When Matt Hagan was 14, he took his all-terrain vehicle to a drag strip near his hometown in western Virginia, expecting only to watch a local race.
Instead, he was cornered by a race organizer.
The race, the organizer explained, needed another competitor. On an ATV. Hagan, who had little racing experience, obliged and lined up on the drag strip.
“Beginner’s luck,” Hagan said. “I went to the final, won a couple hundred bucks, and the next thing I knew, I was hooked.”
Hagan, 31, will compete in the Funny Car division at this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.
Hagan didn’t necessarily have a traditional start — he admits with a laugh that as a teenager in Christianburg, Va., he borrowed cars from his father’s auto dealership for the sole purpose of drag racing — but two years after his rookie season in the National Hot Rod Association, Hagan won the 2011 world championship in the NHRA Funny Car classification.
Many casual auto racing fans know Hagan more for footage of a race that went viral — during a qualifying race in April of 2012 in Charlotte, Hagan’s car burst into flames and the body disintegrated on the track, yet Hagan emerged from the car and threw a fragment of the body to the ground before walking off the track.
A Funny Car, Hagan said, is a carbon body atop a 10,000-horsepower motor and a two-frame chassis.
“You’re basically strapped to the motor,” Hagan said. “You’re riding in a bomb, and sometimes that bomb goes off.”
The car was replaceable. Getting another chance to drive that weekend wasn’t.
“That went viral, and I’ve had several explosions like that,” Hagan said. “It’s one of those things you realize that it can happen, and you hope it never does. It usually comes down to parts failure. These cars have so much horsepower and make so much torque that it can break apart here or there.
“It’s not something you want to do. It’s a wild ride. When the car goes boom, it’s like someone puts a stick of dynamite in your lap and says, ‘Here you go, good luck.’ ”
Hagan won five Funny Car events in 2013 and finished second in the world in the 2013 Funny Car field, a finish that he and his team hoped would springboard into a successful 2014. Yet he didn’t earn his first win of the year until last weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Ill.
“We really thought we were going to kick the year off hitting the ground running because we had such a phenomenal year last year,” Hagan said. “It was a brand new team, a brand new crew chief last year, and we had that year under our belt. We went to the final our first race of the year, but then we just couldn’t hit our rear end to save it.
“It’s just been struggle after struggle after struggle. A lot of it has to do with new combinations, and finally now our crew chief [Dickie Venables] has it figured out, where we’re going down the race track and being more consistent.”
Norwalk will provide Hagan and his crew a chance to further tinker with his car. NHRA’s 24-race season is just past its halfway point, and while Hagan sits eighth in the Funny Car points standings, NHRA resets the points for the last six races of the season for the top 10 drivers in its four classifications: Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle, and Top Fuel.
“We really feel like we’re starting to get some momentum at the right time of the year,” Hagan said. “We have some of that pressure gone, and there’s huge amounts of pressure to get that first win of the year. There’s some guys who go a year or two and think, ‘Man, am I ever going to get that win again?’
“But you realize how special it is when you do win. They are so hard to get, and when you win all the time, you take that for granted.”
NHRA AT NORWALK
■ What: Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals
■ Where: Summit Motorsports Park, Norwalk, Ohio.
■ When: Today — qualifying begins at 4:45 p.m.; Saturday — qualifying begins at 4:45 p.m.; Sunday — eliminations begin at 11 a.m.; semifinals at 2:30 p.m. and finals at 3:50 p.m.
■ Tickets: $50-55 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under