NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Leaning In: Ten Drivers who make us stop, watch, and listen … and why

Regardless of the name, a mélange of talent, attitude, forthrightness, poise, and, occasionally, a lack thereof create racing personalities that are worth paying attention to. NHRA on FOX announcer Brian Lohnes has created his list of 10 riders and drivers who embody this in their unique way. 
22 Jan 2024
Brian Lohnes, NHRA on FOX announcer
Leaning In:

There are lots of dynamics involved in professional auto racing. There’s talent, there’s budget, and there’s a giant invisible one that some people have more of than the rest. Call it the X factor, or the “It” factor. Regardless of the name, it’s a mélange of talent, attitude, forthrightness, poise, and, occasionally, a lack thereof. The 10 riders and drivers you’ll see on this list embody this ethos in their unique way. 

Certainly, everyone who races on this level has a story to tell and a method to tell it, but these 10? These are the ones we hush everyone else in the room so we can hear. These are the ones we think, “Can’t wait to see what happens next,” after a run, and whether you like them or not, we’re betting you do as well. 

No. 10: Josh Hart

Why: What he lacks in speech volume, he makes up with in punchy replies

There’s a misguided opinion out there that just because someone speaks quietly, they aren’t saying anything. If you live by that idea, you have 100% missed the Josh Hart show, which has been not just entertaining but downright awesome at times. 

Examples? Very early on in his career, he called out Brittany Force for a seeming lack of respect. After Tony Stewart accused him of guessing on the Tree after a holeshot win in 2023, he had a veritable field day for the rest of the season, making references to guessing, and then after beating Leah Pruett late in the season, he remarked, “She’s my favorite driver…”

Pay attention when Hart speaks — it’s typically riddled with softly delivered gems.

No. 9. Matt Hartford

Why: Swagger, attitude, confidence, and a come-and-get-me vibe 

Matt Hartford is the kind of guy who can give as good as he gets, and more than once over the last few Pro Stock seasons, he’s spit directly into the opposition’s eye with a smile on his face. His best season ever came in 2023 and the always entertaining Hartford became rightfully emboldened, and this led to some interesting moments at the top end with rival teams and drivers exchanging pleasantries and differences of opinion. Hartford at his best has the kind of attitude that screams, “I’m here … deal with it.”

He'll enter 2024 with the best program he has ever had. Even when it’s rough, the guy gives off an unsinkable vibe. Expect even more of it this season. 

No. 8: Gaige Herrera 

Why: Which mark of rider or mechanical performance will he smash next?

As we said at the top of this story, this is about the multitude of reasons that we lean in when certain drivers or riders are front and center, not a single one. In the case of Gaige Herrera, it was the stuff happening between the burnout box and the finish line that made us drop the groceries and run to the screen. Would he set a new track record? Would he gap the field by half a tenth? Would he make a mistake and throw away a seemingly sure thing? 

We’ll be doing the same thing in Gainesville, maybe even asking the same questions, but we are darn sure planning on watching every move this guy makes. 

No. 7: Austin Prock

Why: Young, talented, high-energy racer in a brand-new class

When Austin Prock has it going well, few people can match his energy on camera. When it’s going bad, he’s not shied away from being critical of the situation he was in. 

For 2024, we’ll be hyper-dialed in on this guy because of the fact he’ll be driving the best Funny Car in the country as a class rookie, his crew chiefs are his father and brother, and, if it all goes well, we could be witness to a supernova nexus of talent and ability. If it doesn’t? Who knows what we’ll see?

The whole story will play out in public for all of us to watch and because of the high-profile nature of the car, the car’s owner, and the performances it has been known for throughout Austin Prock’s life, this is going to be a SHOW.

No. 6:  J.R. Todd

Why: Never sunshine and rainbows, it’s always real, and the guy wants it bad

There are some racers who, even in the face of abject failure, can force a smile and a shoulder shrug and move on. That’s not J.R. Todd, and we’re thankful for it. He can be taciturn, he can be irascible, and he is statistically elite when it comes to competitors in the Funny Car ranks. 

If there is one thing you can expect from Todd when asked a question, it’s an honest answer. Sometimes that honesty is joy and relief, like when winning Sonoma; sometimes that honesty is boiling rage just below the surface, like when he was dragged into a disastrous wreck with John Force in Pomona. That’s why we’re always keen to hear what this guy has to say and the method he uses to say it. 

No. 5: Steve Torrence 

Why: A champion whom people run hot and cold on, and he embraces it

When a team has racked up four world championships, it is mandatory viewing to watch every run they make on a given weekend. When that car is driven by a Texan who can be coldly analytical, passionately defensive, and downright funny, failing to pay attention means you are going to miss the good stuff, like him or not. 

We have seen Torrence evolve over the years in his career, but one thing that has never left is the intensity in his voice or the fire he can bring to the screen. He was self-critical more than we have ever heard of him last season, he fired some entertaining shots across the bows of other drivers, and when constantly pestered with questions of struggle (while simultaneously driving a top-five car), he gritted his teeth at times but answered them all. 

