Champions will be crowned this weekend at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, and as the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked drivers in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship Funny Car standings, Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan’s 2019 title hopes are alive and well heading into the final event of the season.
As a front-runner throughout this year’s Countdown playoff battle, Beckman has amassed 2,448 points and trails leader Robert Hight by 46 points. In contrast, Hagan’s Countdown run got off to a rocky start, but after a tremendous comeback, which included consecutive wins, he now sits 56 points out of first. With the points-and-a-half format at play this weekend at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, both former world champions are within two rounds of potentially finishing the year as the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car world champion, and both are confident in their team’s abilities to capture championship title No. 18 for Don Schumacher Racing, the winningest team in NHRA history.
Driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat
Doug Chandler’s Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car team, led by crew chiefs Dean ‘Guido’ Antonelli and John Medlen, has been a top challenger throughout the majority of 2019. By the conclusion of the NHRA’s ‘regular season’ in Indianapolis, Beckman had been to the final round four times, and capped off the last event with a No. 1 qualifier, but had yet to visit the winner’s circle.
In NHRA Mello Yello Championship Drag Racing, a common theme among drivers is ‘peaking at the right time,’ and by starting his 2019 Countdown campaign with a victory at the MOPAR Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil in Reading, Pa., Beckman did just that, catapulting himself from fourth into the Funny Car points lead. After securing his first Wally trophy of the season, Beckman suffered a first-round loss in St. Louis but quickly rebounded with a pole and runner-up finish at the next event in Charlotte, N.C. He continued his stronghold on the Funny Car category when he reset The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s speed record and Funny Car E.T. record before posting a semifinal finish at the season’s penultimate event. The Southern California native has occupied the No. 2 spot in the Funny Car rankings throughout the last three races.
How does the added pressure of knowing your 2019 championship hopes are at stake affect you heading into Pomona versus a ‘normal’ race weekend?
“It’s pretty much business as usual for me. I’ve been keeping busy with my family, cleaning up in the garage, mailing stuff out to fans. I had a week where I almost didn’t have to think about getting strapped into a race car. Now that being said, I’ve got a ton of things that I’m responsible for at Pomona. I am participating in four different events, two Friday and two Saturday, and I’m emceeing two of them, so I’ve got to do some research, do interviews, be on the phone, make a trip up to Glendora before the race weekend, and that’s not a bad thing. It keeps me occupied, keeps me focused on something aside from the pressure of the championship.”
You’ve tasted championship-success twice before, first by winning the Super Comp championship in 2003, and then the Funny Car championship in 2012. Would a second Funny Car title top that first one?
“I’m not sure that I could ever top the first Funny Car championship I won, just like I’m not sure I could ever top the first Super Comp championship I won. The first is always going to be incredibly special and significant. That being said, to go six more years and come close a couple of times and not the seal the deal makes you realize exactly how tough it is to win a championship. When (John) Force was winning all of those championships in the late 1990s/early 2000s, even he’ll tell you he kind of took it for granted for a little while. It seemed easy to do. Well, I am firmly aware of how incredibly difficult it is to do, and to do it with the Infinite Hero cause on the side of the car would be special for so many extra reasons there. A second Funny Car championship would mean the world to me.”
When you won in 2012, you had been ranked No. 1 for the two races leading up to Pomona. How is your strategy any different when you enter the race chasing the point leader, rather than occupying the No. 1 spot?
“As far as things go when we get into Pomona, we have to do our best to optimize points starting with Q1. I think we’ve got a car that’s clearly capable of doing that. We’ve been No. 1 qualifier three times in the last six events. I think right now we’re clearly a front-runner to contend for the championship, not just in our points position, but in our performance lately. So, my job is to do my job. If we get another opportunity like we had in Vegas where we are paired up with (Robert) Hight early, we get a chance to control our own destiny. If we win the race and Robert is not in the final next to us, we win the championship. I’m not looking at Matt (Hagan) or John Force behind us because we want to finish first; we’re not trying to defend the second-place position. So, our goal right now is to maximize qualifying points, execute perfectly on race day, and hope that the ladder falls in such a way that we pair up with Robert before the final round.”
