An interview with: Spencer Massey, Matt Hagan and Hector Arana, Jr.
THE MODERATOR: I'd like to welcome the media to this teleconference call for the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. I'm Zak Elcock with NHRA media relations. This call is to discuss the first three races of the NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship and preview the final three races of the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle season.
The drivers that will be participating on the call today are some that have capitalized on their success in the first three rounds of the Countdown. On the call today will be Top Fuel points leader Spencer Massey, Funny Car driver Matt Hagan, and Hector Arana, Jr.
We'll have a brief introduction of each driver, then open it up for questions from the media.
We'll begin our call with Hector Arana, Jr. In the highly competitive class of Pro Stock Motorcycle, rookie riders can be lost in the shuffle of success. That's not the case for Hector Arana, Jr. After winning the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the final race of the regular season, Arana Jr. has come out strong in the Countdown boasting the runner-up finish at the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals in Dallas, then follows it up one week later with the number one qualifier and the race win at the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals in Redding, Pennsylvania.
Hector now sits second in the points standings, 35 points behind leader Eddie Krawiec. Hector is also competing for the Auto Club Road to the Future award.
Hector, you have a chance to do what (indiscernible) did last year, win your first world title and Rookie of the Year honors in the same season. How much would it mean for you to do so?
HECTOR ARANA, JR.: It would mean everything in the world. It would be a dream come true. It would be my goal for this career. Just coming into it, it's everything I wanted to do, get Rookie of the Year and of course the championship.
So just right now we're on the right track.
THE MODERATOR: Our next driver on the call is Funny Car driver Matt Hagan. After remaining somewhat quiet during the regular season, Matt along with his Die Hard Dodge Charger team has come out strong in the Countdown to the Championship. At the first race of the Countdown, Hagan not only raced to his first win of the season but made NHRA history to be the first driver to reach the three-second mark. His national 3.955 seconds gave the driver a 20-point bonus, which combined with his win in Charlotte, second-round finishes in Dallas and Redding, have given Matt the points lead heading into the final three races of the season.
Matt, you have the lead, but by only two points over Mike Neff. How big would it be for you to win the World Championship the same year you make the first three-second run?
MATT HAGAN: Well, obviously that's the goal out here is to win. We're trying very hard to make that happen. We tried very hard last year. I think things don't always go your way. You have to learn from that and move forward.
I'm just really glad to be back in this hunt. To have the opportunity to come out here and mix it up with these guys, phenomenal racecars, phenomenal drivers, to be able to say we're still battling out with these guys is a pretty neat thing for me.
THE MODERATOR: We'll now turn to our final driver on the call, Spencer Massey. If there was ever a driver that started out the Countdown on fire, it would be Spencer. In the past three races of the Countdown, Spencer has had a final round appearance in each one. After taking the points lead from teammate Antron Brown after his Dallas performance, Massey came out at the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals in Redding and raced to his fourth win of the season. He now holds a 65-point lead over second place Brown heading into the final three races.
Spencer, after sitting out almost all of the 2010 season and wondering if you'd ever drive again, how great would it be to win the World Championship this first year with Don Schumacher Racing?
SPENCER MASSEY: It would simply be amazing. It would be my dream of what I always wanted, much less after sitting out last year and not really racing with the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. Don Schumacher gave me a great opportunity, and so did FRAM. We started off the season not really, really great but not terrible either. We have steadily gotten better with the runs without smoking the tires, and now starting the Countdown, having consistency going down the racetrack, turning on the win lights. We might not be the fastest, but we're consistent and we're along with the hunt every round.
My main thing is, hey, let's not worry about setting the national record, let's not worry about the points, let's worry about round wins. If that comes, that comes with a race win, and that happens with points, and hopefully that means a championship.
Keep my fingers crossed. I'm loving life. Three races to go. I'm excited.
THE MODERATOR: We'll now open it up for questions from the media.
Q. Spencer, I'm not sure of the entire genesis of this. When the ride went away in '09, last season did you have some doubts your career would ever get going again or were you talking to Don all along?
