The final round of the Mopar Express Lane Nationals produced the match-up every NHRA Top Fuel fan wanted to see Sunday at World Wide Technology Raceway in suburban St. Louis.
And in the stinging cold, Doug Kalitta heated up the chase for the championship.
He defeated points leader and reigning class king Steve Torrence to pull within two points of the Capco Contractors Dragster ace with three races remaining on the schedule.
With a trail of smoke behind his Mac Tools / Toyota Dragster, Kalitta powered to his 49th victory on the 1,000-foot course at Madison, Ill., in 3.690 seconds at 322.58 mph.
Torrence lost traction early in this rematch of the Phoenix final in February, and he was no factor with a 9.111-second elapsed time at an 82.58-mph speed.
(Kalitta had faced the Torrence tandem twice this year and lost both times – at Phoenix to Steve and, five months later, to Steve’s father, Billy, at Indianapolis when racing resumed in July. Both times he retained his points lead.)
After sharing the winners circle Sunday with Funny Car’s Tommy Johnson Jr., Kalitta said he was pleased to “get some momentum going for the last three races. This is going to do a lot for us, for sure.”
The series, which just announced earlier in the afternoon it has secured sponsorship from Camping World for the rest of this year and at least 2021, will move to Torrence’s home state of Texas for events at Ennis, south of Dallas, and Baytown, east of Houston. The 2020 finale is set for Oct. 30-Nov. 1 at Las Vegas.
Kalitta advanced to his 105th overall final round and fourth of the year easily. The throttle on opponent Tony Schumacher’s Okuma / Sandvik Coromant Dragster became stuck and the supercharger exploded. Schumacher wheeled the wounded car to the left wall and coasted downtrack. It took so long that Kalitta’s car was shut off. The Mac Tools Dragster crew members sprinted to the pits to retrieve enough fuel to top the tank, and they refired the engine. Kalitta sped to lane choice over Torrence in the final.
So what was going through Kalitta’s mind during all this curious chaos?
He said, “At this point in the game, when we’re counting points . . . ‘Perfect! Get it off the track so I can run!’ That’s about all I was thinkin’.
“But it’s very uncommon, knock on wood. Tony and I have raced a ton of times, and we’ve never seen anything like that,” Kalitta said.
But he took that semifinal win nonetheless.
Kalitta denied Torrence his 40th victory in his fourth final-round appearance of the season, too, and 59th overall.
A 50th victory – which would tie Antron Brown for No. 4 on the Top Fuel all-time list – isn’t at the top of his mind right now, he said.
“That championship, that’s the No. 1 prize,” Kalitta said. “We’re hoping to get a couple more wins, for sure. There’s three opportunities left. We’ll go to the next one, get two qualifying runs, and line ‘er up.
“When you’re rolling up to the staging lights, you’re obviously thinking about the win. We’re all counting points, and we’re all figuring out what we can do to get ahead. The only place you can do it is on that starting line. And obviously, you’ve got to have a great effort behind you. We’ve got Connie and he’s having a good time.” He said he likes “keeping the boss happy, turning the win light on.”
On a day full of wild crashes and explosions in several classes and that odd semifinal match-up with longtime rival Tony Schumacher, Kalitta parlayed the wind and the cold temperatures and trick track conditions to his advantage. He dismissed U.S. Nationals winner Shawn Langdon and emerging threat T.J. Zizzo, then had a solo pass into the final round.
“The conditions were real good, and the guys really had my car running good today. Real proud of these Mac Tools guys. Toyota’s a big part of making our car run and knowing what the track’s doing. So it’s a big team effort, really,” Kalitta said.
Throughout the day, Kalitta said, he was “wondering what the delays are.” Two pairs behind him in the quarterfinals, in the lane opposite No. 1 qualifier Schumacher, Leah Pruett’s dragster launched into the air, broke in half, and slammed her back onto the track on its side in a frightening-looking crash that seemed to copycat Larry Dixon’s accident in 2015 at Gainesville, Fla. She quickly popped open her canopy and climbed out on her own. But it was one of several scary moments that included wrecks by Pro Stock’s Kenny Delco and explosions for Ron Capps and Alexis De Joria, as well as an incident for Top Dragster driver Phil Oakley. NHRA officials postponed the balance of racing in the Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Pro Modified, and Factory Stock classes, as well as the rest of Lucas Oil Series sportsman racing.
Kalitta said he was in no danger: “I have to admit . . . these Top Fuel cars have a wing on the front and back of this thing that you can run across a slick piece of ice with, just about. I mean, it really has some downforce. Some of the cars don’t. So the conditions today were tricky for cars without a lot of downforce. Fortunately, with a Top Fuel car, with the wind, it doesn’t matter what’s going on.”
He did admit that the mid-year change from two qualifying days to one (four chances to two) has heightened the tension at events since July.
“It’s a crapshoot. Everything about what we do here is a crapshoot, it seems like,” Kalitta said. “Two runs . . . If you hit it on the first run, everybody’s happy. Normally, my car, we can get it down the track, but two qualifying runs is a little tricky. But it is what it is. We’re up for the challenge.”
Coming here, where he already had won three previous times (2001, 2003, 2004), was like old times, Kalitta said: “I love running in St. Louis. I’m probably one of the few guys who has run over at the paved oval and over here [at the dragstrip]. I’ve been coming here for a number of years and at Granite City [Ill.]. The guys who race midgets were here the other day. I used to race here with my midget. It’s a good racing town.”
Before he began his Top Fuel career, Kalitta raced USAC midgets and sprints and won 21 times (14 in midgets, seven in sprints). He was the USAC Midget Series rookie of the year in 1991 and USAC Sprint Car national champion in 1994.
Torrence, the two-time and reigning Top Fuel champion, was seeking his fourth victory of the year. He is is trying to join Joe Amato and Tony Schumacher as only the third Top Fuel racer to win three straight series titles. Amato did it from 1990 through 1992, and Schumacher reigned from 2004-2009. A victory would have made Torrence just the 23rd pro driver to reach the 40-win plateau and just the sixth to accomplish that in Top Fuel. And it would have given the Torrence team four in a row at this race. Steve Torrence scored back-to-back successes for in 2017 and 2018, and Billy Torrence defeated his son here a year ago.
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