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NHRA’s Matt Hagan learns to handle extreme speed, heat

June 10, 2018 GMT

Matt Hagan understands why people jump out of skyscrapers that are engulfed by flames.

He never wants to see something like that, of course. Nobody does. But he gets it.

“You’re thinking, ‘Man, they just jumped to their death,’” Hagan said. “But your natural instinct is to get away from that.”

The Christiansburg drag racer has felt that terrible impulse. It happened nearly a decade ago, the first time his car blew up the middle of one of his NHRA Funny Car races, which demand speeds in excess of 300 mph over a 1,000-foot track.

“I panicked,” Hagan said. “I didn’t realize where I was on the racetrack. All I could see was flames. My legs were getting blistered up. It was just hot. I was ready to jump out of the car and I hadn’t unbuckled myself and I was probably still running 200 mph.

“I just wanted out. I just wanted it to be over.”

Hagan’s car has caught fire three times this NHRA season, and while it’s always a scary experience, it’s nothing like that first time. Knowing how to navigate those mishaps is one of the many ways Hagan has evolved since his rookie season of 2009 — the most recent year the series visited Virginia Motorsports Park.

The Dinwiddie track is back on the NHRA schedule this weekend for the Virginia NHRA Nationals, and Saturday’s action set the stage for champions to be crowned on Sunday, when Hagan will be seeded No. 9 in the funny car division.

Not only does this new event give Hagan an exciting opportunity to race just three hours from his Montgomery County cattle ranch, but it also provides him a chance to reflect on how far he’s come since he last raced there.

“It’s cool to see the folks that really support you that grew up around you and kind of watched you come up, and all the Hagan apparel that’ll be out there,” Hagan, 35, said in an interview in Roanoke this week. “That’s very humbling, because I remember when I couldn’t hand an autograph out. I was like, ‘Take one.’ And everybody’s like, ‘Nah, we’re good.’ I was like, ‘No, man, really, take one.’ It definitely is humbling.”

Hagan’s gained a strong following by winning two NHRA Funny Car championships (2011 and ’14) for Don Schumacher Racing and breaking speed records in the series. But he also has the kind of gregarious personality that appeals to NHRA fans, who are granted access to the pits when they buy a general admission ticket.

Saturday’s action was a sellout in Dinwiddie. Hagan refuses to hide in his trailer or attempt to duck the spectators.

“What’s really cool is that for a lot of these people, it’s their vacation, man,” he said. “They’ve saved up all year long. They bring their campers out. They do it up big. They have big parties in the pits and all that stuff. You want to make it as special for them as possible.”

Hagan entered the Virginia Nationals solidly in fourth place in the Funny Car Standings. It’s a long way from where he was in 2009, when he finished 11th in the final standings as a rookie.

And no matter what happens this weekend, panic won’t be part of the script.

“Now that I’ve done it for 10 years, I feel comfortable,” he said. “I still respect the car and realize it could hurt me in the blink of an eye, but you get to be more comfortable with the racecar and how you’re going to handle those situations.”