SPENCER MASSEY: I always had a little bit of doubts. I didn't want to be what's called a flash in the pan, one guy to come out for a year or so and you never hear from him again.
I've been around this sport working on racecars, smelling nitro since I was a little kid. I'm definitely never going away, whether I'm driving or not.
But it was a huge deal last year when we lost the sponsorship with Don Prudhomme Racing. I always stayed out trying to hit up every race I could, hang out, talk with team owners like Don Schumacher. I spoke with him a little last year, but never about driving the FRAM car. If anything came about, I'd love to drive for you. He said, If anything ever came up, I'd be more than happy to have you drive. Things happened the way they happened and here I am sitting in the FRAM car. I kept my head up, stayed positive.
Like I said, if you're out of sight, you're out of mind. I tried to keep my face out there and it paid off. I got a great spot with Don Schumacher Racing with that FRAM car it's one of the best hotrods in the country right now.
Q. When you got the call from Don, how many cartwheels did you do?
SPENCER MASSEY: I didn't believe it until I first hit the gas in West Palm Beach testing my first time just because you never know.
But it was simply amazing. I've been at the right place at the right time numerous amount of times, being from Paul Smith, to Don Prudhomme to Don Schumacher. It's amazing. I always say I'm dreaming, I'm living the dream. I don't want to wake up, so don't pinch me. It's simply amazing to have the opportunities I've had. Numerous amount of cartwheels and jumping jacks, that's for sure.
Q. You didn't allow yourself to imagine you'd be in this position today, did you?
SPENCER MASSEY: Yes and no. I looked forward once we started the season and said this is where Don Schumacher and Phil and Todd, my crew chiefs, would expect us to be. I looked at it saying, Hey, there's a possibility we could be because this car is a championship-caliber team with the crew guys, crew chiefs, the racecar itself, it's awesome. That just left it up to me to not mess up, to get up there and do my job and have fun.
That's what we do over here on the DSR team. We get up there, we have fun, but most importantly we're serious, focused, do our job, try to do it the same every time, turn win lights on at the same time.
Q. Are you somewhat surprised or maybe shocked that your teammate Tony hasn't won this season?
SPENCER MASSEY: You know, I really am, yeah. Tony and the entire team with Mike Green.
Q. Matt, could you tell us, your experience last year, your near miss for the championship, has going through that disappointment made the Countdown this year any more easier to deal with the pressure?
MATT HAGAN: Well, absolutely. I think that you learn from your lessons you've gone through in life. I got taught a lot of life lessons there along the way.
For me, you know, you come in the points lead last year, you feel like all you have to do is go a couple rounds, you sew up a championship. The Die Hard guys that have been working hard and supporting us. You get out there, when things don't go your way that day, you realize it's not over till it's over.
This year when they hand the trophies out at the end of the year, I think that's when we'll worry about whether we did a good enough job or not.
It's so easy to put pressure on yourself out there. Just being there once in the mix of things, it really has helped me. I'm taking it all in. I got a pretty big smile on my face when I sit in that car because I know this Die Hard hotrod has the potential to go out and set records, to be a really competitive car out here and win races. I think everything kind of takes care of itself when you have confidence like that.
Q. As a result of that experience last year, Matt, are you and Tommy doing anything differently or make it business as usual as much as possible?
MATT HAGAN: Obviously we want it to be business as usual. When we started the Countdown, we talked and said, Look, if we change anything than what we've been doing all year long, we've probably been doing something wrong during the regular season. There's a lot of late nights for those guys at the shop, a lot of R&D stuff back there at DSR. We've definitely had some different combinations in this racecar.
To be able to make the Countdown and run with these guys with something totally new, kind of out there, says a lot for our team to be able to keep our head above water with the whole new combination.
We're kind of back to our old hotrod that we set some records with, won some races with. That builds some confidence, takes another variable out of it. We'd like to think it's racing as usual, but we know everything counts out here.
