this is season, and four number one qualifying positions. His most recent coming here in Indianapolis. But, on race day he suffered just his first first-round loss in the event when he was defeated by Jeff Arend. Matt, kind of talk about last weekend. Just a very brief pedal and kind of spoiled your afternoon. How disappointing first off was that loss? Does it somehow maybe make your team a little hungrier going into the playoffs?

MATT HAGAN: Well, I think it makes us better. It makes us hungrier. You have to go back and look at qualifying to kind of see the reason that that happened on Monday, actually. We went out there in the Traxxas Shootout and had an opportunity to win $100,000. I feel like we had the car to do it. We qualified number one and the car had been on the racetrack every time. The sun came out, and Dickie (Venables, crew chief) has always done such a great job of racing the racetrack and really being methodical about what he does. So we went out there and went, I guess, a 4.10. And Wilkerson, already being qualified, hat's off to him. He did a wonderful job. But he swung for the fence, and ran for a six or a seven, even though it showed an 8 up there, against us. We went back and said, man, we should have went after it a little harder and pushed a little bit more. So we went back out there in our last qualifying session and we pushed really hard and we went 4.04, which was the low round for that last session. I think we kind of got in the mindset that we should be pushing ourselves a little harder than what we are because the car is taking it to the racetracks there. And we go up there Sunday morning kind of out of character, I think for what Dickie Venables likes to do. It really bit us. I really have to step back and say, hey, that was kind of my fault because I was kind of pushing Dickie to run the car harder, and felt like we could do more there, when the guy has been nothing but phenomenal reading the racetrack, judging the racetrack, and putting the car down the racetrack. So I think that kind of bit us. We learned a lot there. He learned a lot to trust his first judgment and not go up there and run a number and really just run the racetrack. But everything happens for a reason. We learned so much. Unfortunately, it was at the U.S. Nationals, but fortunately enough for us, we worked hard enough and accumulated enough points where it was kind of a throwaway race other than just the pressure to win and the pressure to win that trophy of the U.S. Nationals. Like I said, it was good and bad, and as long as you're learning from it, you can pull something away from it, and that's what we did this last weekend.


Matt Hagan
Q. You had an amazing situation and winning the championship previously. Dickie Venables steps into your team at the very last minute at the start of this year. Do you feel the same allure, if you will, that a championship is just waiting for you to step into it?

MATT HAGAN: You know, honestly, I felt like we have a car that can win this championship, and I feel like as long as we continue to do or continue to be as consistent as we have been all year long, there is no reason we shouldn't win it. The biggest thing that we did is we pulled everybody together, and you say, well, look, everybody gets this big deal in their head. It's the Countdown Championship, and sure that puts pressure on you, but you can't allow that to happen. You have to do what you've done all year long to get you to position where we're sitting number one. So why change everything just because someone says it's the Countdown. I absolutely feel like we have the opportunity to go out and win another championship. Dickie Venables is probably one of the smartest guys I've worked with. Everybody that I've worked with has been top brass, but this guy is above and beyond. Just super excited to be around a group of guys that work really hard. Dickie, man, he's just been awesome all year long. He's been a great team leader. We have team meetings before and after the race and it's just a really great atmosphere to be in. It pumps me up and drives me to put my helmet on, get focused, and get up on the wheel and make things happen.

Q. From the standpoint of already having won, does that make the next six races a little easier for you that you don't have the stress anymore of can you win a championship, it's can you win another championship?

MATT HAGAN: Right, obviously, being there, you know the pressure of being on top of you. I think with our a championship it came down to the semifinals of having to beat Cruz Pedregon on the last day of the last race. I'm not sure it can get a lot more pressure filled than that. I'm sure in some wild situation it can. But that was a lot of pressure. Being able to know that you can rise to the occasion and do that obviously builds confidence. Knowing that you have a group that you've never had this type of charisma with, the chemistry this team has, I've never had before. It honestly excites me to know end to be strapped to a race car that I know a group of guys that put this thing together right. And Dickie is up there making educated decisions of what we need to do, and I've just got to drive the wheels off of it. It's up to me. I feel confident, cool, calm, and collected about everything, and just super excited to be a part of it.


Q. Matt, what is the best way to shift gears, so to speak, going into the playoffs? Is there a best plan for you and your team?

MATT HAGAN: Well, like I said, I think the best plan is to continue to do what we've done. I don't think we need to change anything. We've led in points all year long. There is a reason our car has been number one for the majority of the year and it's because it's been consistent. There is a lot of luck involved with a lot of this racing stuff but you really make a lot of your own luck. We've had a car that's gone up and down the track 20 times without smoking the tires and doing anything crazy, and that's hard to do when you pour nitro in the tank. And that really boils down to the guy turning the knobs and making the decisions and obviously driving it well. But I think what we need to do is just stay focused and stay driven to keep doing what we've done all year long, and that is to try to turn four win lights on subbed. You capitalize on the little things and make sure you're taking advantage of the small opportunities. When we won the championship, there were so many times that someone messed up in front of us and we could have taken advantage and really run away with the thing, and we just never capitalized on some of those small misfortunes for some others. And I think that if you can do that you're going to be a really hard car to stop. But the hard part is doing that. What we've been able to do all year long is go down the race track and run. Dickie runs a smart race car. He's not out here trying to do anything crazy or reinvent the wheel. He's just been rubbing on this combination, and he just wants to keep moving forward. The same with me. I just want to keep driving the same way I am, line them up, and run what you've run kind of thing. Like I said, just on cloud nine. We've had a dream season. If we don't win another one, which I hope we do, it's been a wonderful season so far.

Q. Coming into Indy with the bigness and greatness of the Indy race, is that good preparation for just slide into the Countdown and playoffs which are big too?

