A few years ago, Darrell Gwynn asked a media member if the drivers appreciate what they bring to the mix. It was a remarkably thoughtful question – and the answer is a matter for another day.
However, it raised the notion that the media and the fans often take for granted all the processes and the feelings behind them that the drivers experience. We see them with “that look” in their eyes. We see them make thrilling runs. We see them make disappointing ones. We see them win. We see them lose. We see their cars run into tire shake or explode. We see how they react when they get out of the car. And we only can imagine what they’re thinking and why they’re reacting in whatever way they do. We might not understand all of it or even misinterpret it.
Three-time and current NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan took time to walk Dragzine through some of the emotions and impulses of a driver’s day at the racetrack – and some of it just might be surprising.
It’s no surprise that racecar drivers are wired a little differently than the rest of us. But the notion of competition is a logical place to start figuring out why.
Hagan likened it to the “fight or flight syndrome” – “as a competitor, I’ve really tried over the years to learn how to take a pressure situation and turn it into something that’s positive. Some people are like, ‘Man, I don’t want to mess this up.’ For me, I look at it like ‘Give me the ball. I want that opportunity.’
“I think that that aggression, that adrenaline and that everything-that-it-takes-to-get-there puts you in, almost an old-school gladiator kind of feel. It’s just the last of what we do, of our primal instincts, to just be adrenaline-filled. That’s why people used to come and watch people fight tigers in an arena,” he said.
Everybody thinks that you don’t have to be in shape to drive one these things. But we pull close to 6 G’s on a run and almost negative-7 G’s when the parachutes come out and. God bless John Force [at age 72]. I don’t know how he does it, but he does it.
“But it’s a show. You’re a showman, but you’re also out there, you know, pretty much putting your life on the line to do what we do, something that you have to have respect for. And you have to understand that it can hurt you in a blink of an eye, but you can’t fear it, either. You have to crawl in there with the intention of ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to put this racecar in the winners circle, however many times I got to pedal it or however many times it blows up on me or however many times I got to eat parts and fire and everything else.’ You have to be smart about the decisions you make in there and take calculated risks.” Hagan said. “That’s just a mentality that you have to have to be a champion.”
That laser-like focus, coupled with the extreme nature of drag racing, has a physical and psychological effect on a driver, especially on one who is supremely intense inside the cockpit.
Versatile racing veteran Willy T. Ribbs, who’s preparing for a return to exhilarating, banging and bumping short-track competition with the soon-to-launch SRX Series (Superstar Racing Experience), joked – or maybe only half-joked – in his comparison of his new venture to drag racing: “Drag racers, they like to finish early. They like to go home early: ‘Four and a half seconds, then let’s take the rest of the day off.’”
It is difficult to believe that a racer is spent after less than four seconds in the car. It’s hard for circle-track racers or fans to fathom how a race can be finished by the time they can say, “Wow – that’s unbelievable. That’s a really cool thing!” They’re used to talk of tire management and fuel management.
The animated former Funny Car racer Dean Skuza put it plainly: “We’re not like NASCAR. We don’t conserve tires. We don’t conserve fuel. We don’t conserve nothin’!” And former NHRA tour regular Tom Martino called his Pro Stock car “a rolling fruit cart” and said if you don’t use it all up, it will spoil.
Maybe Hagan’s explanation will straighten folks out.
He said, “I can’t talk up there [at the top end of the track]. Your adrenaline is going so much and they stick a mic in your face and you’re trying to catch your breath, you know? And so, it just shows up on the top end, how much your adrenaline goes and four seconds, to be able to get out and not be able to even really kind of give an interview because you’re so pumped up.”
It takes time, he allowed, to decelerate from that thrill. He doesn’t come back to “normal” “after I’d get back to my pit and I start to get changed. And you’re just drenched in sweat. And I’ll hand my time card to my crew chief and my hands are still shaking from the adrenaline. So that feeling, that being on the tire, up on the wheel and you’re engaging all your senses to really react to a situation…those have to be heightened, and it takes a little while for them to come down. It’s not like a turn-it-on, turn-it-off kind of thing.