Q. Matt, analyzing or sizing up Mike Neff as your main competitor, does your respect for him as a competitor increase by the fact that he's not only driving but he's also tuning his own car?
MATT HAGAN: I have so much respect for Mike. Mike has a championship under his belt with Gary, then he's got one with Force. It's one of those things where the guy has won the championship. Tuners win a lot of these races out here. We try not to mess things up. If we do our job and the car runs the way it's supposed, the tuners have a lot of the variables and pressure to deal with.
My respect for Mike Neff is huge. I think he's doing a heck of a job out there. I call him Superman. He's doing everything but building the racecars himself. How do you not respect a guy like that? We battled it out with him, he tuned John to that championship, edged us out there. I think the guy's got it together. He has what it takes. Hopefully we can put a pretty good fight on right here.
Q. Hector, this is the first time that the bikes are going to be running at Firebird. One of the things you deal with this season is inexperience at least at some of the tracks as a rookie. The fact that none of the bike drivers have ever run there before, do you think that equalizing the situation for you a little bit more at Firebird?
HECTOR ARANA, JR.: I mean, of course, 'cause I haven't had any experience at any of these tracks. This is my rookie year. I've really just started racing this year. So all these tracks are new to me. This will hopefully level that out a little bit.
Any of these tracks I go to, my dad has been racing at them for years, so I already have the data. We walk the tracks. He goes over each track and tells me, Okay, there's a bump here, this lane will take you to the wall, center line, just ride the groove out. My dad has been behind me a lot of the way and he's helped me to be able to race these tracks without having any issues.
Q. But you literally have no information about Firebird, do you, because the bikes have never run there before?
HECTOR ARANA, JR.: Right. We don't have a tune-up or any data to go look up from previous years. So when we get there, it's going to be an even playing field for everybody. Hopefully we can stay on top of our game and be the first ones to nail that tune-up for the track and stay on top.
Q. Could I get your opinion now especially of the Countdown playoff system. Can you explain the recent surge that all three of your teams have done in the latter part of the season.
SPENCER MASSEY: The success started throughout the year with just being consistent. Our car started off with us going to West Palm Beach with me getting in the racecar straight from Pomona. It started off with running a string of 3.70s with good aero in West Palm Beach. Then we started Pomona, started getting back in the groove of being consistent. We had a string of 40 runs throughout the summer.
Now in the Countdown it's starting to become the cool conditions again. That's where we're able to run well. Maple Grove ran very well, and Charlotte because it was cool. Dallas was very hot. Just like it was hot in Dallas, we're going to go to Phoenix, extremely hot there, too.
It's just one of those things where you have to fight the conditions. There's one things you can say, it's Todd and Mike, they know how to get the car down on the racetrack, whether it be 95 degrees or a 135 degree track temp or a 61 degree track temp. It's amazing they have a handle and control on the car. Hopefully they can keep it going for three more races. We're excited. We're ready to get to Pomona and see what the situation is going to be.
MATT HAGAN: As far as our stance on the deal, Tommy, myself and Glen, the assistant crew chief, have been playing a chess game. This move will affect this move. We've had a couple different combinations in the car this year. We've been trying to learn in cool and hot weather conditions as well.
For us, it's obviously been playing chess. It's one of those things where Tommy has been very methodical about the way he's approached this season, especially after what he learned last year. For me, I think we've shown progress when we get into the Countdown.
Obviously the way the chase is, it gives everybody an opportunity. Mike Neff would probably be running away with this thing right now. Here lately we've been able to make 70 points up on the guy the last three races, which is huge. He started with a 70-point lead.
For the Countdown, it helps these guys, gives you the opportunity to try some things during the year, since we're only allowed four test days. We knew the Die Hard car was going to be running well with these cooler conditions. Tommy has had to make these chess moves to put ourselves in position to be a contender again. In my book he's doing everything right that we need to do to make sure that we're right out here in the hunt. The Countdown allows us to do that.
