Top Fuel veteran Doug Kalitta watched Connie Kalitta – his uncle, team owner, and NHRA pioneer – thrash and toil and persevere to win the U.S. Nationals.
And Monday at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, it was his turn.
Family history repeated itself, as the Michigan-headquartered airline owner and pilot earned his first victory at the NHRA’s Labor Day classic. His 46th triumph, one he called “a thing of beauty,” came against the year’s surprise racer, Billy Torrence.
With his 4.144-second, 212.43-mph pass on the 1,000-foot course, Kalitta claimed the No. 2 seed in the Countdown to the Championship that will start in two weeks at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway.
Kalitta shared the winners circle with John Force (Funny Car), Alex Laughlin (Pro Stock), and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
What made Kaltta’s accomplishment so special was that it marked Uncle Connie’s 25th-anniversary celebration of his own Indianapolis victory over Eddie Hill in 1994.
“I was running the Silver Crown race [at DuQuoin, Ill.],” the former USAC national sprint-car champion said, “and we had a delay [at Indianapolis]. Connie was running Eddie Hill in the final. I made it here just in the nick of time to see the final. It was a huge deal. He had been trying to win this for a real long time.”
That’s how it all played out for Doug Kalitta, too. He tried 22 times before – since 1998 – and came close with three runner-up finishes, including last year to Terry McMillen.
“I’m a real persistent guy, so I never give up,” he said. “It does make you wonder. though.” He said that after surviving the first round, “I was thinking this is going to be a good opportunity, and I’m just glad we were able to take advantage of it.
“You’ve got to be on your game, and I’m not getting any younger,” Kalitta, 55, said.
But he certainly looked in his prime as he advanced past Clay Millican, the driver who had trailed him by only four points in the standings; Brittany Force, the event’s No. 1 qualifier; and Austin Prock, the class’ hottest rookie driver.
Kalitta defeated Millican in the opening round by three-thousandths of a second on a holeshot.
“These guys out here are all so good. It worked out well just getting by Clay, because those guys are always tough,” he said.
It didn’t get easier. He had to face top qualifier Brittany Force next.
“I just try to stay patient and make sure I go when that light comes on. We try not to worry about who’s in the other lane, but Brittany’s car has been on a rail. She qualified first, so we knew we had a tough run there,” he said. “And it was a close race.”
He wasn’t done meeting John Force Racing drivers. In the semifinal he drew Prock.
“They’ve got quite an arsenal over there,” Kalitta said. “Austin’s doing an awesome job, and I think all of us are trying to keep up with how hard he’s hitting that tree. He left on me by a little bit. Fortunately we were able to get by him.”
The final, Kalitta said, “was kind of ugly. At 800 feet, it seemed like my car was just coasting with no power. I thought it was over, but the win light came on. It just started spinning the tires, and I’m not sure if it threw the belt off or what happened. It pretty much died out there, but we were close enough to the line. That’s all that matters.
Kalitta said he’s “looking forward to the Countdown. It’s what it’s all about. My guys are going to have plenty of skip in our step heading into the Countdown – including me. We just have to keep our head down and go rounds and try to prevail.” He said his mantra will be “Just don’t suck” and said, “It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to get this going. It’s going to be another great opportunity.”
On Billy Torrence’s way to a runner-up performance of 4.220 seconds at 206.01 mph, the 60-year-old part-time racer bumped McMillen from the playoff line-up.
Torrence, making only his 10th appearance of the season, triggered a new Countdown strategy. In his first nine races, Torrence had victories at Phoenix and Sonoma, Calif., and a runner-up finish to his trophy-hogging son Steve at Topeka. Billy Torrence arrived in Indianapolis just 41 points out of the top 10, and he proved a strong racer doesn’t have to attend all 18 “regular-season” races to be eligible to run for the title. After all, Billy Torrence missed eight of the 18 qualifying races all while Steve Torrence won eight races.
Mike Salinas opted out of a couple of races, as well, and landed fifth in the order.
“It’s still just a six-race shootout,” Steve Torrencxe said. “Yeah, we had a great regular season. We won eight times, and my dad won twice. But when we go to Reading, I’ll just be 20 points ahead of Doug. We’ve got a great team, a great car, and a great track record, but that’s just history. You still have to perform in the playoffs.”
As he goes for back-to-back series crowns, Steve Torrence can gain some reassurance that 18 of the 48 pro titles decided in the Countdown era have gone to No. 1 seeds, including six of the past nine in Top Fuel.
The U.S. Nationals, with its points-and-a-half system, introduced Billy Torrence to the Countdown mix and shuffled the order a bit. The standings are: 1. Steve Torrence, 2. Doug Kalitta, 3. Antron Brown, 4. Brittany Force, 5. Mike Salinas, 6. Clay Millican, 7. Leah Pritchett, 8. Austin Prock, 9. Richie Crampton, 10. Billy Torrence.
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019