By the Numbers:
2003 Super Comp champion
2012 Funny Car world champion
2019 season statistics: One win, six final rounds, three No. 1 qualifiers
2019 Countdown statistics: One win, two final rounds, two No. 1 qualifiers
Career statistics: 323 races, 29 wins, 62 final rounds, 27 No. 1 qualifiers
Current ranking heading into Pomona: 2nd
Ranking heading into Pomona in 2012: 1st
Playoff appearances: 12
Driver of the MOPAR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody
Since 2013, Matt Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables have proven they’re a force to be reckoned with. In only their second season together, the duo won the 2014 Funny Car championship, and 28 of Hagan’s 33 career Funny Car victories were achieved with Venables calling the shots.
Once again, the Hagan-Venables tandem was dominant as they kicked off their 2019 campaign. At the second event of the season, Hagan powered his Sandvik Coromant Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat to victory and recorded a runner-up finish just three races later. After enduring an early-summer slump, Hagan and his team regained their momentum with a win in Epping, N.H., followed by another final round appearance three weeks later. Hagan embarked on his ninth career playoff run from the No. 6 spot on the Funny Car leaderboard, but after suffering a second-round loss in the opening race of the Countdown followed by a crushing first-round defeat at the very next event, the Virginia native found himself in the unfavorable ninth position. Hagan and his team knew they had dug themselves in a bit of a hole, but by the very next event, they were on their way to making what would become an impressive comeback by racing to a semifinal finish. They then solidified themselves as viable championship contenders by capturing back-to-back victories at Dallas and Las Vegas.
It’s no secret that the start of the Countdown was rough for you and your team. Is there one defining moment in the Countdown that stands out as a turning point where you realized, okay, we might still have a chance?
“Winning Dallas was definitely the shot in the arm we needed. You’re always hoping for the best, and you have that ‘never give up’ mentality. We struggled at the beginning, but it’s one of those things where the points are so close once they’re reset that it really only takes a race or two to get back in there. If we would’ve done better from the get-go, we might be leading in the points, but ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda.’ We’re happy to be in this position where we have a shot right now. The only thing we can do is control our own destiny; do the best job we can and let the points fall where they may.”
You have two championships already. What would a third mean to you? Do they lose their luster after that first one?
“Each championship is special in its own way. There’s so much to gain and so much emotion. It’s important for us to keep our sponsors happy, and for me, it’s important that I keep the team happy. It’s just a cool thing when you have a group of 10 guys, and you all share one common goal, and it takes everyone pulling their weight to achieve that goal. We’ve won four races so far this year, but winning a fifth race and the championship would be a great way to start us off next year. We want to be able to share in this moment with our partners, some have won with us before, and for others, it would be their first championship.”
You’re in a very different position now heading into the Finals than you were when you won in 2011 and 2014. During those seasons, you were a strong contender throughout the entirety of the Countdown and went into Pomona sitting in first both years. Explain the difference you feel chasing the point leader versus going in with a target on your back?
“Each season and each race is unique. There are always different challenges and circumstances, no matter the situation. I’m in a very different position than I was in 2011 and 2014, but no matter the season or situation, there will always be some sort of adversity you need to overcome in order to win it. Obviously, when you go into Pomona in first, that’s a great feeling, but unless you have a huge points lead, you really can’t breathe easy until your standing on the stage holding the big trophy, especially now with it being points-and-a-half. I’m just happy we’re in the position where we’re still in the running and have a legitimate shot at coming out on top.”
By the Numbers:
Two-time Funny Car world champion: (2011, 2014)
2019 season statistics: Four wins, six final rounds, one No. 1 qualifier
2019 Countdown statistics: Two wins, two final rounds
Career statistics: 263 races, 33 wins, 60 final rounds, 35 No. 1 qualifiers
Current ranking heading into Pomona: 3rd
Ranking heading into Pomona in 2011: 1st
Ranking heading into Pomona in 2014: 1st
Playoff appearances: nine
Don Schumacher Racing, By the Numbers
DSR championships: 17 (11 Top Fuel, five Funny Car, one Factory Stock Showdown Series)
DSR race wins: 344 (161 Top Fuel, 159 Funny Car, 18 Pro Stock Motorcycle, three Pro Stock, three Factory Stock)
Breakdown of DSR championship titles:
Top Fuel: Tony Schumacher, eight (1999, 2004-2009, 2014); Antron Brown, three (2012, 2015, 2016)
Funny Car: Matt Hagan, two (2011, 2014); Ron Capps (2016); Jack Beckman (2012); Gary Scelzi (2005)
Factory Stock Showdown Series: Leah Pritchett (2018)