HECTOR ARANA, JR.: For us, the new system, the Countdown, it's worked out for us greatly. It allows all the teams to get everything together and get everything aligned and be able to make the Countdown.
There's some drivers that have a hot streak, win the first couple races, get a big advantage, it makes it almost impossible to catch up to them if you start off slow.
It's really worked out to my favor, being a rookie. We started off slow. We had a brand-new bike. I didn't have any experience. So it's allowed me to catch up and make the top 10 Countdown. Now that we've made this Countdown, we've got the bike consistent. We've got a lot of horsepower. She goes right down the track.
Our main goal, the points are in the back of our head, but we're not looking at the points, we're not stressing that. If we worry about the points, it's going to bite us in the butt. We're just focusing on winning rounds, qualifying good, just going down the track and making good passes every time.
Q. The added pressure, does it feel different or is it normal?
SPENCER MASSEY: The pressure for myself, being in Top Fuel, there's tons of pressure with Worsham, with Dixon, with Antron and Tony. He's still in the hunt as well. It's a lot of pressure. It's the Countdown.
I try to tell myself to do the same job every time I get up there. We all know it's hard to do that. It's for everything in the world, and our world is drag racing. It's life-or-death situation when you roll up to the starting line for the championship teams. It's what we live and breathe for all season long, it's for this, for that moment, that instant, that thousandth of a second that you could be late or have a good light or be one thousandth of a second slow at the top end. It's drag racing. It's quite amazing.
MATT HAGAN: As far as my take on it, leading the points all the way up until the last day last year, being in the points again, pressure is what you make it. You obviously practice, you prepare, you do everything that you can do to go up there and make sure that you do everything right.
A lot of times the situation is out of your control. John said it last year when he had a parts failure there and we took over the points lead. He said some things are just up to fate. Sometimes they are.
I really look at it as I prepared, I've practiced, I'm mentally and physically in shape, I've done everything I can do. When you sit in that car, it's time to go have fun.
Obviously when I started driving one of these racecars, my adrenaline used to get up just to sit in it. Man, what is this car going to do to me? Now my adrenaline gets up because I want to beat the guy beside me, not so much driving the racecar.
It's one of those things where over time as you make more laps in these cars you become more comfortable and that builds confidence in yourself, making the right decisions, doing the right things. We have a lot of great drivers that are in this Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock bike class. It's always going to be a fierce competition. It's good to be in the thick of it with everybody. You have to rely on yourself that you've done everything you're supposed to to make it happen for yourself.
HECTOR ARANA, JR.: Matt Hagan and Spencer Massey, you put out a lot of good points. The pressure is what you make it. All I can do is to make sure that I'm mentally prepared, physically prepared, and that the bike, everything is ready to go on the bike. We overlook everything on the bike, make sure there's nothing that can go wrong as far as we can help. All we can do is be consistent and be prepared.
It's fate. I'm just glad to be in this Countdown, to be able to have the chance to go for this championship. To be doing as well as I'm doing is the greatest feeling in the world. I have to thank Force, Lucas and Charlotte for (indiscernible). They're the ones that came to me. It is a lot of pressure, but we don't think of it as we got to win this championship, we just think of it as going out there, winning races, doing our best every time.
As long as we keep doing that, hopefully this championship can come to us. But there's a lot of great drivers out there, especially for the Pro Stock bike class, it's really tight in points. Just losing a round, I can drop down to third or fourth place. We just got to stay on top of our game, just do everything consistent the same every time and hope for the best.
Q. These first three races, do you kind of look back on them now as wild cards when you look at how things have changed, the weather conditions, all that? Does this break kind of give you a chance to prepare for the stretch that will really kind of determine things, warmer weather, that sort of thing?
MATT HAGAN: I think as far as the first three races have really helped us prepare for the next three races. We just came out of Dallas, which is hot. We're going back into Phoenix. Redding was cool. We have Vegas that I think will be cool weather conditions, mediocre kind of thing. Pomona is always usually cool. You're going to have some jackets on there.
