Fast cars, rural living, and a commitment to one’s roots and family are all synonymous with what it means to be Appalachian and if there has ever been one man who personifies all these traits, it is Southwest Virginia’s Matt Hagan.
Hagan, 37, is known throughout the world for being one of the most popular drivers on the NHRA circuit. He holds not one, but two NHRA Funny Car world championship trophies and in 2017, the Montgomery County, Virginia, resident set the NHRA world record for speed, running a quarter of a mile at 338.85 mph (this record has since been beaten).
Standing 6’ 1” and sporting 225 pounds of pure mountain muscle, Hagan has proven himself to be a formidable competitor on the drag strip and has stood fearless in the face of legendary competition. Even 16-time NHRA champion John Force, a loud and somewhat eccentric Californian who won an AHRA championship when Hagan was only two, once quipped, “I can’t go out and arm-wrestle with Hagan. I can’t get in a fistfight with Hagan. And you don’t intimidate a cowboy.”
Referred to by Force as “The Hulk”, Hagan’s physical strength is a testament to his unbridled commitment to success – a characteristic matched only by his unquenchable thirst for adrenaline. In an effort to find his next fix, Hagan has piloted a drag boat at 172 mph as well as driven a monster truck, but in a recent interview with Appalachian Magazine, the moment that seemed most revealing about the racing champion was when he casually mentioned having tried out “bull riding a couple times.”
There doesn’t seem to be anything on the planet that Hagan is too fearful to try riding at least once; however, when he’s not on public display, the Appalachian native says he is most comfortable in the quiet solace of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
We were given an opportunity to sit down with Hagan and learn about who the man behind the Twitter handle and beneath the fire suit actually is and we’re happy to report: He’s one of us!
Talking on the phone, you’d never know the Radford University graduate who holds a degree in recreation & tourism is a multimillionaire success story known throughout the world. He’s no different than the good o’le boy you’d find yourself making casual conversation with at the sporting goods counter or in the back aisle of the hardware store.
Having seen the inner workings of NASCAR public relations, where nearly all racers have undergone such extensive media training they have somehow forgotten who they are and lost their identities, accents and even personalities in the process, it’s incredibly refreshing to finally find a racer – of any genre – who isn’t 100-percent polished and not afraid to say words like “ain’t” or “momma”.
In short, he’s precisely what Appalachian gearheads have been wishing to find for decades – a driver who shares our roots, but hasn’t allowed the television cameras or oversized cardboard checks to get to his head.
“When I’m out racing, I always have to be ‘on’,” said Hagan.
“There are cameras everywhere, social media is always active and at the race, I’m always preparing to drive over 300 miles per hour – it’s a lot on a person and sometimes it’s hard to turn all of this off,” he admitted.
The son of a car salesman, Hagan says throughout his entire childhood his father was always trading and swapping things with anyone willing to make a deal.
“I remember one time my dad traded a car to a man for some goats.”
Though his family did own horses (and a couple of goats!) they were not farmers – this title did not come to the drag racer until adulthood and it came largely by accident.
After seeing limited success in his racing career back in the early years, Hagan and his wife purchased a home that was joined by 100 acres.
“I didn’t want to bush hog the property, so I bought some cattle to keep the grass down for me. Then I realized, if done right, the cattle could help make the mortgage payments on the property – so I bought more land and more cattle.”
Today, Hagan is one of the largest individual land owners in his region of Virginia, owning over 3,700 acres and he and his family oversee 700 “momma cows” for a hog and cattle company the family has recently launched.
While most would find the task of working what amounts to more land than some of the world’s smallest countries to be taxing and stressful, the two-time NHRA champion says for him, the Appalachian farmland is his refuge.
“I’m a big believer in balance in all parts of life. For me, stepping out of a 330 mph racecar on Sunday and climbing into a puttering tractor on Monday is what gives me my edge – farming and slowing down makes me a better race car driver.”
Competing in a touring schedule that includes 24 weekends in locations ranging from Pomona, California, to Epping, New Hampshire, is demanding on anyone, add to the mix a wife and four children and it doesn’t take long to find out why the rural life is so important to him.
“We run out there, as a family, on a side-by-side and check cattle every evening when I’m home. Farming allows me to do work that I can include the whole family in.”
While every aspect of a world renowned racer’s day is scripted and timed to the minute, allotting for media requests, crew meetings, signing autographs and actually racing, for Hagan, life in rural Virginia offers a complete opposite approach: “One thing about farm life is that it is never finished. What I’ve learned is that you do what you can, when you can, and just know that there will always be more work waiting for you when you come back.”
Being the founder of this publication and someone who is always in search of the next opportunity for business success, I found myself asking a question to satisfy my own curiosities near the end of my interview with Hagan, whose branding includes championship racer, 3,700+ acre farmer, sporting goods stores and numerous other investments.
“What advice would you give to someone who sees the level of success just an average guy from Appalachia has had in his particular field and would like to emulate this in his or her own life?”
Without missing a beat, Hagan responded, “Don’t be afraid to go out there and take chances and live – you get only one go around with this life. Don’t waste it.”
Words of wisdom spoken in Appalachian—English, the Virginia farmer went on to say, “I’ve seen great success in my life and accomplished many things, but I don’t ever rest on those laurels. Money comes and goes. I wake up every day knowing that everything I work for can be gone tomorrow… I see so many people living the rhythm of life and they miss out on so much. Don’t be so scared to chase your dreams.”
Long before John Force was screaming about getting beat by a cowboy and decades prior to ESPN broadcasting a drag car with the Motor Mile logo on the front each weekend, there was a fourteen year old kid who showed up at Elk Creek Drag Strip in Grayson County, Virginia.
In a locality where only 15,631 people reside in the entire county, this 14-year-old, too young to race cars, entered his first race, riding a quad down the track. Though he failed to win that evening, he did walk away with $100 and could not have been more excited over his handsome payday and the chance to race beneath the lights.
What’s the secret to getting onto the NHRA big stage from Elk Creek, Virginia? If you ask Matt Hagan, it’s “always surround yourself by people who work harder than you and are smarter than you – let them make you better.”
From talking with him, it’s clear that he loves his family and fans dearly, feels blessed to get to do what he does and is honored to represent brands like New Holland, who, by the way, could not be a more perfect fit for the 338 mph Appalachian farmer.
“When I’m at the race, I find myself talking to fans more about farming than I do racing,” he joked.
Beyond all of this, however, Matt Hagan isn’t just a son of Appalachia. He is Appalachia personified and we’re honored to call him friend.
Do you like articles like this? This article appears in the Summer 2020 print edition of Appalachian Magazine. Click here to learn more about receiving a year’s subscription of the print edition of Appalachian Magazine!
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