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Family Fuel: Doug Driving Kalittas Through Countdown

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 18 2019
Doug Kalitta and his family are fired up about the 2019 Top Fuel championship. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

ENNIS, Texas – It is not a stretch to suggest that the Kalitta surname is every bit as iconic in the history of NHRA championship drag racing as the Pettys, Earnhardts and Allisons in NASCAR.

Family scion Conrad “Connie” Kalitta, 81, was among organized drag racing’s first wave of stars as driver of “The Bounty Hunter” Top Fuel dragster. Connie won 10 national events during a career that began in the 1950s and concluded in 1994. Kalitta Motorsports remains among the powerhouse organizations competing in NHRA’s nitromethane-powered Top Fuel and Funny Car categories. 

Scott Kalitta, Connie’s son, won NHRA Top Fuel world championships in 1994-95. The winner of 17 Top Fuel races and one in Funny Car, Scott was killed in a crash during qualifying at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., on June 21, 2008. He was 46-years-old.

Doug Kalitta, Connie’s nephew, replaced Scott in the family’s Top Fuel dragster in 1998 following his cousin’s unexpected retirement at the end of the 1997 season. A four-time championship runnerup, Doug remains within striking distance of an elusive first title heading into qualifications Friday afternoon for the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex.

Kalitta trails reigning Top Fuel world champ Steve Torrence by 30 points after the latter prevailed in the final of Monday’s rain-delayed NTK Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C. Halfway through the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Kalitta is ready to add to the legacy forged by his uncle.

Doug Kalitta is carrying the family Top Fuel torch these days. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

“It’s pretty cool. This is Connie’s 60th year (in drag racing) and one thing we’re celebrating,” Kalitta said during a telephone interview with RacinToday.com.  “Richie Crampton’s Top Fuel car…Connie is right on top of (tuning) that thing. He’s doing well, had a knee replaced a couple of years ago and it’s slowed him down a little, but he’s still going strong. He’s out there still having fun.

“The Funny Car guys (Shawn Langdon and reigning world champion J.R. Todd) are making us proud and overall it’s a good time to be a part of Kalitta Motorsports. There is a level of pride in being out there trying to keep the NHRA strong and still enjoy what we’re doing. We’re out there with our four cars and we call Connie our fearless leader, always trying to make it happen. It’s a cool opportunity to have him out there.”

Doug recalled joining Connie’s team after graduating from high school in 1982. “Yeah, 37 years ago,” Doug said. “I started out doing the bottom end on his car (engine) for 10 years, then spent 10 years racing a (USAC) Sprint Car and 10 years later went into Top Fuel.  It’s been a good relationship and he’s been a mentor in both racing and aviation. Giving him a championship is something he would be proud of, because he’s given me everything I need to accomplish that goal.”

Torrence, who completed an historic sweep of the Countdown last season, said racing against Kalitta remains special. “That guy is a legend, the winningest guy to never win a championship,” said Torrence, a 36-year-old resident of Kilgore in East Texas. “I have a whole lot of respect for him. I really look up to him as a driver (because) he’s always consistent, whether his car’s running good or running bad.”

Torrence entered the Carolina Nats two points behind Kalitta in the standings. But Torrence made up that difference via his fourth No. 1 qualifying effort of the season. En route, he picked up eight qualifying bonus points, running his total for the season to a category-best 105.

Steve Torrence is the guy the Top Fuelers are chasing these days. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

“Steve and his family, they’re hard-core racers and I have a lot of respect for what they’ve accomplished,” said Kalitta, a 55-year-old resident of Ann Arbor, Mich.  ”They have a good-running car but I think we can out-run ‘em this year. It seems we’re out there bumping into one another every weekend. I’m looking forward to running the next three races and beating those guys and everyone else out there.

“We’re pretty much within a round of racing and anything can happen. You can have the best running car…my guys, we kind of missed it in qualifying the last couple of races but gathered it up on Sunday (race day). Hopefully we’ve got that behind us and keep going. I’m definitely looking forward to going to the Motorplex and seeing what we can do.”

Torrence extended his winning streak to 14-straight rounds Monday while improving his record at zMAX over the last three years to 18-1 via a 1,000-foot pass in 3.772-seconds at 323.19 mph. The win was his ninth of the year, 20th over the last two seasons and 28th over three years _ all in Capco Contractors-backed dragsters tuned by Richard Hogan and prepared by a crew led by Bobby Lagana Jr.

“We were able to go 6-0 in the Countdown last year, but you have to approach every race like you have never won one,” Torrence said. “You can’t let your mental focus get distracted by your success because you’re only as good as the last run you made.” 

Kalitta has won 46 NHRA national events in 100 final-round appearances. As the owner/president of Kalitta Charters and an accomplished pilot, Doug’s week days are spent overseeing his airline business. For the last 12 years, Kalitta Charters has served as the sole company contracted by the U.S. government to fly the remains of service members to their final resting places. Kalitta Charters also provides military hospital transportation via air ambulances from its headquarters in Ypsilanti, Mich.

