How a humble, low-buck Pro Stock racer helped to build a foundation for a Pro Stock icon.

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Roger Richards Photo


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Greg Anderson said that John Hagen taught him a lot about Pro Stockers, but his most valuable lessons were on life. Hagen provided Anderson with his first job in drag racing.
Greg Anderson doesn’t publicize the fact he was out of drag racing in the mid-1980s and didn’t plan on coming back. In fact, his return was brought about by the coaxing of Kurt Johnson. The invitation from Johnson enabled him to close a painful chapter in his life and begin a new story as a crewman turned crew chief turned Pro Stock icon.

Anderson befriended low budget Pro Stock racer John Hagen in 1979 and raced with him until the influential figure in his career lost his life during an unfortunate accident during the 1983 NHRA Northstar Nationals in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Anderson cherishes those memories and if asked, will tell, but the pain prevents him from offering the subject. Instead, he’ll tell you that he’ll try to remember. The facts are, he remembers them well, unfortunately with the fond memories comes the horrific scene he witnessed that August afternoon in 1983.

“That's where I got my Pro Stock start and that was back in 1979,” Anderson recalled, as he ran his hand along the spoiler of his Summit Racing Equipment-sponsored Pontiac G-6. “I had a blast and we traveled a lot of races and had a lot of success and had a lot of fun.  John was a great guy and I can’t emphasize this enough -- a super, super, super nice guy.  I kind of considered him like a second father to me.  I spent a lot of time with him, I lived at his house when I went racing with him and stuff.”

To understand the bond they shared, Anderson tells how they met. Anderson’s dad was a part-time NHRA Division 5 Modified racer; his participation was clearly on a hobbyist basis. The father-son befriended Hagen and they became close personal friends. Timing is everything in drag racing and as the elder Anderson pulled back his involvement, Hagen increased his from the sportsman level to professional status.

 

I learned back then to be good to the people that you race against and you have to live with at the race track, that's kind of like your second family.  I think it's paid a lot of benefits for me down the road and allowed me to get where I am today.  Those values I learned from him, how to treat people right whether it's at the race track or in the grocery store.  Clearly he was like a second father.  He taught me a lot of values.  I had it growing up with my father but John reassured it. – Greg Anderson 

 


 

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John Hagen qualified 13th in the first-ever NHRA 500-inh Pro Stock race. He reached the semi-finals. A young Greg Anderson was his crew chief.
“I ended up traveling the country with him and chasing this Pro Stock dream that they all talked about,” beamed Anderson.

Anderson quickly grasped the nuances of tuning a Pro Stocker, first on a pounds-per-cubic-inch and then later once the 500-inch format was adopted. For Anderson, the real lessons of racing with Hagen had nothing to do with four-link setting or setting the air-gap on the clutch. These lessons had everything to do with becoming a champion without having to light the scoreboard with a low elapsed time.

“I learned a lot of family values from him,” Anderson said. “What I really learned was the value of hard work. We didn't have the resources so we worked very hard -- every night until about midnight in the shop and then we'd drive all night long to get to the race track.  We did it on a shoestring budget and he taught me what it took to compete in a class and how hard you had to work and how you had to treat people. 

“I learned back then to be good to the people that you race against and you have to live with at the race track, that's kind of like your second family.  I think it's paid a lot of benefits for me down the road and allowed me to get where I am today.  Those values I learned from him, how to treat people right whether it's at the race track or in the grocery store.  Clearly he was like a second father.  He taught me a lot of values.  I had it growing up with my father but John reassured it.”

Hagen never won an NHRA Winston national event, but he was clearly a threat every time his Minnesota-based Plymouth Arrow rolled through the gates. He qualified more times than not, but of special notation is that Anderson tuned Hagen to a qualifying berth in the first-ever NHRA 500-inch Pro Stock event.

Hagen trusted Anderson immensely and the confidence was mutual. This bond was the primary reason Anderson chokes up when talking about the day Hagen lost his life.




 

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Anderson left drag racing following Hagen's death with no intention of ever returning. Coaxing by Kurt Johnson, two years after the accident, inspired him to return.
“I was definitely the last person to speak with him,” Anderson confirmed. “I used to help him buckle in the car and everything.  He'd kiss the picture of his two young kids that he had in his helmet and then he'd put his helmet on and shake his hand and away he'd go.  I was definitely the last person to talk to him, see him, and touch him before it happened.”

Seeing the Plymouth Arrow careen out of control and barrel roll was a life-changing experience for the aspiring champion.

“That experience absolutely knocked the wind out of me,” Anderson confided. “I got to see it first hand.  I went running down the race track and got to the wreckage right away.  It was the most gruesome scene that you'd ever seen in your life.  It was a horrific scene.  There were no guard rails, we were at Brainerd and there were no guard walls at the time.”

Anderson walked away from the sport with no intention of ever returning. In fact, he went to work for his dad at the family dealership. The accident caught him and others completely off-guard.

“I had gotten the bug and I knew I loved racing and drag racing and racing Pro Stock but when you lose somebody close like that it just kind of knocks the wind out of your sails,” Anderson explained. “I gave it up for a couple of years and didn't even hardly think about racing in that time until I went down to the Brainerd national event two years later just as a spectator.”

The fateful return crossed his path with the second-generation Johnson. A friendly chat between the two up and coming stars in the sport opened the floodgates for Anderson. Johnson floated out an invitation; an invitation Anderson said he’d “sleep” on.

“I thought back to the years when I raced with John and as under-financed as we were, we could hold our own against the guys like Warren Johnson, Lee Shepherd and Bob Glidden – they were the heavily sponsored teams of that era.


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“I miss him everyday. He was such a great guy and he has a great family. I still talk to his family all the time and they still come to the Brainerd race. The kids grew up to be great people. They’re married and have children now so it turned out great. I was scared because they were 9 and 12 years old then, they were at that age where they really needed their dad. He was just such a great guy that they lived in his memory and lived like he lived the rest of their lives and they turned out to be great so I'm very proud of them.” - Greg Anderson (Chris Haverly photo)
“I always thought in the back of mind if I ever decided to come back, it would only be to race with one of those kinds of teams. We weren't heavily sponsored and I learned right then what it took to be Pro Stock.  You needed to be heavily sponsored and you needed to have resources.  We did a great job with what we had but we didn't have those resources so I kind of learned right then if I was ever going to race again it was going to be with one of those top-tier teams that had the resources.  That's why when Warren offered me the opportunity I jumped at it.” 

Anderson said his racing life has revolved around Pro Stock ever since. He added that Hagen’s death wasn’t in vain.

“His death led to the implementation of the Funny Car roll cage in the Pro Stockers,” Anderson said. “They also put guard walls up at these things.  Never again have they run at a national event without guard walls.  Some good things came of it but it sucks that we were all kind of asleep at the switch at the time.  That's the way it works, you kind of have to have tragedy to learn and go forward.  That's the main thing that he did right there, that's what he's responsible for.” 

Anderson retains contact with Hagen’s family after all these years and every time he starts his Pontiac G6, he envisions a part of John riding along with him.

“I miss him everyday,” Anderson said. “He was such a great guy and he has a great family.  I still talk to his family all the time and they still come to the Brainerd race.  The kids grew up to be great people.  They’re married and have children now so it turned out great.  I was scared because they were 9 and 12 years old then, they were at that age where they really needed their dad.  He was just such a great guy that they lived in his memory and lived like he lived the rest of their lives and they turned out to be great so I'm very proud of them.”

And somewhere, looking down, Hagen is proud of his apprentice.



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