NHRA: It’s a golden moment for Connie Kalitta

One couldn’t help but pull for Doug Kalitta on Tuesday afternoon in the finals of the 49th Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals for one reason: Pulling for Doug Kalitta meant pulling for Connie Kalitta.

The man known as “The Bounty Hunter” in his racing days is celebrating his 50th year in drag racing, but nobody could have faulted him if he had stopped at 49.

He will be 71 on Feb. 24, and has given the bulk of his life to drag racing. Last year he gave his son, Scott, a two-time champion who was killed instantly in a qualifying crash at Englishtown, N.J.

Kalitta Motorsports was at the next event a week later, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that it cobbled together its resources to open the Full Throttle Drag Racing season at the series’ second-most prestigious race.

Conrad “Connie” Kalitta is a drag racer, and will be for as long as his heart continues to beat. It’s what he knows, it’s what he is.

He won 10 races as a driver, including the Winternatonals in 1967, and was part of three NHRA Top Fuel championships. He was crew chief for Shirley Muldowney when she won a title in 1977, and was team owner when Scott Kalitta won in 1994 and 1995.

Nephew Doug Kalitta almost gave Connie a few more titles but finished second in 2003-04, and 2006

It was in 2006 that Doug Kalitta lost the championship by 14 points only because Tony Schumacher set a national elapsed time record — worth 20 points — in the final pass of the final race. It is regarded as the greatest pass in drag racing history and for good reason.

But Kalitta won only one race since, near the end of the 2007 season and reached only one other final. The team has hardly been the same. This victory was Kalitta Motorsports’ second in 55 races, and first since Scott was killed on June 22.

“They’re all emotional,” Connie said of the victory, having worn out a couple of toothpicks sitting in the passenger side of an SUV as he readied to leave Auto Club Raceway. “(We) just go down the road. Oddly enough, that was the same car Scott drove here in the 2005, the same cockpit. The rules and regulations made us change the back half and the front half.”

That would be the same roll cage area that carried Scott Kalitta to victory at the Winternationals in 2005.

“I think of Scott when I’m up on the line all the time and still use some of the techniques he taught me to get motivated before a race, so he’s always riding with me,” Doug Kalitta said of his late cousin. “I am sure he was watching over us and he’s really proud that all three Kalittas have now won here at Pomona.”

He said that Connie seemed unusually responsive. “He was in the winner’s circle pictures with us today, so he was real excited,” Doug said following his 31st career victory. “We’re just happy he’s still enjoying this. In his 50th year he’s still going strong, it’s just great to see that he still loves the sport like he does  and keeps it going in the family.”

Ron Capps was in his Funny Car lined up behind Antron Brown when the Top Fuel final went down. The moment wasn’t lost on him, either.

“It was emotional, especially with Doug winning in front of me,” said Capps, who broke a 40-race winless streak by beating Jim Head. “We usually go in front of dragsters. It surprised me … When (Kalitta) won, we were in the right lane but I was looking at the body language of their guys (in the left) and I can imagine the emotion Connie and that whole group was going through with Scott and all. I was fighting back tears a little bit there. … I just wanted to get down there and celebrate with Doug.”

The winning result was some long-overdue good news for the Ypsilanti, Mich.-based team.

The economic meltdown claimed Mac Tools, which had been the team’s primary sponsor. No longer driving the red-and-white, Doug Kalitta raced to 1,000 feet Tuesday in 3.822 seconds, 0.025 faster than Brown. The dragster had a yellow livery celebrating Connie’s 50th year in the sport he helped shape from the front row.

The financial crisis also claimed two other Kalitta entries, those driven by David Grubnic and Hillary Will. Only the DHL Toyota Solara Funny Car driven by Jeff Arend — the package that Scott Kalitta drove last season — is fully funded for 2009.

Yet maybe there is a silver lining for the Bounty Hunter’s team. He says they will take this season one race at a time, and the victory ensures the Kalitta car will show up in Phoenix. With fewer teams expected to contest the entire season, maybe Doug Kalitta can still qualify for the six-race Countdown to One. If he can do that, with crew chief Jim Oberhofer calling the shots, there might be enough in the well for another championship in the Kalitta camp.

That would really make it a golden anniversary.


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