Whether it’s flying an F-16 fighter jet or racing a Spec E46, NASA Mid-Atlantic member Eric Haagenson lives life in the danger zone.

For his next adventure, Haagenson is taking command as the National Director for NASA Spec E46, succeeding Spec E46 class co-founder Jason Tower, who will remain involved.

If you expect the Air National Guard colonel to just bark orders, think again and give me 20 pushups, soldier. Haagenson not only wants to grow the BMW class, he wants to make everyone a better driver.

“I want to help people make the transition to NASA and let them know it’s a great place to race, it’s competitive, it’s a great atmosphere and it’s got a different vibe to it,” Haagenson said.

Mid-Atlantic’s Evan Levine, co-founder of the Spec E46 class, believes Haagenson is a natural to lead the Spec E46 class and embodies what amateur racing is about.

“Eric is one of those infectious people in this sport,” Levine said. “I’ve rarely seen people so dedicated to getting better. Even when he was decent, it just wasn’t good enough. He improved really quickly.”

Haagenson is retiring from the Air Force in April after a 25-year career, including 23 years flying an F-16 fighter with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Haagenson, who took a sabbatical from United Airlines to rejoin the military, will return to the airline to fly an Airbus A320. It’s a job that provides Haagenson the time and ability to set his own schedule to oversee the Spec E46 class.

While Haagenson will serve as the national recruiter for the Spec E46, he plans to work with the regions to grow the BMW class by 10 to 15 percent annually by focusing on collaboration and crossover events.

“In the bigger races, whether you’re the fastest or the slowest or you’re in the middle, you’re going to have someone to race,” Haagenson said. “At the beginning, I wasn’t quite at pace, but as I’ve progressed, I’ve had some podiums and I’m starting to be fairly fast. Throughout the entire journey, I’ve always had someone to race, and that’s what is really fun.”

Haagenson started racing with NASA in 2022 and quickly made his mark in the Mid-Atlantic region, winning the Spec E46 class in his rookie season and again in 2023. He also finished third in Spec E46 at the 2023 NASA Championships at Pittsburgh International Race Complex.

Haagenson built his own race car starting early in the pandemic, finding a donor car with minor damage from California. In the military, safety is drilled into personnel, and Haagenson took the same approach building his Spec E46. He spoke with other drivers about their safety equipment and set out to do his own design.

Haagenson added extra reinforcement to the driver’s door and footwell and installed a bar on the roof to tie into the main hoop for additional head protection. He mounted the seat through the roll cage, and when it came to Haagenson’s helmet and seat belt, he selected top-shelf products.

“I really put safety to the forefront,” said Haagenson, who used to fabricate custom motorcycles. “My car is probably a little bit heavy due to some of the safety things that I put in there, but I feel like I spared no expense on safety.”

The build took about eight months because Haagenson wanted to make the BMW look like a factory race car. “I spent a lot of time on the details,” he said, “but it just felt good to put my hands on everything and make sure everything was up to speed.”

Haagenson equipped his car with data and video, crediting his driving coaches on how to review and interpret the data to improve his on-track skills. In the military, all fighter pilots do a debriefing after a flight mission, and he would like to see all the Spec E46 racers sit down together and take a similar approach after each race.

“We’re not here doing this for a living, and I just want to create an environment where we’re learning, improving as drivers and having a good time,” he said.

Levine said Haagenson is a tough competitor and fun to race against.

“With fighter jets, if they bump into each other, it’s game over, and I think he carries that mindset over to racecars a bit,” Levine said. “That’s not to say he hasn’t had his share of bumps, nudges and offs. Eric is somebody who’s very aware that there’s another race tomorrow and he rarely makes the low-percentage moves.”

Haagenson has two sons Niko, 19, and Axel, 14, with the youngest regularly joining his dad at the track to help on the radio and in the paddock. Axel loves being part of a race weekend, his father said, and has an interest in racing, too, but is also involved in junior hockey, which the elder Haagenson coaches. Haagenson played college hockey at the University of North Dakota and still plays in a recreation league at age 51.

“(Axel) definitely wants to (race) but the only difference is his dad had to wait until he was 49 before he got on a racetrack,” Haagenson said jokingly. In fact, Haagenson is working on a second Spec E46 car and hopes to get Axel involved in the HPDE program when he’s eligible.

I’d love it if we could get to the point where he has a Spec E46 and I have a Spec E46, and we’re out there racing together,” Haagenson said.

While auto racing might seem tame compared to flying a fighter jet 100 feet off the ground at 600 mph, Haagenson said both activities require similar concentration, decision making and physical stamina.

“Going down low doesn’t affect me as much, but if I’m going above 140 (mph) on the racetrack, that feels really fast,” he said. “It’s all perspective, I guess.”

Name: Eric Haagenson
Age: 51
Region: NASA Mid-Atlantic
Hometown: Severna Park, Md.
Racing Class: Spec E46
Sponsors: NA
Day Job: Pilot
Favorite Food: NA
Favorite TV show: NA
Favorite Movie: NA
Favorite Track: NA
Dream Racecar: NA
Image courtesy of JEREMY BRYNER


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