No. 21: Connie Kalitta
In a career that spans all eras of drag racing, Connie Kalitta has done almost everything and done absolutely all of it his way.
Dogged determination took Kalitta from a beginner like everyone else in the 1950s to a factory-sponsored Top Fuel driver in the 1960s to a self-made multimillionaire in airfreight and championship-winning crew chief for Shirley Muldowney in the 1970s to a satisfied multi-championship-winning car owner in the 1990s who sometimes still drove for the hell of it.
Coming out of Michigan with a series of A/Ds, AA/Ds and AA/FDs, Kalitta always made power and ran fast. After outrunning one of the top drivers of the day, he'd cross another name off a most-wanted list that was painted right below the roll cage of his Bounty Hunter dragsters.
Kalitta began touring in 1963, going blow for blow with "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, "T.V. Tommy" Ivo, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme, Chris "the Greek" Karamesines, and "Sneaky Pete" Robinson and always winning his share. His first major win came against a huge field of Top Fuelers, including Garlits in the final, at the Smokers Fuel & Gas Championships in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1964, back when that race ranked with the Winternationals in Pomona and the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis as drag racing's biggest.
Later that year, Kalitta made his historic 200-mph run during Nationals qualifying at three-year-old Indianapolis Raceway Park. It wasn't the first 200-mph pass - that was either Chris Karamesines' disputed 204.54 in Alton, Ill., in 1960 or Garlits' runs earlier in 1964 in Great Meadows, N.J. - but it was the first 200 at an NHRA national event.
In the mid-1960s, Kalitta replaced his 392 Hemi with an SOHC Cammer Ford and stuck with that once unworkable combination until by early 1967 he was running better than anyone. He beat Gene Goleman to win the NHRA Winternationals, his first NHRA title after numerous near misses, and with the winnings from that race and the 1967 AHRA and NASCAR Winternationals, he bought his first plane, a 310 Cessna.
Kalitta ran a 429 Boss Shotgun Ford hemi in 1969 in his last front-engine dragster and campaigned a rear-engine car briefly in the early 1970s. His rear-engine wedge was destroyed in an infamous crash at the 1971 Nationals, when it went over the guardrail and broke apart at the scoreboards.
A year later, during a little break from the rigors of NHRA competition, Kalitta turned his interest in planes into a business that eventually would provide him the wherewithal to race on his own terms for the rest of his life. Connie Kalitta Services, based at Detroit-Willow Run airport, operated passenger and freight flights within the United States. He later branched into international freight flights and expanded his fleet to include DC8 and DC9 jets, Learjets, and Boeing 747 freighters and 727s.
Kalitta didn't drive again until the late 1970s. After dabbling in Funny Cars for a time, he sold a used one to Shirley Muldowney and a tumultuous relationship grew. Before they parted, Kalitta was her crew chief when she won the 1977 Top Fuel championship and became the first female world champion in a Professional category.
Back behind the wheel in 1978, by which time his air-cargo business was booming, Kalitta reestablished himself as a driver immediately. He won the IHRA points title in 1979, and with a runner-up to Richard Tharp in Montreal that year reached his first NHRA final since the 1967 Winternationals. The 1980s began with a runner-up to Muldowney in Pomona, and within a couple of years, he was back to winning national events regularly.
Kalitta's best years during this time were 1982 and 1985, when he appeared in numerous finals. He won the IHRA championship again in 1982 and beat Muldowney in Montreal for his first NHRA national event win in 15 years.
Even when he wasn't winning, Kalitta was competitive. In Indianapolis in 1981, he beat Jerry Ruth in the quickest side-by-side race of all time with a 5.74. Thirteen years later, with a time one second quicker, 4.74, he came out on the losing end of an all-time-quickest side-by-side race against Cory McClenathan in Phoenix. In between, he was involved in six other all-time-quickest or -fastest side-by-side contests.
Kalitta was usually good for at least a win a year, and he finished in the top 10 seven times in the 1980s. At the 1989 Winternationals, 22 years after he'd won the race with a 7.17, he became the first to exceed the 290-mph barrier anywhere with a 291.54-mph qualifying run.
Perhaps the finest season of Kalitta's illustrious career was one of his last, in 1994, when in his late 50s he beat son Scott at the Gatornationals in the first father-son Top Fuel final. He also scored in Atlanta and finally won in Indy after being runner-up there to Muldowney in the race of her life in 1982 and to Garlits in the race of his in 1984.
In the only under-the-lights Indy final ever, crew chief Tim Richards powered Kalitta to his last victory and greatest ever, 4.80 to 4.87 against an even older Eddie Hill.
Presiding over Winston Top Fuel championships for Scott and crew chief Dick LaHaie in the mid-1990s was another highlight of Kalitta's recent career. In 1994, though he won repeatedly and ran stronger than ever, Scott claimed the first of back-to-back championships and tied the record for most consecutive Top Fuel victories with four straight.
All told, Connie Kalitta won 10 NHRA national events between 1967 and 1994 and appeared in 22 finals between 1963 and 1996. One of the few who could ever get away with telling off Garlits or "the Greek," he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992.
Kalitta drove as recently as 1999 and posted lifetime bests of 4.58 and 314 mph. Today he is 63 and still runs the Mac Tools Top Fuel program of nephew Doug Kalitta as an owner who races with corporate backing but has the personal resources to compete at the sport's highest level without it. -- Todd Veney
Comments from the panel
"Conrad Kalitta is as legendary a figure in drag racing as there is. He came from Michigan in the early 1960s, proclaiming himself to be a world beater and displaying his "Wanted" list of drivers he planned to defeat on the side of his dragster. Kalitta ultimately beat them all, and in the process earned himself a reputation as a hard-nosed competitor whether driving, tuning, building or managing a drag race team." -- Jim Hill