Kevin Haskin: Matt Hagan returns after setting Funny Car records last year at HPT

Conditions led to one of the NHRA’s best days of drag racing along touted HPT strip

Word spread a quarter-century ago as if it too was fueled by nitro.


That was when the four-second and 300 mph barriers in the Funny Car division of the National Hot Rod Association were shattered. The year was 1993. The track was Heartland Park Topeka.

The length for the nitro divisions has since been shortened to 1,000 feet.

Yet in spite of changes in ownership at HPT, brief closure of the facility, and an annual date in May that often finds drivers and crews dodging rain drops, the drag strip remains as fast as any in all of motorsports.

“It’s the racing surface. It’s good. Not really bumpy,’’ said Matt Hagan, a two-time world champion in Funny Car and the defending champion in that division for the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, which begin Friday at HPT.

“Both lanes are pretty equal. Sometimes you’ll get a track that wants to suck you in or pull you out, and get you in a groove. But in Topeka, it’s a good race track because there’s not any huge issues.’’

Hagan knows.

Last year he set both ends of the Funny Car speed record with an elapsed time of 3.862 at 335.57 mph. That was on Friday. Hagan went on to win the event, which included the top five times, and nine of the top 10 speeds ever recorded in Funny Car. Brittany Force also set a Top Fuel record with an elapsed time of 3.676 on a Friday pass.

“Obviously the conditions are key,’’ Hagan said. “That overcast came in as part of a cool front, and the track was really tight.

“It’s just one of those things where all the conditions lined up the right way. We’d just come off a win in Atlanta, and the car was running good, so to roll in there to Topeka, we had a good-working race car and the conditions were just phenomenal.’’

No secrets were kept once Hagan was behind the wheel.

His crew chief, Dickie Venables, doesn’t believe in jinxing a driver. If conditions are good, Venables lets his driver know it and will even predict a fast time.

“He don’t go up there just to go up the race track with those conditions,’’ Hagan said. “He’s gonna try to make a record run. ‘’

Record passes are not entirely instinctive, though.

When a race lasts fewer than 4 seconds, it can be tough to know exactly how fast the car moved or what kind of time it clocked.

“When it’s working, you’ll know it’s on a great run,’’ Hagan acknowledged. “Now, can you tell the difference between a 3.82 and a 3.87? No, but there’s a big difference between a 3.80 and a 3 that’s in the mid-90s. You know the cars are just digging in that much more.’’

Later last year, Hagan broke his speed record with a 3.822 mph pass in his Dodge Charger competing in August at Brainerd International Raceway. The 335.57 mph time he recorded at HPT, however, still stands as a world record.

Overlooked during Hagan’s record run last year was the performance in the opposite lane at HPT.

Alexis DeJoria’s time of 3.875 made for the fastest side-by-side matchup in the history of Funny Car.

The only letdown was that the eventual Sunday marks in tougher conditions were not nearly as good.

Not that Hagan rejected the Wally trophy he received.

“I don’t look at (slower runs) as a dud in the driver’s seat. It keeps it exciting,’’ Hagan said. “Now, if we’d lost that way, it would suck. But to win that way, it’s great.’’

Testament too that racers must be ready for all conditions.

In the case of Hagan, his HPT victory in the finals over Jack Beckman, a teammate with Don Schumacher Racing, came after each driver looked to make the best out of a bad start. Hagan won the peddle-fest in 5.724 seconds and 179.04 mph.

Those are marks nitro drivers, and fans, obviously sense as quite slow.

“But when you’re out there,’’ said Hagan, “and it’s gotten hot and the (good) track conditions are going away, and people are having issues in both lanes, you’ve got to be up on the wheel and be ready to do your job and take it to the other end.

“A lot of times it takes patience to drive one of those cars and keep it in the groove, not get back on the throttle too quickly and let the car recover. Your adrenaline is going and you’re looking where (your opponent) is at.’’

Beat that rival to the finish line, in a final, and all’s well.

Especially since the records Hagan set in the earlier rounds were already in the books.

Contact Kevin Haskin at or @KevinHaskin on Twitter.



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