MATT HAGAN: Yeah, you know, I think that Indy is a race everybody wants to win. We were disappointed that we didn't. But you learn from it, move forward and put it behind you. I think that our team, like I said, we got into some situations there at Indy where we were pushing ourselves a little hard to be aggressive out there when we probably shouldn't have. Especially in the first rounds when you're just supposed to go down the racetrack, and we didn't do that. The big thing was that we learned from it, and it was a race that we had an opportunity, but it didn't count so much as it would in a Countdown. I think as long as we continue to grow as a team. You have to remember, this team is still very, very young as far as being together. We've only been together this year and we've had so much success and the guys are gelling so well, but we've still got a lot to learn and a lot of growth left. You know, it's coming though. Like I said, I can see the writing on the wall. It's there. It's just a matter of capitalizing on it and a matter of taking advantage of some small opportunities that arise.

Q. Quick question, you've come to experience this Countdown from all angles. In 2010 you had the title and lost it in a heartbreaking fashion. 2011 you win it all. Last year you didn't make the Countdown, so you've seen it from all angles. What do you gather from all those experiences as you go into the Countdown this year ranked number one?

MATT HAGAN: Yeah, for Magneti/Marelli and Rocky and everything, obviously, we've had a car

that has just been very strong this year. And I've had in the past cars that were not very strong. We've also, this Countdown formula has allowed us to win a championship because we didn't start at number one. This is the first time for me leading the points going into the Countdown. I know there is kind of a stigmatism, the guy that usually leads the points doesn't necessarily win the championship when you go into the Countdown. But I feel like we can do that. I definitely want to be that statistic. There has only been one guy to do it, and that is John Force, but the way I look at it is if that guy can do it, I can do it. We all pull our boots on the same way and put our helmets on the same way. If it's doable, this team can do it. I'm just so confident this year. I know we're still going to have some bumps along the way like we did there at Indy, and can you can't make everything perfect all the time, but I think as long as we're growing with this deal, it's going to be just fine. We've got six races and it's going to be a dog fight out there. These cars that we're competing with are just top in the world, man. That's just it. You have to remember that. You have to show respect to these drivers and show respect to the team, you can't take them lightly. You have to bring your A game. You can't just show up and it's just another race, because it's not. It really does count. Anybody that says that it's not, it's kind of foolish. But you still have to continue to focus and not let that pressure get to you and just focus on what you can control. That is the biggest thing for me. You minimize everything to what's in your control, and you have to count on your guys and your crew chiefs and assistant crew chiefs to do the rest. We've seen it from all angles. Obviously, had a lot of pressure on me the majority of my career, but that's what makes you good. You have to learn from it, grow from it, and capitalize on those little opportunities.

Q. The Countdown is going to last over two months. I'm sure you're going to encounter all kinds of changing weather as it gets later in the season. Are you pretty confident now that Dickie has a notebook that can handle any of the combination that you may need for, let's say, Texas and Reading, Pennsylvania, and on and on?

MATT HAGAN: Absolutely. This guy has shown me every weekend that he's got it together. He knows what he's doing out there. This whole team has. Man, it really has. I've been beside myself the majority of the year just how good these guys are and how good they work together. And Dickie, we went out there and tied the national record, I guess. So he knows how to run good in the cool weather, and then we're going down hot racetracks. It's been 20 laps, until last weekend, that I haven't had to pedal the car. So that's phenomenal to me. That is not bragging; that's just facts. But there will be some down times. I think that there are going to be some times when everybody's human. Dickie's going to miss it sometimes and, hopefully, I don't, but there are going to be times when I walk in the trailer and say, man, guys I'm sorry. I messed up. At the end of the day when we get together as a group and talk about what we can do to improve and what we can do to make this car and this team better, as long as we're growing with it, I think that we have a real, legitimate shot at the end of the day in Pomona to either be leading points or be right there in the dog fight to win this thing.

Q. Obviously, it kind of goes without saying, but Charlotte starts the first of four races in a row, and in that kind of stretch you can make or break your season. Talk about the importance of just going into Charlotte and kind of starting things on a good note, especially going in in that number one slot?


Don Schumacher and Hagan celebrate win in Englishtown.
MATT HAGAN:
Well, Charlotte for me has been bittersweet sometimes. We've won Charlotte in the spring, but that doesn't mean that you're going to win it in the fall. I think that we have some great notes to go off of coming into Charlotte. We pretty much had five, six, seven, eight hundredths on everybody at Charlotte when we were running the car. But that was spring, and this is fall. It's totally different conditions. I know that Dickie's pretty confident with it, but I feel like we have to stay humble rolling into Charlotte knowing that these guys all got their game face on. They all know what's on the line. We do as well, but you can't let that get you rattled either. You have to keep doing what we're doing and moving forward. But I'm excited about it. Four in a row, man, I mean, I would run these things every day of my life, if I could. It's just finding a sponsor that would let you do that. It's really one of those things where, you know, just four in a row, stay focused, get lots of rest, and stay motivated to win.

Q. Last thing really quick, do you change your mindset or is there anything different that you or your team does that since you're starting at number one, or do you just kind of stay in that attack mode, so to speak?

MATT HAGAN: No, I think it's been attack mode all the time. My lights have been 50s, 60s, 70s on the tree, shallow. And when you do that and put a good race car underneath it, that's a hard combination to beat. So I think we've been in attack mode from day one. I'm in attack mode on the tree in qualifying. So you can pull up the spreadsheets and look at them. You know it's no joke. We're coming. It's going to be a war, man. I think that you don't change anything we've been doing because it got us to where we're at and that is the No. 1 seed right now.





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