In his famous poem, "If," Rudyard Kipling wrote about the challenge to "meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same."
That's what reigning Funny Car champion Matt Hagan is mastering this National Hot Rod Association season. It's not what any champion expects to encounter, but Hagan is grounded in his sense of self and his faith that he understands life comes with speed bumps. Just the same, he has to be wondering after failing to qualify for the Four-Wide Nationals at Concord, N.C.'s zMAX Dragway why he must mount a third comeback in 17 months.
Bob Tasca eliminated him on the final day of competition in 2010, and Hagan rebounded to win the championship.
He was well aware that winning the grand prize last season meant nothing once the sport reconvened at Pomona, Calif., this February. But he probably didn't imagine -- nor did anyone else -- that he would begin his 2012 campaign with three consecutive first-round losses.
After beating strong contender Mike Neff on a holeshot in the opening round at Las Vegas two weeks ago, Hagan said, "We don't have to worry about that pressure anymore. It's one of those things we needed to do. I couldn't imagine going into the next race and trying to get our first round win again. As small as that sounds, it has turned into a big thing for us.
"It just shows how hard this is to do. You just have to stay positive and keep building. That was a good block to start building on," he said, "and hopefully that gets the guys' morale up a little bit."
So Saturday night he and his Aaron's Dream Machine / Mopar Dodge Charger team surely were wondering why they have to go through another humbling experience. To make this weekend worse, Hagan had another engine explosion at zMAX Dragway that shattered his Funny Car body into countless pieces. It marked the third such incident that Hagan has had at this facility that the drag-racing world hails as its Taj Ma-haul.
Curiously, for all its -- to use a Hagan term -- "bad juju" for the cattle farmer from Southern Virginia, zMAX Dragway is where he made Funny Car history. Right there at Concord's Lane 2, Hagan recorded the only three-second pass in class history. Lane 2 is where he had spectacular explosions at the second edition of this race, just like Friday.
He's not the only one who has had some rotten luck at Concord. Jeff Arend -- who drove through Hagan's airborne debris Friday afternoon -- was the victim in a collision with Robert Hight last year. And this weekend, Blake Alexander rode out a crazy-scary, fiery pass in the first qualifying session. According to Larry Sullivan of media website Drag Race Central, Alexander's "fuel tank split and he had a big lake of fire around the car as it was sitting in the shutdown area."
In the end Saturday, Hagan and Arend were linked once again. Arend bumped Hagan from the field in the final qualifying chance with a 4.205-second pass at 297.35 mph in his Kalitta Motorsports Toyota. Hagan had one last shot at making the field, and he matched Arend's E.T. at 4.205 seconds. But Hagan lost out on speed, able to coax only a 291.13-mph effort from the Charger.
"This was just a very, very tough weekend for our Aaron's Dream Machine team here at DSR," Hagan said. "But this just makes us want to work even harder.
"I know I keep saying it, but we really have a great team here with [crew chief] Tommy DeLago, and we showed that last year. We didn't back into anything winning the championship. We've just had some bad luck to start the 2012 season.
"We're going to test here at Charlotte on Monday, and hopefully we can make six or seven laps and work hard and things will start coming around our way. Our luck can't stay like this all year. It's got to come our way. And we're going to work hard to make sure it does, starting at Houston in two weeks."
The loss to Tasca at Pomona in November 2010 seems like 100 years ago, and the three early exits were starting to seem that way, too. Undoubtedly this bleak period will be a faded memory for Hagan soon. And he will be stronger for it, despite wishing strength could come some other way.
He has demonstrated a character that surely will politely greet Triumph and pay little attention ultimately to Disaster.
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