In the Air and at the Track with the Team Kalitta Sky Guys It's nine o'clock Friday morning and the usual suspects have started assembling in the vast airplane hangar at Kalitta Charters. This group of Kalitta Motorsports fly boys of course ...
In the Air and at the Track with the Team Kalitta Sky Guys
It's nine o'clock Friday morning and the usual suspects have started assembling in the vast airplane hangar at Kalitta Charters. This group of Kalitta Motorsports fly boys of course includes the two most well known flying Kalittas, drag racing patriarch Connie and his nephew and quarter-mile ace Doug, who will soon take their respective helms as pilots of this aerial adventure. Also on the passenger list are two Team Kalitta crew guys who have crisscrossed the country many times taking off and landing at one NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event after another with Doug and Connie.
Scott Finnis has been flying with the Kalittas for the longest amount of time. Finnis' association with one of the most respected names in drag racing history began when he signed on in 1993 to help as a crewman for Doug when the younger Kalitta was still driving open-wheel Sprint racers in USAC. Finnis worked with the Sprint car team until 1998 when Doug got the call from his uncle to go straight line racing in the family business. According to Finnis, he helped back then with "everything but putting together motors". Doug, with the guidance of his father Doug Sr., crew chief and engine builder Jerry Danowski and Finnis, captured the 1994 USAC Sprint Car World Championship as well as runner-up points finishes the two following years.
When Doug went to the NHRA, Finnis followed him to Kalitta Motorsports. Finnis has been a cylinder head specialist with the Ypsilanti, Mich., based racing outfit ever since. "It's kind of hard to do anything but cylinder heads when you're a F.I.G. (fly-in guy)," Finnis said. "Most of the other responsibilities on the car require somebody to be there before Friday." He continues to repair and maintain cylinder heads on the KB Racing LLC Top Fueler driven by young gun Hillary Will. Finnis does not get to spend the rest of his time sitting in his recliner at home, however. He also works in the Team Kalitta machine shop helping with general repairs and fabrication. He was recently given the reigns to the shop's new CNC machine where he has quickly learned to create anything from small brackets to dragster throttle pedals, and he also uses the precision equipment to repair cylinder head combustion chambers.
Not being on the road as much as his fellow crewmen does have a few drawbacks according to the 32-year old who grew up in Belleville, Mich., just a few miles from the race shop. "I was out on the road for a year when I first started working here. I miss hanging out with the team for celebration dinners and things like that. We used to have a lot of fun going from race to race and checking out the sights. I miss that. I guess the thing I like least about being a FIG is not always being around when the guys need me. When they are tearing everything down on Sunday, I'm on my way home. I feel like I'm letting them down sometimes."
The father of two, son Cola, 2, and daughter Lola, 1, is happy though that he gets to spend more time with his wife, Andrea, and the rest of his family. "I get to spend a lot more time with my family than the other guys. I know that has to be tough for them. Plus, I get to stay at the shop and learn how to do new things, and I get to weld and use the CNC, which I really enjoy. I get to fly on a private jet with two of the biggest names in the history of drag racing almost every week, so that's pretty cool too."
Finnis' flying cohort is native Australian Dave "Dingo" Griffiths, who has been with Kalitta Motorsports since 2002. He left his home Sydney in 2000 to join Graham Cowin's Top Fuel team here in the States. Unlike Finnis however, Griffiths has spent quite a bit more time on the ground traveling the highways and byways of the U.S. >From his inaugural year with the team until the beginning of the 2006 NHRA season, Griffiths traveled with his team like most other crewmen, via van or race car rig, serving as rods and piston specialist and also doing some bottom end work on the Mac Tools Top Fuel rail driven by Doug.
At the beginning of 2006, the three-car racing operation became four with the addition of Will's dragster, and that added workload to the machine shop in Ypsilanti. Griffiths, who was getting a little road weary, asked the Kalitta powers that be if he could begin working with Finnis in the machine shop under the guidance of the machine shop manager and Team Kalitta fixture Jim "Wild Man" Becker and machine shop assistant Brian Landry. Griffiths, who now serves as one of the cylinder head specialists on the Mac Tools machine, was granted his request and is grateful for the exclusive opportunity so that he can focus now on growing his new family.
"I got married last September and obviously being able to fly into the races has been a great advantage," Griffiths, who resides in Saline, Mich., with his wife Brittany and stepson Jordan, 15, said. "I like being able to work in the machine shop, too, with Wild Man and Brian. I have a lot of fun with those guys, and I've learned a great deal from both of them. I've always liked being able to fix things if they are broken, and with Nitro cars, it's not hard to find a few broken things after an event."
"Like Scott, I miss the camaraderie of being with my teammates out on the road sometimes. I've had a lot of laughs with those guys over the years. It is also difficult leaving them behind when you know that they are still working, but when Connie's ready to go home, we better be ready too. He's quite impatient about waiting around once all of our cars have finished racing, so once we're all through, Scott and I and everyone on the plane know we better be ready to go to the airport in a hurry."
Griffiths and Finnis take their share of friendly ribbing from their on-the-road teammates, but they each know they are important pieces to the legendary puzzle that makes Team Kalitta one of the most successful drag racing teams in history.
"I figure since I get to work on his race cars and fly with him in his private jet that Connie likes me," Finnis concluded. "That's a whole lot better than having Connie not like you."