And how fast does it take to turn it on, for that matter?
“We run around here, we sign stuff, we talk to media, we do stuff with fans and sponsors and stuff. But when I crawl in that car and I’m strapped in and my guys are pulling me down tight, that’s when it doesn’t matter what’s going on around me. That’s when I really start to get focused on the racecar and the job at hand. And I start talking to myself and I tell myself what I want to happen and how I want to drive the car,” Hagan said. “You know — you say it and you see it. You think it, you feel it. It becomes existing. For me, once I pull down into the car, I feel like you become part of it. And you start to get that mentality of like all your senses are more heightened.”
Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it really doesn’t.
Everybody said, ‘Aw, you little baby, sitting over there in the corner, crying.’ But people that understand competition, they understand what that feels like, to have it ripped away from you when you’ve worked at something all year long.
“Everybody says you have to learn to lose well, and we lose more than we win. I’ve been able to win three championships, but nobody’s a good loser,” Hagan said.” We put everything on the line out here, and I’m not a good loser, because I have 10 other guys that depend on me for their bread and butter. If we don’t go rounds, they don’t make bonus. If we don’t win races, they don’t get trophies. That’s the only thing they have. I get to go back home and I’m at my farm and I’ve got several other businesses and my family and all this other stuff going on, but this is it for these guys.
“So when I come back [after] the worst of situations everybody says, ‘You’re not scared of anything.’ You know what scares me the most is looking at these guys in the eyes and know that I let them down. That rips my heart out of my chest. To look at these guys and see disappointment in their face, that was what drives me to be better on the starting line, drives me to be better as a driver, to work on my craft and hone my skills, because I don’t want to disappoint these guys,” he said.
“And there’s a lot of money involved. There’s a lot of sponsors involved in this deal,” he said.
Besides, Hagan said, “I’ve always tried to take it to that next level – always. And even though I’m a three-time champion, there’s still stuff I’ve learned from every run. And it’s just one of those things where I can be a better driver the more laps I get.”
Hagan wears longevity as a badge of honor.
“I’m 38 years old,” he said, “and most competitive athletes, they’re done at 25. And I’m still out here in the pinnacle of the sport and still able to compete on a national level with other drivers – and get paid to do what I love to do. So that’s super-impressive to me, knowing our sport is as physical as it is. Everybody thinks that you don’t have to be in shape to drive one these things. But we pull close to 6 G’s on a run and almost negative-7 G’s when the parachutes come out and. God bless John Force [at age 72]. I don’t know how he does it, but he does it.
“It’s just very demanding. The heat – you’re just soaked after every run. And the mentality and your adrenaline…it’s better to have your energy up but not over-center, up enough to where you’re not too relaxed, either. There’s a bottom line of being in the zone, and then when you get in the zone, everything else slows down for you. This racecar slows down for me on the run. Once I hit that pedal and I start to make that run, everything becomes slow mode,” he said.
“Your mind will get acclimated to the G-force and the speed. It probably took me 100 runs for things to really slow down. But the first couple of runs I ever made, I went down there and I’m like, ‘How did I get here?’ I had no idea,” Hagan said. “I mean, I saw some orange stuff come by me. And that was the [timing] cones. And I got out of the racecar and the [track worker] was like, ‘You good?’ I’m like, ‘You tell me. I don’t know how I got here.’”
Hagan has desired to master the mentality of racing, and he puts stock in a book titled “Mind Gym,” by Gary Mack. Hagan said, “He worked with so many competitive athletes in so many different sports on so many different levels. And it was just a great read for me. Your mind is kind of like a computer. You tell yourself positive things, positive things happen.” He is known for his fit physique but said he has been known to concentrate on “working on my mental game more than my physical game.” He said, “Most competitive athletes are all gifted athletes. What separates them from being great and just being another athlete is their mindset. A lot of it is positive energy. Tell yourself just what you want to happen: You see it, you think if you hear it, you feel it, and you do it.”
