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Lorain County crew chief and driver Matt Hagan get wins at familiar track

Two-time NHRA Funny Car world champion Hagan knocked off current points leader Courtney Force to take the Funny Car title at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.

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    Erica Enders competes in the Pro Stock class during the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals on Sunday in Norwalk. Enders lost to Tanner Gray, whose crew chief is Elyria native Dave Connolly. THOMAS FETCENKO / CHRONICLE

    CT

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NORWALK — Things have come full circle for Matt Hagan and Dave Connolly.

The two returned to their roots Sunday at Summit Motorsports Park, winning at the track which played a major role in developing their racing careers — Hagan as a driver and Connolly as a crew chief.

Two-time NHRA Funny Car world champion Hagan knocked off current points leader Courtney Force to take the Funny Car title at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.

Meanwhile, Elyria native Connolly also celebrated a big win as crew chief on the Gray Motorsports Valvoline Camaro in Pro Stock. Team driver Tanner Gray defeated two-time world champion Erica Enders in the final round for the title.

In Top Fuel, Blake Alexander fulfilled his lifelong dream when he knocked off Terry McMillen to claim the overall victory.

Connolly, an Elyria High grad, began racing cars at Norwalk before he was able to legally drive a car on the road, a passion fueled by his father, Ray, who was also a drag racer from Elyria.

The Norwalk experience paid off as the talented youngster’s racing career took off. He joined NHRA in 1999 and climbed the Sportsman ranks until he earned a pro spot in the Pro Stock series in 2003, driving for Gray Motorsports in his last years in the division.

He went on to 26 championships, one of those being the inaugural Summit Nationals at Norwalk in 2007.

Connolly moved to Top Fuel in 2016, driving for Bob Vandergriff Racing. When that team closed its doors in the middle of the season, Connolly rejoined Gray Motorsports, this time as the crew chief for Tanner’s father, Shane Gray.

Last year, Connolly took the job as chief wrench for Tanner when Shane cut back his schedule. Now he’s helped the 19-year-old third-generation driver take over the Pro Stock points lead.

Gray won for the eighth time in 36 career starts by taking care of Enders at the starting line.

The Mooresville, N.C., resident ran a slower elapsed time, 6.615 to Enders’ 6.608, but his .008 reaction time, compared to Enders’ .048, got him to the finish line first.

The win was Gray’s third this season.

“She just missed it, that’s all I can say,” Gray said about Enders’ reaction time. “I feel like me and her step up against each other when we race. For whatever reason, I feel I get up on the wheel a little more against her.

“It’s definitely cool to beat someone on a hole-shot that’s known for leaving the starting line, but at the end of the day I know in the back of my mind she just missed it.”

Gray has won eight national titles in 36 starts.

Hagan, of Christiansburg, Va., has a strong history with Summit Motorsports Park. He began his professional racing career in a Pro Modified car, running the Norwalk-based IHRA circuit and winning three times.

He moved into a Funny Car in 2008 and squared off against Courtney Force that season.

“The most vivid memory I have of this facility was when I did the Night Under Fire,” Hagan said. “I went to the final against Courtney, and John (Force) came over told me there was going to be pyro and there was going to be smoke … he told me I wasn’t going to be able to see anything.

“‘Just drive through the smoke,’ is what he told me. I was like, ‘What is this, Days of Thunder?’ Sure enough, there was lights and smoke everywhere. That’s a cool memory for me.”

Hagan created his most recent Summit Motorsports Park memory by using a consistent approach. After qualifying third he had his closest race of the weekend against No. 14 qualifier Tommy Johnson Jr. Hagan had a .004 reaction-time advantage and held Johnson off by .0009 of a second at the finish line.

In the second round he stopped Jack Beckman, then defeated J.R. Todd in the semifinals.

In the final, both drivers hazed their tires, but Hagan was able to get back into the groove first and beat Force to the finish line.

“We just had a good, solid car all weekend,” Hagan said. “We qualified well and went down the race track pretty much every lap. It did haze the tires out there and I was legging it out, but it was the final … I didn’t care if it was going to blow the body off it. I just knew I didn’t see her beside of me.”

Hagan pulled into a tie for second place in the points race with Beckman. Both drivers have 788 points, trailing Force, who left Norwalk with 1,038.

“I can’t say enough about her,” Hagan said of Courtney Force. “She’s a great driver and a great individual. I’ve got a lot of respect for her because of the way she drives.”

Alexander, 29, qualified 12th, but drove through a gauntlet of the NHRA’s best to get to the final round.

In the first round he stopped Antron Brown, then picked off Tony Schumacher in the quarterfinals and Leah Pritchett with a trip to the finals on the line.

McMillen, the No. 15 qualifier, had a slight edge at the starting line and led at half-track, but he lost a cylinder down track, allowing Alexander to drive his 2016 Miller Dragster to the finish line first.

“It felt really good, obviously, and I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my entire life,” Alexander said of winning an NHRA national event. “I’ve come close, lost sponsors and thought I was never going to drive the car again.

“I’ve gone through everything to climb back to the top, so it felt good.”

Eddie Krawiec left Norwalk the Pro Stock Motorcycle points leader after defeating Jerry Savoie in the final round.

“It was a good weekend for me because I stayed out of the sand,” Krawiec said of the pit at the end of the track that’s there as a precautionary measure to stop cars or bikes that lose their brakes. “Two years ago I went into the sand after my semifinal run because I didn’t have any brakes. Then, after my crew got the bike fixed up and ready to go, I went back into the sand after the final.”

Krawiec has 515 points, five in front of Andrew Hines in the points chase.

Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or macsportstalk@gmail.com.

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