The coronavirus that has sidelined NHRA drag racing since mid-March hasn’t affected Kalitta Motorsports the way it has other teams.
In fact, the beat goes on as usual for the Ypsilanti, Mich.-based operation. Not one employee has been laid off or furloughed in the six-plus weeks since the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was postponed on the eve of pro category qualifying.
Once the haulers carrying the Top Fuel dragsters of points leader Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon, and the Funny Car of J.R. Todd, returned home and were unloaded, the employees turned their talents to other endeavors, even down to giving a fresh look to the landscaping at the shop that borders I-94.
For the most part, though, the race teams’ employees have taken their mechanical skill to helping out at Kalitta Air, the business run by team owner Connie Kalitta, and Kalitta Charters, which is the business operated by his nephew, Doug. Those companies have a combined fleet of almost 70 jets.
And while their new, temporary endeavors won’t offer a competitive advantage once racing resumes, it may have a psychological up-side. The Kalitta crewmen have been able to stay busy using their hands and brains for something other than video games or Netflix binges during the stay-home orders in various states. While much of Michigan was locked down by its governor’s orders during the pandemic, Kalitta Motorsports employees became “essential employees” as members of the airlines’ roster.
“We don’t have any edge as far as performance because they haven’t been working on racecar stuff,” said Chad Head, the team’s general manager since early 2017.
“Maybe the edge we have is morale since nobody’s been laid off, and that all goes back to Connie having this great airline. Other race teams don’t have that luxury. I’m hoping we can come out of the gate when we go back racing immediately and gel — 6 feet apart, of course, and practicing all the new things that we’ve got to do to stay healthy and clean.
“I think as a group, yes, maybe we can have an edge. But competition-wise, we’re still going to be racing the bad-ass guys out there: the Torrences, the Forces, the Schumachers. They haven’t lost their tune-up. They’re going to come out of the gate running as hard as they were when all this stopped.”
Kalitta Motorsports is one of the most well-rounded teams in the sport. With 12 CNC machines in the shop, the operation crafts most of the parts needed for its three entries. “Cylinder heads, blower pulleys — you name it, these guys are making it,” Head said.
There are three employees in a chassis department that build the cars, and a composite department makes “a lot of parts and pieces,” Head said. Doug Kalitta’s dragster, which won the 2020 season opener at Pomona and was the runner-up at Phoenix, is shod with a one-piece body that’s created in-house. Todd’s Toyota Camry Funny Car body is produced by another Michigan-based operation, Roush Industries.
“Connie’s philosophy is why pay somebody to do it when we can do it now,” Head said. “Sometimes it gets you in trouble, but I think everybody here has done a really good job managing it. Brian Landry and Dave Boyer and those guys, they do a great job repairing our blown-up stuff. … We try to do everything we can in-house.
“They’ve created a great company here. Jim Oberhofer was here forever, and he did a wonderful job putting this job together. I”m just reaping the benefits of a lot of people’s hard work. Bob Watts, Scott Dennis who runs the CNC shop, Boyer, Landry, Jon Oberhofer, Troy Fasching — you’ve got a lot of people that have been here for a long time that have done a great job for this company. It boils back down to Connie giving us all the tools necessary and getting the support from Dougie. It’s a good place to work, it really is.”
So when racing was forced to the back burner by the Covid-19 virus, the Kalittas kept the employees busy with the aircraft businesses. The race teams’ crewmen have been doing just about everything imaginable during that time.
“Kalitta Air and Kalitta Charters are really busy right now,” Head said. “We’re fortunate that they needed some help so we’ve put these guys to work over there. They’re doing everything from making tools that work on Learjets — sockets that take stuff apart — and they’re taking planes apart that were bought for parts only. They buy the plane, then take all the parts off and sell them, or you use the parts in your fleet.
“They’re doing a lot of fabrication, a lot of fiberglass and carbon work, a lot of generators. The start carts you see that plug into jets to start them up? Those are just big generators, and we’re taking them down to the block and replacing the crank, rods, pistons, bearings — just fixing stuff that needs to be done.
“We’re here to help any way we can, and we’re fortunate that Connie is putting us to work in other areas of his business. … We’ve got a lot of self-motivation here. People want to be here. I was fortunate enough about an hour ago to let everybody know, ‘hey, Connie wants you to have Fridays off because when we do get racing again, it’s going to be hard. So everybody at Kalitta Air and Kalitta Charters, spend time with family now while you can.’ That’s the kind of guy we work for. He genuinely cares about us, and I can’t say enough about him.”
The only hardship faced by the racing operation is a freeze on spending, but without racing, there’s no need to incur unnecessary expenses.
But Head and some trusted associates are formulating plans for how to attack a very compressed season once racing resumes, be that June, July or whenever.
“We’re forecasting down the road on what to do because we are going to definitely run multiple races in a row,” he said. “So we’re doing some forecasting with our rods, pistons, cranks, clutch discs, floaters, valve springs — all your parts that you just can’t get off the shelf in a couple of days.
“The only money we’re spending right now is tools for the CNC department and materials to make stuff for Kalitta Air, Kalitta Charters. That’s it.”
Well, in truth Head added that he spent “a coupla thousand bucks this week” on landscape materials. He and several other Kalitta employees ripped out the mulched beds at the race shop and replaced the mulch with rock.
“We are not stocked up on racing equipment for the rest of the year,” Head said, “but we have plans — once we get another official schedule — to start spending money once Connie gives us the OK to continue to be able to finish the 2020 season.”