“That’s something we take a lot of pride in. We do a ton of air ambulance work,” Kalitta said. “I get to the (race) shop a couple times a week. During the week I‘m working the aviation side but with the way the company is structured , I don’t have to be here to have the place running smoothly. I’ve got 50 planes and 360 employees and one of the things drag racing forces you to do is delegate, and that’s the way I’ve structured things here.

“On weekends when we race, I usually fly a plane to wherever we’re racing. That’s part of my gig as well.”

His real-world job certainly has given Kalitta a unique perspective on the numbers in his racing resume. “In the scheme of things in life, I’m not sure I’d put it (an NHRA title) on a kind of pedestal,” said Kalitta, whose Mac Tools dragster is tuned by crew chiefs Rob Flynn and Troy Fasching. “It’s a goal, and I’m capable of doing it. That’s why I’m still here after 21 years _ we keep going to these races and have a good shot at winning. I’m just a persistent guy, but it’s not going to be the end of the world if we can’t do it.”

Torrence , Robert Hight (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including live final eliminations coverage 1 p.m. (CDT) on Sunday.

Professional qualifying is scheduled for 2:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Friday, with the final two rounds of time trials on Saturday at 12:15 and 3:45 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled to start at 11 a.m. Sunday.

To purchase tickets, call 800-668-6775. Military and first responders can save 20 percent on adult single day tickets at NHRA.com/govx. Tickets also are available online at www.texasmotorplex.com. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.

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Cory McClenathan, a three-time Texas Motorplex Top Fuel winner, will be honored as first recipient of the Texas Motorplex Legend Award this weekend.  McClenathan, who  will compete in the final three national events of the 2019 season and then retire, last appeared at the FallNationals in 2018.

“Cory Mac” has 18 starts, two No. 1 qualifiers, five finals, three wins and 32-15 record on the all-concrete supertrack owned by former Funny Car driver Billy Meyer. McClenathan, a 34-time national event winner, will compete in a Top Fuel dragster owned by Dexter Tuttle and sponsored by Revchem Composites and Nordic Boats.

McClenathan became the first driver to exceed 320 mph when his McDonald’s Top Fuel dragster blasted down The Plex at 321.77 mph in 1997.

“Cory McClenathan is a big part of the record-setting history of Texas Motorplex and the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals,” Motorplex General Manager Andy Carter said. “We’re thrilled he’s closing out his amazing career with another race in Ennis. We’re honored to recognize him as the first Texas Motorplex Legend Award recipient. We will have a special presentation for him during opening ceremonies and he will forever be recognized in the Texas Motorplex Champion’s Club.”

McClenathan’s three Top Fuel wins at The Plex are second-most in the track’s history, tied with Gary Scelzi and trailing all-time leader Tony Schumacher with six wins. During his career McClenathan recorded 18 top-10 finishes; was second in points four times and third four occasions. He won 30 or more rounds in a season eight times. 

“When the track called about this award I was blown away,” McClenathan said. “The Texas Motorplex has always held a special place in my heart. I have to thank Dexter Tuttle for giving me this chance to race these last three races. I can remember that 321 mph pass like it was yesterday. We went on to win that race and it was an amazing weekend. Thank you to Billy Meyer, Andy Carter and all the fans across the years that came out to support me at the Texas Motorplex. This is just a really cool honor. ”

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2019 NHRA Countdown to the Championship Playoffs Results/Schedule

Sept. 12-15 _ Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, Maple Grove Raceway, Reading, Pa. Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock), Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Sept. 27-29 _ AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, World Wide Technology Raceway, Madison, Ill. Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Shawn Langdon (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), Karen Stoffer (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 11-14 _NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals, zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C. Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 17-20 _ AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Texas Motorplex, Ennis.

Oct. 31-Nov. 3 _ Dodge NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Nov. 14-17 _ Auto Club NHRA Finals, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

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Point-standings (top-10) following the NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMax Dragway in Concord, N.C., 21st of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and third of six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs:

Top Fuel _ 1. Steve Torrence, 2,356; 2. Doug Kalitta, 2,326; 3. Brittany Force, 2,264; 4. Leah Pritchett, 2,231; 5. Mike Salinas, 2,227; 6. Billy Torrence, 2,206; 7. Austin Prock, 2,204; 8. Richie Crampton, 2,196; 9. Antron Brown, 2,194; 10. Clay Millican, 2,178.

Funny Car _1. Robert Hight, 2,358; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,314; 3. John Force, 2,279; 4. Ron Capps, 2,268; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,215; 6. J.R. Todd, 2,214; 7. Matt Hagan, 2,211; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,191; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,187; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,152.

Pro Stock _1. Erica Enders, 2,332; 2. Jason Line, 2,294; 3. Matt Hartford, 2,293; 4. Bo Butner, 2,265; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,244; 6. Jeg Coughlin Jr., 2,221; 7. Alex Laughlin, 2,208; 8. Greg Anderson, 2,181; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,165; 10. Val Smeland, 2,093.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1. Andrew Hines, 2,387; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,330; 3. Eddie Krawiec, 2,272; 4. Jerry Savoie, 2,245; 5. Hector Arana Jr., 2,242; 6. Matt Smith, 2,236; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,171; 8. Angie Smith, 2,148; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,127; 10. Hector Arana, 2,096.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 18 2019
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