Hagan was criticized at the end of his second Funny Car season, when he thought he would win the championship but instead it went to John Force. “I just had to show up and go one round, I think it was, and I won a world championship…my second year driving,” Hagan recalled. “And in my mind, I had already won it. And when it didn’t happen, it was devastating to me. Everybody said, ‘Aw, you little baby, sitting over there in the corner, crying.’ But people that understand competition, they understand what that feels like, to have it ripped away from you when you’ve worked at something all year long. I grew a lot from that, but like anybody that says, ‘You’re just pouting’ probably has never been a very competitive person in their life. It’s tough.
“But the next year we came back and won the championship, and with my first two championships, we runnered-up the year before both of them. So it was physically exhausting and draining to runner-up and then come back and work and you work harder in the offseason and make sure everything’s going right and come back and win them again,” he said.
Hagan has had scary moments in his Pro Mod car and in his Funny Car, although he said he truly believes these cars, with state-of-the-art safety devices, “are relatively safe.” He said, for example, “Before we had hand shields, I had one time when I thought I lost some fingers, because it was such a big boom. They were just so numb from the explosion. I threw my gloves off, and I could count to 10 and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ but I’d split my head open. When it booms, it’ll lift the car up off the ground. The back end does. And when the rear end set back down, when the parachutes came out, my head rotated inside of my helmet and my, my viewport on my helmet split my eyebrows open. It was like ‘Bam!” I got blood squirting all over my visor. You can’t feel your hands, and you don’t know what’s going on. That was probably one of my worst experiences.
We put everything on the line out here, and I’m not a good loser, because I have 10 other guys that depend on me for their bread and butter. If we don’t go rounds, they don’t make bonus. If we don’t win races, they don’t get trophies.
“My absolute worst experience was one of my first races in IHRA…I didn’t pull the pumps on and I hung all eight rods out of it. And I had one of the biggest fires I ever had in my life. And I panicked. Honest to God, I thought I was going to die. And I started taking in all this smoke, my legs were getting hot, and I was getting blisters on my legs and my hands were hot. I was just freaking out. I hadn’t even unbuckled, and I was trying to jump out and the car was still probably running 200 miles per hour. You see people in a skyscraper and you say, ‘Why would that person jump to their death?’ But when you’re in that fire and it’s so hot, you want out. Your natural instinct is to get out,” Hagan said.
“So that really taught me a lot,” he said.” And one of my first fires like that, I had to hold my breath. I had to calm down. I had to get the car stopped. I had to get unbuckled, you know, all those things. But when you’re freaking out and you’re panicking, you’re scared to death. And it really, truly crossed my mind: ‘I’m going to die.’” Now, he said he tells himself, “You got to get yourself out of this situation. Nobody else is going to. But nobody can teach you that. You have to go through those experiences. And after I went through that, I know a lot better. I’m in a lot better situation: ‘All right. It’s on fire. I need to hold my breath. I need to get this thing over [to a stop].”
He said, ‘We’re here to put on a show. We’re here to be safe. I love NHRA and what they’re doing, and I’ll support any decisions they make. But as a driver, I want to go faster.”
And oh, that sensation of a beautiful run is almost indescribable. But Hagan did a fantastic job. These cars, he said, “are really fast. They float. They’re on that edge of coming loose but they’re still hooked up. And a lot of times when they’re stuck and glued in, it’s runnin’ out through there and it’s a decent run. It’s on that edge and it’s washin’ hard, exploding a little bit. If you make a big correction in there, you know you’re going to smoke the tires. You’re making corrections but you’re not making too many corrections, and it’s up on the tire and it’s floating and it’s loose and it’s fast. Those are when you know, ‘I’m really laying a number down.’”