The winningest driver in NHRA history to never secure a championship, Doug Kalitta has finished as a bridesmaid an incredible six times in his Top Fuel career that dates back to 1998. Of course, none stand out more than 2006, when the Ypsilanti, Michigan native held the championship lead up until the final run of the season at Pomona, when he was forced to stand and watch Tony Schumacher win the event and reset the national record in the process, accumulating enough points to leapfrog a visibly dejected Kalitta for the title.
Now, the man who aided in accomplishing that feat 17 years ago, renowned tuner Alan Johnson, is in the Kalitta camp, and he has Doug in a solid position to win that long-awaited title and end all the questions of “when?” from his fans and the media.
Kalitta, the nephew of drag racing icon Conrad “Connie” Kalitta, ended a difficult three-year winless streak at Maple Grove Raceway two weeks ago, earning his 50th career Top Fuel victory and setting the tone for the Countdown to the Championship. Confirming that performance was no fluke, Kalitta secured win number 51 seven days later, at the NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte.
The win streak, impressively, began after a blown tire following the final qualifying attempt at Maple Grove, forcing the team to its backup car. Following eight-consecutive round wins, don’t expect a change back to the primary car anytime soon.
“We’re plenty happy with this car; it’s going well,” Kalitta said. “The two cars were built on the same jig so they’re basically the same. We’d been running that car for a long time so it’s one of my good cars that’s now a good backup – it’s been doing us proud. We’re going to swing by the shop on the way to St. Louis to go pick up the Canopy car (that was damaged in Reading), but I doubt we’re going to run it. I’m good with whatever those guys decide, but the backup car definitely brought some light to our program since we started running that thing.”
With the Charlotte victory, he took over the points lead for the first time in three years, as the Countdown nears its halfway mark. Kalitta leads Steve Torrence, who is hungry to return championship glory, by 63 points. Torrence, third-place Justin Ashley, and fourth-place Leah Pruett are all within four rounds of racing on round wins alone (not factoring in qualifying bonuses), and when you bring the points-and-half finale at Pomona into the equation, it opens up the math considerably.
“The momentum with my guys, along with their confidence and my confidence, that’s big,” said Kalitta. “With Alan and Brian tuning it, it’s a heck of a combination and hopefully we can continue to settle in and be comfortable with what we’re doing. We’ll try to keep our heads down and just keep going rounds, and things will shake out how they will. I’m just super proud of these guys and we’re looking forward to getting back to it.”
Kalitta, Johnson, and company now head to St. Louis, the track he got his 49th win at in 2020, and has won at five times in his career, in the catbird seat for a championship.
“We really want to keep this momentum going in St. Louis,” Kalitta said. “Connie (Kalitta, team owner) has given us everything we need to run this thing and I’m super proud of what we’re doing. It’s good to just keep running when you’re on a roll. With Alan Johnson tuning the thing and Brian, it’s a hell of a combination right now. I’m really looking forward to running in St. Louis. We’ve had some good luck there and I’m sure everybody will be hungry. We’re going to have to work out tails off there, too, but I’m definitely looking forward to getting there.”
Kalitta has battled with the best, from Schumacher to Larry Dixon, Kenny Bernstein, Joe Amato, Gary Scelzi, Cory McClenathan, and his own cousin, Scott, and come up short. But it could well be argued that winning the title in 2023 would be the most well-earned of his time, given the historic level of competition up and down the list of the 12 Countdown challengers and the reshuffling of the points.
“It would be huge (to win the championship); we just have to keep going rounds,” Kalitta added. “It’s really about everybody that’s helped me over the years for me, but it would be extra special for sure. I’m a pretty humble guy – I just want to stay ahead however we have to do that. Everybody’s driving the wheels off these things; we have a bunch of good-running cars (in Top Fuel) as you can tell from the qualifying ladder so it’s tough. You have to take advantage of the opportunities when you get them, and that’s what we’re going to continue to try to do. I’m happy to be here, and it’s a good spot for sure. I’m hoping we all settle in, just be comfortable doing what we are doing, keep our heads down, keep going rounds and let it shake out where it does.”