A refuge from the race
CHRISTIANSBURG — Matt Hagan can tell you exactly what it’s like to go more than 300 mph in a race car.
But the 2011 NHRA Funny Car champion would most likely rather talk about what’s it like to pull 3 mph on a tractor.
When he’s not blazing down the 1,000-foot track in mere seconds, the 30-year-old Auburn High School graduate is busy mending fences, cutting fields and tending to, what is at times, more than 500 head of cattle on his 500-acre Christiansburg farm.
For Hagan, farming is part business, part therapy, a lot of work and all fun.
“It’s my yin and my yang, man,” Hagan said. “What we do is such an adrenaline-driven sport. It’s so fast-paced. … To come out here and putter around on the tractor at 20 miles an hour or cut hay at 7 miles an hour, you know, it’s just nice.”
This is no simple hobby for Hagan. For as many miles as he has logged in a 10,000-horsepower car on tracks around the country, he has likely logged many more on his 6170R John Deere on farms around the New River Valley.
Hagan said he was no stranger to farming while growing up, so when he came across the 500-acre lot off Virginia 600 a little more than five years ago, he decided to jump at the chance to begin his farming career.
“It’s just one of those things where you see some opportunity, … and now we can sit back and enjoy it,” he said.
Along with the Christiansburg cattle farm — where he and his wife and two children are building a house — Hagan also manages a 100-acre lot in Floyd and leases close to 400 other acres of land he primarily uses for growing hay, and he’s currently searching for more land to farm.
Hagan admitted running such a large operation comes with plenty of challenges, especially with the hectic travel schedule of a professional drag racer.
“It’s really tough. I was gone 32 weekends last year,” he said.
It’s such times when Hagan said he leans on the help of a few people he feels blessed to have in his corner. One of whom is Richard Dowdy, who takes over the role of primary caretaker in Hagan’s absence.
Hagan said that when he is home, he tries to give Dowdy time off, so they rarely run into each other on the farm. Instead, they most often communicate using a white board set up in the barn, creating to-do lists for each other and checking them off as completed.
Dowdy, who lives about a mile from the farm, said that although it’s Hagan’s farm, the owner has an attitude far from boss-like.
“He’ll do anything that has to be done,” Dowdy said. “He ain’t afraid to do anything. When we’re working cattle, he’s right there at the head chute.”
Hagan’s tasks not only include the general upkeep of the farm but also much of the doctoring of his herd. Hagan said it’s extremely important to keep his cattle healthy, not only for profit, but because of where they end up.
“What we’re doing out here is raising people’s food, so it’s real important to us to work real close with our vet … to make sure we’re doing everything we can to provide a product that’s going to be real safe for everyone,” Hagan said.
The vet, John Walls of Bold Springs Veterinarian Service in Pearisburg, said he often views himself as a consultant for local farmers, teaching many of them how to perform procedures on their own. He said this approach works well with Hagan’s hands-on attitude.
“Matt likes to get involved. He’s always willing to learn to do things himself,” Walls said.
As much as farming has become a profitable business for Hagan, it has also become his public persona around the track. Fans often want to chat with him more about farming than racing.
“Everybody can relate to it,” Hagan said. “Either their family farms, or they farm, or they know somebody that does. It’s just one of those things where people just see you as a regular person.”
Giving his fans that access to the “regular person” is something Hagan has recently ventured into via social media networks, such as Twitter and Facebook.
With more than 6,000 followers as of Friday on Twitter, Hagan said he again finds the conversation to center far more on farming. While that generally includes the highs of farming, such as photos of rolling hills and cute calves, he said he doesn’t shy away from sharing the lows, as well.
“Everyone likes to see it as being sunshine, milk and honey out here all the time, but it’s just not sometimes,” Hagan said.
One such low came recently when he shared the loss of a calf with his followers, who reached out to him with support and encouragement.
“It’s one of those things where you’re going to have those down moments. … A lot of stuff’s out of your control,” Hagan said.
Hagan’s 2012 racing season was also filled with a downside he said he felt like was out of his control.
After finishing runner-up in the 2010 season and claiming his first NHRA Funny Car title in 2011, Hagan’s team struggled and fell short of qualifying for the series’ six-race postseason by seven points and finished the year in 11th place.
“I’ve never felt so helpless in my life,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where you just know no matter what you do, you don’t feel like you can change anything, and that’s just an awful feeling to go through.”
Hagan said the season started slow, and by the time team owner Don Schumacher and crew chief Tommy Delago made the decision to change their racing combinations to more closely resemble their successful teammates, it was too late to salvage the year.
Since season’s end, however, many changes have come to the team.
In November, Delago officially left Don Schumacher Racing to join Kalitta Motorsports. Don Schumacher Racing announced on Feb. 1 that the position would be filled by Dickie Venables, who served as crew chief for Tony Pedregon and Pedregon Racing’s Funny Car when they won the 2007 championship.
The rest of Hagan’s Mopar/Rocky Boots crew will also include a few new faces this season, as the last-second re-hiring of driver and teammate Spencer Massey caused a shuffling of crew members among Schumacher’s seven teams.
Massey was officially released from the team at the end of the 2012 season due to a lack of funding. But on Feb. 2, the team announced that the financial situation had changed and Massey would have a ride. The move resulted in switching some crew members from Hagan’s to Massey’s team, leaving vacant jobs to be filled by new hires.
With less than a week until Thursday’s season opener, the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., Hagan said the changes have left him a little uncertain of what to expect.
“I’m rolling into our first points race without a lap on the car, with a new team. … Just being realistic, I don’t know how you can say you’re 100 percent confident, because I’m not,” Hagan said. “Once we get down to Pomona, make some laps going down the race track and them boys prove that the car’s going to go down the race track, then I’ll say ‘OK, let’s bring it home.’ ”
While uncertainty looms at the beginning of the season, Hagan said that was the nature of the racing business.
“It’s kind of like being a manic depressant,” he said. “The highs are high, and the lows are lows. There’s not a lot of in between.”
That uncertainly also looms over the career of a driver, which is something Hagan said he was well aware of.
“I hope it lasts 10 years. I hope it lasts 20 years. But it might last but another year or two, so you don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “I do know I’m enjoying it, and I’m making the best out of what I have here.”
No matter how each race or even the season pans out for Hagan, one thing he is certain of is where he plans to take refuge, celebrate or recover.
“I don’t know what it is about the land when you’re farming it. … You just get a peace of mind out here, and to me it’s irreplaceable,” Hagan said.
“I think I’ll farm until the day I die.”
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