Author: Littlefield, Brad
Date published: July 15, 2011
The name Fred Hagen is well known in the Top Alcohol Funny Car ranks. Chicago native Fred Hagen Sr. has been drag racing since the early 1960s and reached the final round in Pro Comp at his very first NHRA event, the 1980 Winternationals. Hagen never lacked horsepower, but a national event win had eluded him during his many years in the sport.
After years of trying to get in the seat, Fred Hagen Jr., 43, took over the controls of the Dark Horse entry three years ago, and after enduring the perils of learning how to drive during a limited racing schedule, he won his first NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and national events on back-to-back days during a weekend he could only dream about.
Hagen tossed and turned for weeks in anticipation of facing 14-time world champion Frank Manzo in the final round of the Division 3 Indianapolis event that weather had postponed from its May 1 completion. The run coincided with the final session of qualifying on Saturday, and Hagen upset the champ by a 5.62 to 5.66 count.
"I know that Frank stumbled a little bit, and he probably would have got us if he was on his game, but it's good to be able to get a win against Frank no matter how you get it," said Hagen. "I could have lost first round at the national and gone home after that, and it would have been OK."
The best was yet to come for Hagen. The "dark horse" soon became the favorite after breakage took Manzo out of the event in the first round two pairs in front of Hagen, who set low e.t. of the round with a 5.568. Hagen eclipsed Manzo's qualifying time by .001-second in the second round to score low e.t. of the event with a 5.548 while defeating Tom Carter. That set up a final four in which only one remaining driver, John Bojec, had a previous national event win.
Hagen ran a 5.57 in the semifinals while drawing his second straight foul, this one by Lou Sgro. That set up a final-round contest between Hagen and Todd Veney, two second-generation drivers whose parents raced each other countless times in the Midwest during the 1980s.
"Making it to the final against Todd was really cool," said Hagen. "My dad and Todd's dad raced each other a lot back in the day, and they were both on the starting line. I'm a big fan of Todd's after what he's been through and the sacrifices he's made to run his own car. I can't wait until he wins. I'll be the first one to buy him a beer."
That day would have to wait for Veney, who was about a tenth behind Hagen throughout eliminations. Hagen left first and never looked back in a 5.57 to 5.69 final-round decision.
Despite eliminations beginning in cool conditions and getting progressively warmer, Hagen's car remained between 5.548 and 5.574 during his wins. Hagen, who does the clutch on the car, stayed busy enough between rounds to keep his mind off the bigness of the moment but never had to endure a major thrash.
"Everything went so smooth," said Hagen. "We never had to take the heads off the car all weekend, just normal maintenance. I was making little driving errors here and there. My nerves got to me a couple times, and I short-shifted. It really builds your confidence when you have a car that's good enough to run that well even when you make a couple of mistakes."
An elated Hagen shared the victory with his dad and their crew of Rich O'Hara, Ron Carter, and Ed Ronkoski. He thanked his driving coach, 1983 TAFC world champ Fred Mandoline, and recognized his dad's best friend and right-hand man, Steve Molenda, who passed away Oct. 6, 2008.
"This is more for my dad than it is for me," said Hagen. "If you go to his house, he's either working on the car or sitting in a chair staring at it, trying to figure out a way to make it go faster. He's turning 70 years old this year, and this is his lifelong passion. I won't be able to afford to do this after he quits, so it's huge for me to help him get his first win while we're still racing."
The key race: "They all were," said Hagen. "Mandoline always used to ask me, 'Who are you racing each round?' Whoever I said I was racing, he'd say, 'No, you're racing yourself because you are your own biggest enemy.' "
The runner-up: Veney reached his fourth career national event final, his first since the 2002 Gatornationals. This was his first final round with Jay Blake's Permatex/Follow A Dream team despite several semifinal appearances. Veney ran three 5.67s in eliminations leading up to the final. His parents, Ken and Rona, were present at the national event track that is nearest to their Wadsworth, Ohio, home.
Fast facts: A broken throttle cable ended Manzo's weekend in the first round. It was his first loss in round one since Steve Addleman defeated him at the Chicago event in 2005. ... Hagen joined his father among LODRS event winners. Fred Sr. won the Division 3 race at U.S. 131 Dragway in 1984. ... Hagen became the 83rd driver to win a national event in the class since its inception in 1981.
Did you know: Fred Sr. made his last finalround appearance at the 1984 Northstar Nationals in Brainerd after defeating Ken Veney in the semifinals. Both drivers ran 6.52 seconds.
Quotable: "I've always wanted to be a driver. I've been asking my dad if I could drive since I was 17. Every year since I've been 21, he's told me, 'Next year.' He'd let me make laps in the car here and there, and I finally got my license three years ago." - Hagen