Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – BRAINERD, MN – Since debuting a new Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat body three races ago, Matt Hagan has made steady progress, including a No. 1 qualifier at the most recent NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event in Seattle. Heading into this weekend’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, the two-time Funny Car world champion wants to grab even more momentum, which would mean getting his first career victory at the fan-favorite track.
Currently fourth in points, Hagan has been impressive at times this season in his 10,000-horsepower Mopar Express Lane Funny Car, winning back-to-back races earlier this summer in Norwalk and Epping. The goal is to regain that consistency in the new body approaching the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, putting extra importance on running well this weekend.
“We’re still learning with the new body but it’s going to be better, that’s for sure,” said Hagan, who has 29 career wins. “It’s just a matter of learning what the car wants and it’s taken a few races to get there. Brainerd has always been a fast track and there should be some fast racing. For us, it’s about understanding more with the new body and pushing a little harder. It’s coming around. Between Brainerd and then Indy, I think we’ll be good.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Alexis DeJoria (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock), and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including live final eliminations coverage starting at 2:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 19. It is the 17th of 24 races in the 2018 season and Hagan is making his push towards a third championship.
The Don Schumacher Racing standout has three wins in 2018 and is just 82 points back of second-place driver and teammate Ron Capps, who has three straight final round appearances. Hagan has been impressed with Capps’ recent consistency, something he hopes his team, led by standout crew chief Dickie Venables, can improve on heading into the NHRA’s six-race playoffs.
“More consistency is definitely going to be key,” said Hagan, who also has four No. 1 qualifiers in 2018. “You look at the car running the best right now and Capps has been to three straight finals and won one of them. We have to fine-tune what we have and make the best of it. We have to get in the groove and that’s something we’ll work on the next 3-4 races, and get really honed in there. We’re going to have to outrun some people, keep going down the racetrack and I have to be good on the tree. But at the end of the day, we have to be aggressive and consistent.”
It’s a tough balance in a loaded Funny Car class, but Hagan and his team have proven plenty capable of the task over the years. In addition to Capps, who has five Brainerd wins, Hagan will also have to deal with the likes of points leader Courtney Force, who has four wins in 2018, defending world champion Robert Hight, Jack Beckman and two-time 2018 winner J.R. Todd. Hagan has enjoyed some highlight moments in Brainerd, twice finishing as the runner-up, but a victory at the penultimate race in the NHRA regular season would go a long way in getting the team locked in for the Countdown to the Championship.
“This is the time of year when you want those opportunities to come to you,” Hagan said. “You want to race the toughest people out there, try to put them on the trailer early if you can and try to gain some points. That’s the mentality I take, jumping into the pool headfirst. You gotta be all or nothing, and you need to try to capitalize when you face those top drivers. There’s a lot of energy from the fans in Brainerd and it’s a good facility, so it’s a good opportunity to do the best we can.”
Defending Top Fuel event winner Leah Pritchett is after her third win of 2018 going against points leader Steve Torrence, Seattle winner Antron Brown and defending world champ Brittany Force.
Pro Stock’s Tanner Gray has four 2018 wins, but he’s chasing points leader Greg Anderson, a Minnesota native with three Brainerd wins. Others to watch are Erica Enders and Vincent Nobile.
Jerry Savoie will look for his second Pro Stock Motorcycle win of 2018 against points leader Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec, Hector Arana Jr. and Sonoma winner LE Tonglet.
The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. After Nitro qualifying, fans can watch the spectacular Lucas Oil “Muy Caliente” jet cars, with Tom Bogner driving the Lucas Oil Racing TV Missile and Tony Franco driving the Lucas Oil Terminal Velocity. Jet cars are propelled by jet engines with exciting pre-run flame shows.
Those in attendance will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with a few of the most renowned names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This will feature meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities. Legends scheduled to attend the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals include Tom Hoover, Al Corda and Forrest Lucas.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:40 and 4:20 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 17 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 12:45 and 3:45 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19.