(Images by Scott Frazier)
In racing, there are drivers, who achieve excellence behind the wheel. On the other side of the spectrum are their counterparts, who enjoy success in the business side of the motorsports industry.
Not very often do you see an individual, who excels in both realms.
However, there are always exceptions to the rule, and Derek Hagar is a perfect example.
The 26-year-old from Marion, Arkansas has progressed quickly in the Sprint Car ranks, and now he’s excelling even faster with his business, DHR Suspension.
“Sometimes it all seems surreal that I’m so blessed to get both race for a living and own a successful motorsports business,” says Hagar.
However, anyone that knows Derek’s personality and work-ethic will quickly tell you that he’s not the kind of person to give anything less than 110%.
“Derek took a whole year off from racing back in 2005 to work on my crew, and I quickly learned then that this kid could go far in the business,” remembers friend and fellow racer, Marshall Skinner. “He just got it even back then. I mean how many 15-year-old kids will park their racecar for a year, so that they can go learn? I’ll answer that one for you – not very many.”
Derek grew up like a lot of kids in the racing world. He grew up watching his stepdad, Kenny Conrad, race Sprint Cars. At about 10-years-old Derek began racing Go-Karts, and in 2004 he ran half a season in a 250 c.c. Mini Sprint at Riverside International Speedway in West Memphis, Arkansas.
For the 2005 season, though, he decided to take a step back from the driver’s seat. His goal wasn’t other hobbies or chasing girls. Rather his focus was learning all he could about working on cars and being a good driver.
“That year I spent working with Marshall [Skinner] taught me so much,” said Hagar. “We traveled all over the place, and I got to see different tracks and how he adjusted the car and his driving style for each one. I know he probably got tired of having a kid constantly asking him questions, but he never complained. It really helped me get a fast start in racing.”
The start of the 2006 season found Hagar making a huge leap. With a background in only Go-Karts and Mini Sprints, his stepdad put him behind the wheel of a 360 c.i. Sprint Car.
“Nervous doesn’t even begin to describe the way I felt that night,” laughs Hagar. “We went to Malden Speedway in Missouri, and we practiced all afternoon. Then that night they had a race, and I entered it. I drew the front row for my heat race, and I thought I would probably just start on the back, but Kenny [Conrad] looks at me and says ‘Nope, you are starting where you drew.’ I remember starting next to the legendary Mike Ward, and I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Don’t crash the field’.”
Derek, wouldn’t crash the field. In fact, he qualified for the feature via the B-Main, and ran as high as the ninth position before ultimately spinning from contention.
From that ambitious debut at Malden Speedway, Hagar hit the ground running. He quickly adapted to the new challenge that had been presented to him. Along with his stepdad and their team, Hagar competed at events throughout the Southeast.
In June 2007 – roughly a year after he started racing Sprint Cars – Derek broke through with his first career win. He won at East Alabama Motor Speedway with the United Sprint Car Series (USCS) before parking it in Victory Lane again with the series one week later.
“To get those first wins in my first year just gave me so much confidence,” reminisces Hagar. “From there it seemed like they started coming a lot easier. I’m so thankful that I had Kenny [Conrad] there with me because he helped me so much, while I was trying to learn the ropes.”
Ten years into his Sprint Car career Derek has already amassed almost 100 feature triumphs. His proudest accomplishments to date include winning the Jesse Hockett Memorial at Lucas Oil Speedway in his family-owned #9jr Winged Sprint Car in 2014 as well as sweeping both nights of the Wingless Sprint Car portion of the event in 2015 in the Jack Hockett Racing #77 entry.
He also picked up a career-best $11,500 payday for sweeping the Park City Cup/Air Capital Shootout with the National Sprint League (NSL) 360 c.i. Sprints Cars in early 2016.
While Hagar was enjoying great success behind the wheel on the weekends, he spent his week’s working at speed shops around the Memphis area.
“I have always wanted to do my own deal, and I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the shock business,” comments Hagar. “So in 2015 my grandpa gave me a business loan, and I jumped in with both feet.”
Derek bought a dyno and some other equipment as he set up DHR Suspension in his racecar shop. His next step was to reach out to a good friend. That’s when things really kicked into high gear.
“Tyler Swank is one of the most respected crew chiefs in the Sprint Car business, and he and I have been good friends for a while,” notes Hagar. “In addition to being Joey Saldana’s crew chief, he handles shocks for a lot of teams. We had worked together on some shocks previously. Then in 2015 I told him what I was doing, and he immediately was very supportive. He’s just been huge in helping this deal grow, and I’m so very appreciative of his friendship and knowledge.”
In just the first two years Hagar has seen DHR Suspension grow at a break-neck pace. His client list now boasts close to 200 racers and teams. Derek offers new shock sales, dyno services, rebuild services, and shock repair. He also recently added a new Accuforce Spring Smasher to his arsenal.
“In the beginning, I was doing mostly Sprint Car shocks, but the company has grown to handle pretty much everything now,” says Hagar. “I now also do work for Late Models, Modifieds, Stock Cars, Mini Sprints, Rock Crawlers, and even Razors. Really there is nothing that we can’t handle.”
Derek is a one-man show in the service department at DHR Suspension as he does all of the work himself. His mom lends a helping hand by taking care of shipping, billing, and any paperwork.
As a result, managing his time between his business and his racecar is the toughest part for Derek.
“If I’m gone racing for a weekend, it’s usually not too bad, but like this February when I was down at East Bay Raceway Park in Tampa for a week, it made things kind of tough. My biggest thing is that I never want the customers to have to wait or suffer because of my racing. I’m very proud that hasn’t been an issue to date. There’s been a lot of sleepless nights on my end, but I make sure they get their stuff ASAP.”
Another challenge that Derek has faced is sometimes convincing his customers that they are getting the same shock service and setups that he uses on his own car.
“I’ve had situations where a racer will tell me he’s doing exactly what I’m doing and using my shocks, but his car isn’t working like mine,” states Hagar. “I can say with 110% honesty that I put the same work into every shock that comes through my shop as what I put on my own car. The big thing I remind drivers is that depending on your own driving style that you might need things tweaked a bit. I always do what I can to help them find that sweet spot.”
Not only has Hagar enjoyed success with his shock designs, but he’s seen his customers notch some big wins.
“On the national scene I’ve had success with guys like Donny Schatz and Kerry Madsen, and then on the local scene I’ve had guys like Eddie Gallagher win over a dozen races last season. We’ve also seen Late Model, Modified, and Stock Car guys claim a lot of wins. It’s really cool to help people reach their goals.”
While he loves taking care of all of his clients, Derek is also realistic that if things continue to grow at this rapid pace that he will have to hire additional help in the coming years. When asked if he ever sees a time, when he quits racing to focus on his business, he’s quick to respond.
“I’ve honestly thought about it, and what I would do if it ever comes to that point. However, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I just need to keep plugging away with what I’ve got because it’s working on the track and in the business. This is a tough endeavor, but I’m proud to make it work so well.”
Derek also offers a final piece of advice to racers, who are thinking about starting their own racing business.
“I’ll be honest that it’s a tough deal to get going. You need to have a good customer base already built to make it work. You also need to have a reputable name in racing before you go full-time with your business. Last, but not least if you want it to work, you’ve got to put your heart and soul into it and give 110% at all times. The rest will take care of itself.”