‘Anytime we can make this more like WWE, we need to do that,’ Matt Hagan says.
Funny Car rival Tasca aiming to give fans at this weekend’s season finale ‘an epic Pomona’.
Hight still haunted by Cruz Pedregon’s ‘November Surprise’
By its very structure, the NHRA doesn’t see cars routinely banging and bumping on the race course. But that doesn’t mean that straightline drivers don’t fantasize about sticking a wheel in a competitor.
Funny Car points leader Matt Hagan said he has.
The three-time champion has expressed a number of times that the experience of losing the chance for his first championship to John Force in 2010 “ripped my heart out” but that from it “I grew a lot as a person. I grew a lot as a man. I grew a lot as a racer.”
However, he hasn’t forgotten that Bob Tasca III—his closest rival for the 2023 crown this weekend at the season-ending In-N-Out Burger Finals at California’s In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip—spoiled his quest for that first championship. “I had to show up and win two rounds, and Force had to win the race,” he remembered. Force won the race, but Tasca took out Hagan in the first round, then celebrated that he had been a spoiler for Force, a Ford colleague at the time.
“Every time I run Bob, I want to put him in the wall,” Hagan said during an NHRA-initiated conference call Monday. Laughing, he said, “But no, you can’t do that, you know what I mean? But it is big match-ups. These are all throwdown deals.”
NHRA Funny Car Standings
Drivers still in contention with 1 race weekend remaining:
Matt Hagan 2,522
Bob Tasca -15 points
Robert Hight -17
Ron Capps -139
Points Up for Grabs at In-N-Out-Burger NHRA Finals
Event Winner: 150 points
Event Winner: 120
Third-Round Loser: 90
Second-Round Loser: 60
Third-Round Loser: 30
Any driver who enters, makes at least one qualifing attempt: 15
Bonus points for qualifying
Low Elapsed Time (ET) in each of four qualifying sessions: 4
Second-lowest ET in each session: 3
Third-lowest ET in each session: 2
Fourth-lowest ET in each session: 1
So Hagan won’t be acting out against Tasca, who’s just 15 points behind him in second place and seeking his first championship in a manufacturer’s showdown. Hagan drives a Dodge, Tasca a Ford, and Hight—who’s only 17 points off the pace—a Chevrolet.
But Hagan said the entertainment value is paramount to the sport’s longevity.
“Anytime we can make this more like WWE, we need to do that, because we have an amazing platform. I feel like it gets under-exposed and underrated and kind of shoved down to the side a little bit. There’s a lot of money spent out here to entertain and impress sponsors and bring fans in. We can all do a better job, including us a drivers, to hype it up a little bit more and put on a show,” he said.
“The first time I had a really, really bad explosion and was on fire, my helmet had rotated on my head and I split my eyebrows open. I was bleeding everywhere. Force came over and said, ‘Hey, kid, you okay?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir. I’m all right. That sucked, man. It’s a handful.’ He said, ‘Next time, roll around on the ground and act like you’re on fire. You’ll get a little more TV time like that.’ He gets it. You can say what you want about Force, but he gets it,” Hagan said. “And that’s what we need to do as showmen, because we’re all out here being showmen.
“We all want to win the big trophy. But you’ve got to remember: these folks, they’ve saved all year to come out and camp out and be a part of this. That’s why I try really hard to stand at the ropes, even though I’m tired (and) I’m sweaty. I’ve packed parachutes and I’m ready to go back into the trailer. You stand out there and sign those autographs,” he said, “because you know those folks really care about what you’re doing.”
Then in a surprising, puzzling, and apparently misinformed shot at the media, with whom he has enjoyed a career-long camaraderie, Hagan said, “Every time I win, the media get pissed at me because I don’t go up there (to the press room) and get their quotes in real quick. I stand down there until the last person that wants to take a picture with that Wally (statue) and hold it has left.
"They try to drag me up there. For someone to never have touched a Wally and they take a picture with it and they tag you with it, that’s the kind of stuff we’ve got to be doing. I tell my public relations rep—I say all the time—‘If they want my quote, they can get their ass down here and out of their A.C. (air-conditioned) box they’ve been in all day long and come down and get a quote. That’s just how I feel about stuff.”
For the record, Tasca said, “I don’t hate Matt or Robert. I have the ultimate respect. My first car I ever drove, Robert built it. He created his own assassin with my Alcohol Funny Car. It’s not like NASCAR. We don’t hit each other. Matt may want to put me in the wall, but we don’t do that in drag racing.
“The hype is we’re within a round. If we all run to our potential, there’s a high probability you’re going to see two of the three of us potentially in the final round, where all the chips are on one race. That would be an epic ending to the season. Will it happen? I don’t know. I wouldn’t bet against it. It’s going to be what the NHRA and all the fans signed up for. We (the contenders) are going to have the sleepless nights, and the fans are going to get what they paid for: an epic Pomona, with three of the top cars in the country going head to head, with kind of a winner-take-all strategy.”
And Hagan said he, Hight, and Tasca “know you’re capable of doing it... but it has to be your day, too. There’s some mornings you wake up and you go, ‘It just feels right.’ And there are other mornings you can’t tie your shoes right and you’re like, ‘Damn – I’ve tied these three times.”
Hight understood. He said, “Every day’s different. Some ays are better than others. All we can hope for is that we got three good days left in us and (we) do the best we can.
“We can’t really focus on each other. You look at what happened last year,” Hight said, referring to Ron Capps’ championship margin of three points. Hight lost to Tasca in the quarterfinals, and ninth-place Cruz Pedregon won the race. “We came in and we were looking at all the points scenarios. And Cruz Pedregon comes from nowhere and screws everything up – all the points, everything. So we’ve got to watch the guys we’re racing first round. It’s usually beating yourselves.”
Hagan said, “I feel like I’m in a knife fight in a phone booth with these two guys.”
Shot back Tasca, “If we’re in a phone booth and you have the knife, Robert and I are screwed.”
Hagan laughed and replied, “It’s going to be tough. But that’s what the fans want. And damn, that’s what they’re getting.”