What you learned from the last three races with the setup and the combination you're going to run in the Countdown I think will really play into hand for the last three. It's been a learning experience. I know my crew chief has definitely taken a lot of notes on this hot weather stuff and some cool weather stuff. If you can take that and pull from it, obviously learn from it to better these next three races.
I think sometimes you might see some cooler conditions. When we started off in Pomona the beginning of this year, there was an inch of ice they were clearing off the track. Pomona gets the opportunity to get cool and it can get hot during the day. It's pretty tricky. You'll have to kind of pull from your notes and make things happen.
I don't know if it's so much a wild card as it is you just take those three races, learn from them, apply them to the next three.
SPENCER MASSEY: I have to agree with you, Matt. You take the data of the races we went to. The last three races we've seen from one extreme to the other. Even going back to Indy, Indy was cool at the beginning of the weekend, then hot at the end. Charlotte was cold, Dallas hot. Maple Grove cold. Phoenix is going to be hot. We have a break before Maple Grove.
Personally myself, I wish we didn't have a weekend off, I'd just rather get after it and continue on with the roll. Even though I can't be out there running the Top Fuel car, I am going to go to a division four race and help out with (indiscernible) team that I used to drive for.
Myself, I love drag racing, I want to stay out on the road. Phil and Todd, they were talking yesterday about how different all three places we have been and where we're going to be going.
Right now we have all the knobs turned in as much as we can running in Maple Grove. We had the best conditions. The track was killer. Couldn't have made a better racetrack to give me more power. Now we're going to go to Phoenix and have to turn all our knobs the complete opposite way.
That's why the tuners make the big bucks, but they know exactly what they're doing. They have the data, go back through and look at their notes, punch the numbers in, get the car down to a fast time. Hopefully they'll lower the qualifying and be fast for the weekend.
It's one of those things where you give the crew chiefs the job to do and hopefully they do it right. They've been proving it just like Tommy has been doing it, just like Todd and Phil have been doing it. It's amazing to watch these cars go and to know there's a thousand different things to change and they change them everywhere they go.
Q. Spencer, you're 65 points up on Antron. Is this the point where maybe the information flow between teammates becomes less and less, there's more of a singular thought here to just taking care of your own stuff?
SPENCER MASSEY: Yes and no. Throughout the year we always share information from Tony's team to our team to Antron's team. It's kind of funny. I haven't really thought about it like that. I'm sure it's a little bit less. We always help each other out. If there's parts, a tool, somebody needs something, we're teammates. That's how DSR works.
Also, whenever we roll up there, game on. Doesn't matter who we're racing. If we have to run Tony or Antron, no matter. That's why you've seen every time Tony and our FRAM cars run each other, it's been heads-up race. Same with Antron. It's quite amazing how similar those cars run but how competitive we are and how serious we are.
Yeah, I mean, I would never not pull for a DSR car, but it's the Countdown. It's no holds barred. We have friends in the pit, teammates, but when you roll up there, it doesn't matter who is in the other lane, I want to get in that FRAM car and turn the win light on.
Q. Are you confident you can get down any track now with the tune-ups that Todd and Phil have given you?
SPENCER MASSEY: Yeah, it does help with big confidence knowing that I have Todd and Phil on my side. My entire crew, all the FRAM boys, they know exactly their job. They do it perfect. They're a hundred percent. They double and triple check. They're concerned. You just see it in their eyes. They want to win just as well as Phil, Todd and myself do.
I have super confidence, just like they have confidence in me. There again, it's a Top Fuel car. You always try to position yourself, think about it, try to put yourself in a situation, What if it smokes tires, does this, what will I have to do to recover to make it the best run I can possible? You can never forget about that. Never let yourself get off guard because anything can happen. You have to prepare yourself for any situation at all times.
But confidence helps tremendously from getting up there, staging the car, cutting the light. There again, you can't forget your job, you have to do it every time the same way.
THE MODERATOR: We'd like to thank our drivers for joining us on this conference call and media around the country. We wish our drivers the best of luck in Arizona.