To the driver of the Shell Rotella Dodge Charger Funny Car, the Thunder Valley Nationals is the biggest race of the entire tour, even bigger than the U.S. Nationals. Part of it is that Hagan lives just two hours away, outside of Christiansburg, Va., on a nearly 1,000-acre ranch where he works in his spare time as a cattle farmer.
“I won three years ago and then got beat the next year on a hole shot,” Hagan said. “It still kills me. The thing is we didn’t get it done for a second year in a row. Bristol is such a cool race for me. It’s more important to me to win at Bristol than to win Indy. I’m two hours up the road, and my family and everybody I grew up with comes out to support me.
“When you turn on four win lights, they can’t take that away from you. It’s special. With my dad and my kids there and it’s Father’s Day weekend, it’s what it’s made for.
“Everybody wants to win Indy, but at the end of the day, I was more choked up about winning Bristol than I was any other race,” Hagan said.
His record at Bristol over the past three years includes the aforementioned win and runner-up finish, as well as a semifinal loss to Don Schumacher Racing teammate and eventual race winner Ron Capps last season. Along the way, Hagan qualified third and eliminated 16-time world champion John Force in the quarterfinals.
He has 27 career wins, 50 final-round appearances, 32 No. 1 qualifying efforts and a top career speed of 338.85 mph in 226 races.
Hagan is coming off a down performance last weekend in Richmond, where he qualified 11th and lost to Jonnie Lindberg in the first round of eliminations.
Hagan wasn’t able to make a clean pass with a 4.251-second elapsed time at 245.72 mph, but he felt the problems went back a couple of days earlier.
“I think what put us behind the 8-ball was not getting down the racetrack Friday morning,” he said. “Q1 (the first qualifying session) is so important to set us up and basically we were chasing it from there, and we ended up getting behind. We’re making a conscious effort to go down the track on Friday and put the runs together that we need to for Sunday.”
So far this season, Hagan has 14 round wins, including an event victory at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. He’s also an entrepreneur after founding the Matt Hagan Outdoors brand in 2013 and recently opening a store in Blacksburg, Va.
However, his focus at the moment is getting to the winner’s circle and back to the top of the NHRA Funny Car standings.
He said crew chief Dickie Venables has made massive changes to get his Dodge out front at the end of Sunday’s race.
“We’ve changed everything. To start the year off we had a whole different track prep than we do now, so we had to regroup and make big changes to this Funny Car,” Hagan said. “Obviously, it’s taken a few races to get there — but I feel we’ve closed the gap on (points leader) Courtney (Force) now. Just give Dickie enough time and he’ll figure it out. I like him being in our corner and knowing that we’re going to get there.”
NHRA Fitzgerald USA Thunder Valley Nationals
Friday, June 15
9 a.m. — Gates open
10 a.m. — Sportsman qualifying
2:30 p.m. — Factory Stock Showdown qualifying
3:15 p.m. — Nitro Harley qualifying
3:45 p.m. — Pro Mod qualifying
4:30 p.m. — Pro Stock qualifying
5 p.m. — Nitro qualifying (Funny Car/Top Fuel)
6 p.m. — Nitro Harley qualifying
6:15 p.m. — Factory Stock Showdown qualifying
6:45 p.m. — Pro Mod qualifying
7:30 p.m. — Pro Stock qualifying
8 p.m. — Nitro qualifying (Funny Car/Top Fuel)
(Fireworks at conclusion of qualifying)
Saturday, June 16
7:30 a.m. — Gates open
8 a.m. — Sportsman eliminations
11:30 a.m. — Factory Stock Showdown qualifying
Noon — Nitro Harley qualifying
12:15 p.m. — Pro Mod qualifying
1 p.m. — Pro Stock qualifying
1:30 p.m. — Nitro qualifying (Funny Car/Top Fuel)
2:30 p.m. — Nitro Harley qualifying
2:40 p.m. — Factory Stock Showdown eliminations
2:45 p.m. — Pro Mod Eliminations
3:30 p.m. — Pro Stock qualifying
4 p.m. — Nitro qualifying (Funny Car/Top Fuel)
(Fan Fest begins 30 minutes after last qualifying round)
Sunday, June 17
8:30 a.m. — Gates open
10:30 a.m. — Track walk
11 a.m. — Pre-race ceremonies
Noon — Eliminations