Doug Kalitta, the nephew of drag racing icon Conrad “Connie” Kalitta, began his professional racing career as a USAC open-wheel competitor in 1991, earning that year’s midget-series Rookie of the Year honors. Just three seasons later, he became a USAC national sprint car champion. In 1998, he followed in his famous uncle’s and cousin Scott’s footsteps and went NHRA Top Fuel racing. His success was immediate, but the championships proved elusive.
Kalitta was runner-up for the Top Fuel title in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2016, 2019, and 2020, often losing out in heartbreaking fashion to last-minute heroics from his championship challengers. But in a heavy helping of irony, it was crew chief Alan Johnson, the man who saddled Doug with inarguably his lowest moment, that delivered his finest 17 long years later.
Doug’s run to his first NHRA Top Fuel world championship, one of the most popular in the sport’s history, mirrors in ways Tony Schumacher’s crushing defeat of him in 2006. That year, Schumacher and his Johnson-led dragster trailed the leader by more than 300 points at one time, and took the championship all the way to the final run of the season to claim the title. This season, Kalitta entered the Countdown to the Championship sixth in the standings, but had breakout performances when he needed them most, propelling himself into the points lead and racing all the way to a historic winner-take-all final round at In ‘N Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip on Sunday evening to finally seal the deal.
Kalitta Motorsports brought the decorated crew chief Johnson aboard at the beginning of the 2022 season, but Kalitta went winless on the year. The pair was mired in the bottom half of the top 10 in the standings through 13 races in the regular season, but came alive in the Countdown, as Kalitta won back-to-back races at Reading and Charlotte to take the points lead — a lead he relegated at Dallas and didn’t reclaim until the final run at the In-N-Out Burger Finals.
In an incredible final round with shades of Gary Ormsby’s and Joe Amato’s iconic winner-take-all final round at the 1990 Winston Finals, Kalitta left first and powered away from Leah Pruett, 3.67 to a 3.72, bringing racing fans who have followed his career for 26 seasons to their feet in celebration. Twenty six years of disappointment; 26 seasons of reporters asking “is this the year?” all came down to one run.
“It’s incredible the way the points thing worked out to come down to that last run,” the new champion said. “I just stayed focused. It was obviously a big round, and it played out just perfectly. I got to the end of the track and was like, ‘I cannot believe these guys are still looking at me and high fiving’ because unfortunately, I missed the win light. Everybody was down there, and it was something I looked forward to all my life. It was a hell of a drag race, and it was nice to get the win.”
Kalitta qualified fifth and defeated Dan Mercier, Josh Hart, Justin Ashley and Leah Pruett on his way to the winner’s circle and the Top Fuel championship. After Mike Salinas lost in the first round, Justin Ashley moved up to fourth in points, and the top-four drivers in points all advanced to the semifinals.
“That [Top Fuel champion] definitely has a nice ring to it,” Kalitta said. “It’s gonna take a little while for that to settle in, but I’ll be grinning here for quite a while. It was definitely a great day. With the top-four cars still in the semis, I was feeling the intensity. You just hope for the best. This is one of the coolest places to run with the museum and the history of the NHRA. I heard all the stories back in the day with Connie (Kalitta’s uncle and team owner Connie Kalitta) and Don Garlits. This is the pinnacle for me, really. Connie was pretty happy, and I definitely appreciate what he’s done for me.”
With the 2023 championship in hand, Kalitta is the seventh driver to win a Top Fuel title with legendary tuner Alan Johnson making the calls. Johnson previously won championships with Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, Shawn Langdon, and Brittany Force.
“What a blessing to have him on our team,” Kalitta added. “Throughout the year, we kind of struggled and changed a lot of stuff with our car. I think after Reading (Pa.) when we blew that tire, for some reason, our luck kind of changed after that. The car was responding, and everything seemed to be a lot happier with our tune up. To be one of the guys who won a championship with Alan as the crew chief is what I’ve dreamt of, and obviously, winning it with Connie here is extra special as well.
“At the end of the run, I was so relieved. I’ve been trying to win this thing for years, and it’s really hard to believe. I’m speechless kind of at the moment, but it’ll settle in here after the banquet. We’ve had a great run being out here, and this championship has definitely been on my ‘things to do list.’ My cousin, Scott, won this thing a couple of times so I’ve always grown up in his shadow trying to accomplish what he accomplished so it was definitely on my bucket list to get a Top Fuel title. It’s definitely a big relief.”