Kalitta quietly assumes points lead "The championship is the biggest goal." -Doug Kalitta For the first time in his NHRA drag racing career, which began with his Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future...
Kalitta quietly assumes points lead
"The championship is the biggest goal."
For the first time in his NHRA drag racing career, which began with his Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award-winning season of 1998, Doug Kalitta, 39, driver of the Mac Tools flagship Top Fuel dragster, is leading the way in POWERade championship points following his win in St. Louis.
Much like his well-documented demeanor, the 2003 points runner-up who resides in Ann Arbor, Mich., quietly fought to the top of the Top Fuel heap by accumulating 17 round wins out of a possible 24 in the last six races, while acquiring two title trophies in Chicago and St. Louis. With 12 races down, Kalitta has already been to five final rounds.
Going into the seventh event of 2004 in Atlanta, Kalitta, a 17-time NHRA national event winner, was a distant 182 points off of the pace of leader Tony Schumacher. Now, with a slim 11-point lead over Schumacher and just 48 markers up on third-place Brandon Bernstein, he goes into the Western Swing of consecutive races in Denver, Seattle and Sonoma with a new outlook and an old confidence.
All three Kalitta cars, including Doug's (near lane) and Scott's, looked good under the lights of St. Louis. Racers Edge Photography
Holder of the quickest and fastest time slips in NHRA history after running a 4.420 in Chicago and a 335.57 mph in Las Vegas, Kalitta knows the road to the championship will be treacherous and sometimes slippery to hold, much like the speedway motorcycle ice racing that he and his father, Doug Sr., competed in when Doug Jr. was younger.
Kalitta's successes on the Western Swing have become a trademark of his career. Since his rookie season of 1998, he has won 36 rounds out of a possible 72 in those three events. His first win of his career came in Sonoma in 1998, where he beat Bruce Sarver on a holeshot. He would win the following two years in Sonoma to make it three straight. In 1999, he went to consecutive finals in Denver and Seattle before winning in Sonoma.
The Western Swing begins this week at Denver's Bandimere Speedway where Kalitta was runner-up last year to defending Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon. Kalitta was also a finalist in Denver in 1999 and 2001.
In this one-on-one conversation Kalitta describes the volley of emotions that has evoked both tears and smiles since his St. Louis win that occurred in the shadow of Darrell Russell's death, his success on the Swing, and what the championship means to him and his famous family's drag racing legacy.
Q: How does it feel to finally lead the points?
Kalitta: It's huge for me and for the Mac Tools team because it's our first time to lead. But, as great as a feeling it is right now, we know that there are still a lot of races left. We want to go out and concentrate on winning each race. That's our best bet to keep the championship race in perspective and to keep it from distracting us from winning rounds, which will ultimately lead to the championship if we can keep consistently doing that.
Rahn [Tobler, co-crew chief], Connie [Kalitta, owner, crew chief and drag racing legend], and all of our guys have our car running better than it ever has and are working really great together. Hopefully, we can keep up the momentum and the consistency will follow.
Q: Why are you so good on the Western Swing?
Kalitta: I don't know if I really have a good answer. It's hard to pin down exactly why we always do so well out there. I wish we knew exactly why so we could maybe patent the formula and sell it to the other teams, well, maybe just Funny Car teams. I enjoy the scenery when we are out west. I think it puts a different perspective on things and that may be part of it.
Then, there's the whole Jeff Gordon thing. I seem to win Sonoma every year Jeff wins the NASCAR race so hopefully Sonoma is ours this year because he won the NASCAR race there a few weeks ago.
Q: What would winning the NHRA title mean to you?
Kalitta: It would mean that we can finally say we beat the best of the best consistently enough to be called champions. We're still such a long way away that I don't really want to even think about it, but it is certainly the one goal I have not accomplished that I'd like to have most of all. I still want to win Indy too, but the championship is the biggest goal.
Q: Would a title solidify you in the Kalitta legacy?
Kalitta: Absolutely. I have had a great career so far, but I am the only one of the three of us that has not won a championship (Doug's cousin Scott Kalitta won championships in 1994 and 1995, while uncle Connie has won five championships as a driver, crew chief, and owner.) I've won more races than they have, (Scott, 15, and Connie, 10) but it just doesn't seem valid without a championship too. Hopefully, this will be our year.
Q: How did you cope with Russell's death in St. Louis?
Kalitta: I was kind of in denial about his death until I was riding home. After we got word about what happened, I just keep thinking someone was going to come back and say he was okay. Like watching scary movies, I normally just turn them off and with Darrell, I just didn't really want to talk about what happened, which looking at it now probably wasn't the best tactic to take. After the final, I kept waiting for Bill Stephens (ESPN reporter) to tell us it was all a big misunderstanding and that Darrell was going to be okay.
I didn't know they were going to talk about what had happened to him. They put me on camera after the run and I kind of froze up. I was still in denial about Darrell's death and really did not want to talk about it because I was still hoping it wasn't true. When it was all said and done, I'm glad we decided to avoid all the winner's circle stuff and just head home.
Darrell was a great man and a great racer. We'll miss him and never forget him.
Q: Did it help to have your family there?
Kalitta: My family is very supportive. It just helps you remember that there are so many things in your life that are far more important than race cars.
Q: Do you feel safer with the new rule changes?
Kalitta: I think I will. Anything that NHRA can do to make the cars safer is fine with me. I hope we can keep the performance near what we have now. Our crew is extremely safety conscious. Driving these cars is such a thrill but ultimately it's going home to your family that means so much more.