Torrence is the most divisive driver on this list so far, and he long ago stopped trying to please the world. He owns his role and our attention when he’s in it. 

No. 4: Tony Schumacher

Why: No one’s better at the raw truth, and no one has more of it to tell than him

No matter how a weekend or a season is going, Tony Schumacher is not going to shy away from an honest assessment. Whether it is the performance of his team, the caliber of the parts they are working with, his own job performance, or any other aspect of the operation, this guy is going to tell you about it. You may wince, you may laugh, but you’re going to hear him. In 2024, you’ll likely hear even more of this and for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, the exit of sponsor Scag Power Equipment from his race car and onto others is a strong sticking point with Schumacher who was instrumental in bringing the brand into the sport. On the NHRA Insider podcast, he told the world that while he harbors no ill-will toward Justin Ashley or his crew, his mission in 2024 is to “destroy” that team. 

He'll be starting the season with a far better car than he started with in 2023 and with a crew that is seasoned and well-formed. The eight-time champion wants wins, and he wants them against specific people. If you don’t believe us, just listen to him starting in Gainesville or before (check the NHRA Insider podcast with him as a guest!).

No. 3: Matt Smith 

Why: Fearless with his narrative and the pedigree/performance to back it up

Do we even need to tell you why Matt Smith makes us lean in? He can talk smack, he has a half-dozen championships, he’s not afraid to come at other teams, the sanctioning body, anything, or anyone. Some people get rubbed wrong by Smith’s approach, but perhaps that’s why we like it even when it makes us sometimes chew on the inside of our collective lips around here. His fellow competitors even admit that he’s a guy they love to hate many times, but they all admit that his record on the dragstrip is unassailable. 

He's one of the most opportunistically brilliant racers in modern drag racing, having devised methods and schemes that many competitors wouldn’t conjure in their worst fever dream. Not only has he created them, he’s capitalized on them, even in down years like 2023. Go ahead and ignore Matt Smith because he hurts your feelings; the rest of us will be enjoying the show. 

No. 2: Erica Enders

Why: More polarity than a car battery, well-spoken, and a defiant streak as wide as Texas 

You knew she was going to land on this list, but you didn’t know where, right? If Steve Torrence can be divisive among the NHRA fan base, Erica Enders is a tectonic plate fault line. Whether it is responses during NHRA on FOX interviews, social media posts, podcast appearances, or anything else, people pick a side when it comes to the six-time NHRA Pro Stock world champion. 

While she admits that it takes a mental toll, she never backs down from answering questions, and those answers are not one word. She got up on the tire last year during a top-end interview with Amanda Busick, she was picking off social media haters left and right during the slow start to the season, and she was certainly happy to remind those same people what she was about when the team captured their sixth title in Pomona. 

People listen to those who they really like, and they listen to those that they claim they can’t stand. The two parties tend to be equally passionate in their support or derision. As she continues through her career, Enders seems less deferential or apologetic to those who are rooting against her and more vocal in her thoughts thereabout.

Admit it, fair reader: Whatever side of the Enders fault line you are on, you’re leaned in. 

No. 1: Matt Hagan

Why: A Funny Car-driving dynamo wrapped in a larger-than-life persona

Did you expect this? If you didn’t, why not? It’s not too far of a reach to say that, at this moment, Matt Hagan is the most dynamic star in the world of NHRA Drag Racing. They say that people often look like their pets. Hagan is the only racing driver on the planet who is the actual physical embodiment of the machine he drives: big, loud, and occasionally sideways. The guy is a walking and talking Funny Car. 

Whether he’s talking about having “swamp butt” in interviews, threatening to kiss seemingly any driver that has ever come to his aid in knocking out a rival, or growing facial hair only rivaled by 1980s television villains, the dude is just plain entertaining. Beyond that though, he is not afraid to speak up, and in 2023, we saw plenty of that. 

For instance, coming into the St. Louis race, he made no bones about the fact that he felt his team was not being aggressive enough and they needed to run the car harder to keep up with his championship rivals. He and longtime crew chief Dickie Venables got behind closed doors, aligned themselves, won the race, and won the title. 

When Bob Tasca’s car lost qualifying runs in Las Vegas due to headers that did not fit through the NHRA template, Hagan was vocal in his opinion that his team could have lost out on valuable bonus money because of the performances Tasca was turning in with the disallowed pipes. He shared his opinion on both matters plainly and freely and got plenty of attention for it. 

He's a guy who embodies so many of the different elements of the drivers that we have outlined above. We expect more of a good thing in 2024, and we’ll be lapping up every word like one of Hagan’s sloppy Tony Stewart cheek kisses.

So, there you have it, 10 drivers, all of which get our undivided attention on the track or anywhere a camera or microphone is aimed at them. There are plenty of dynamic and interesting people out there in this sport. Let’s hope we see plenty more of their personal side in 2024. Go ahead and talk, racers. We promise that we’ll listen.