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Celebrating the drag racing legacy of Connie Kalitta, still winning at age 80

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Connie Kalitta doesn’t like to say much. He’d prefer to let his actions do the talking for him.

Having turned 80 on Saturday, Kalitta – whose last media interview was more than two years ago – is one of the few pioneers that has watched the NHRA grow from an idea in founder Wally Parks’ mind in the early 1950s to one of the largest motorsports associations in the world.

Kalitta was infamously known as “The Bounty Hunter” during his own days as a drag racer, making his Top Fuel dragster one of the most aggressive, innovative – and most importantly – feared rails in the sport.

Connie – some of his closest friends still call him by his legal name of “Conrad” – became the first Top Fuel driver to break the 200 mph barrier in an NHRA-sanctioned event.

Connie Kalitta, middle, flanked by nephew Doug (left) and grandson Corey. (Photo: Gary Nastase)

During his six-plus decades of racing both as a driver and team owner, Kalitta has amassed nine drag racing national championships in several series (including four in the NHRA, one as a driver in 1977 and three as a team owner).

He gave up his driving duties in 1996 – but not before he won the prestigious U.S. Nationals in 1994, the biggest race win for any driver.

But even though he stepped away from behind the wheel, he continued to have success from the pits, building one of the more successful organizations in the NHRA.

His late son, Scott, won NHRA Top Fuel titles in 1994 and 1995, while Del Worsham won the Funny Car championship for Kalitta Motorsports in 2015.

And at the same time, he built the largest air cargo company in the world, Kalitta Air, headquartered in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Yes, even at 80 years old now, Connie is still piloting 747s from outside Detroit to pretty much any place in the world that has a good landing strip.

In his typical subdued fashion, Kalitta downplayed his 80th birthday, but nephew Doug had a poignant observation last weekend during the NHRA Arizona Nationals in suburban Phoenix:

“(Connie) definitely has a passion for airplanes and drag racing,” Doug Kalitta said. “He’s just a real innovator out here. He’s still thinking about how to make cars faster. We’ve been close over the years, we’ve won races and been right there for the championship.

“He’s the bravest guy I know. He’s put a lot into 80 years, so we’re hoping he can make it to 100.”

The uncle-nephew combination of Connie and Doug Kalitta have combined for 42 wins, and have finished second in the point standings in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2016.

Connie Kalitta with one of his drivers, J.R. Todd. Photo: Gary Nastase.

Just over two weeks ago, Doug won the season-opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals as he continues to pursue his first NHRA Top Fuel championship.

Doug Kalitta’s performance in a dragster has helped inspire Connie to not only continue in racing, but also has helped heal the heartache of the loss of Connie’s only son, Scott, in a racing accident June 21, 2008 at Englishtown, New Jersey.

Connie was honored two years ago at the 2016 NHRA postseason awards banquet with the organization’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.

In his typical quiet fashion, Connie’s acceptance speech lasted just a few seconds, but everyone in attendance gave him a standing ovation not just for the award, but for everything he’s given to the sport as a racer, team owner, innovator, tuner and so many other titles both official and unofficial.

Check out Connie’s acceptance speech near the end of this video, as well as interviews with Doug Kalitta, Alexis DeJoria and Del Worsham:

Kalitta’s honors are almost too numerous to count. They include being inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992, was named in 2001 as one of the NHRA’s 50 greatest drivers (ranked No. 21) from 1951 through 2000.

He also was played by Beau Bridges in the Shirley Muldowney biography, “Heart Like A Wheel.”

Ever since he started racing a 1951 Willys on an abandoned Michigan airstrip, Connie Kalitta has been, is and always will be a racer.

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The Connie Kalitta File

Kalitta’s accomplishments are lengthy. Here are some of the highlights of his career:

* Even though he began racing several years earlier as a teenager, Connie Kalitta established Kalitta Motorsports established in 1959. He has competed in five different professional drag racing sanctioning bodies.

* In 1992 elected to Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Connie Kalitta in one of his last races as a driver in 1996. Photo: Jamie Squire/Allsport

* In 2001, named one of National Hot Rod Association Top 50 Drivers, 1951-2000 (No. 21).

* Only NHRA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner.

* Currently fields a 4-car team with Doug Kalitta and Richie Crampton driving Top Fuel dragsters, and J.R. Todd and Shawn Langdon driving Toyota Camry Funny Cars.

* Earned 10 career wins in the NHRA as a driver.

* Is a 3-time NHRA championship owner (1994 & 1995 Top Fuel Champion with Scott Kalitta, 2015 Funny Champion with Del Worsham). He also has three other championships in other sanctioning bodies as both a driver and team owner.

* 3-time U.S. Nationals winner (himself in 1994, Alexis DeJoria in 2014 and J.R. Todd in 2017).

* Is five away from earning 100 NHRA races as a team owner (wins have come by drivers Connie Kalitta, Scott Kalitta, Doug Kalitta, David Grubnic, Hillary Will, Alexis DeJoria, Del Worsham, J.R. Todd and Jeff Arend).

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Mercedes: F1 teams need to work together to avoid split

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said Friday that Formula One teams have a responsibility to try to overcome their differences over the future of the sport in the face of a threat by Ferrari to quit because of a number of proposed changes.

Bernie Ecclestone, who ran F1 for 40 years before being replaced by new owners Liberty Media last year, has raised the possibility that Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne could walk away from F1 and form a breakaway series over Liberty’s future vision for the sport.

Ferrari is unhappy with Liberty’s proposal to simplify engines and redistribute prize money among F1 teams after the current contract with teams expires at the end of 2020.

Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene would not comment on the specifics of Marchionne’s previous comments at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Friday, but said: “My only suggestion, please take him seriously.”

Wolff is also taking the possibility of Ferrari walking away seriously. He told Britain’s Press Association before the Australian GP that he agreed with Marchionne’s concerns and that Formula One can’t afford to alienate Ferrari or lose the team.

“Don’t mess with Sergio Marchionne,” he said. “Formula One needs Ferrari much more than Ferrari needs Formula One.”

Wolff was more diplomatic on Friday, saying he hopes all sides could come together for the good of the sport.

“I think this as much a battle on track as much as it is a fight off track for an advantage,” he said. “It is clear the current governance and how the rules are being made is not very functional. There’s too much different opinions and agendas on the table and we need to sort it for 2021 for the best interest of the sport.”

Red Bull boss Christian Horner agreed there are too many competing agendas, suggesting that the FIA-Formula One’s governing body-and Liberty Media come together to decide on a set of regulations and financial framework for the next contract and the teams can then decide if they want to accept it or not.

“Trying to get a consensus between teams that have varying objectives, different set-ups, is going to be impossible,” he said. “It’s history repeating itself. It happens every five or six years, every time the Concorde Agreement comes up for renewal.”

Tempers also flared during Friday’s media conference over another issue of contention between the teams – Ferrari’s recent hiring of FIA’s ex-safety director, Laurent Mekies.

Horner believes Ferrari broke an agreement among teams at a recent meeting to institute a 12-month waiting period for any former employee of FIA or FOM (Formula One Management) to be able to start working for one of F1’s teams. The concern is that former FIA staff who go to work for a specific team could share secrets from other teams.

“Certain teams were pushing for that period to be three years, but in the end it was agreed upon being 12 months,” he said. “It almost makes those meetings pointless if we can’t agree on something and action it.”

Arrivabene defended Ferrari’s move, saying Mekies would not join its team until after a six-month “gardening leave” period.

“There is nothing wrong with that because we were absolutely respecting the local law, the Swiss local law where Laurent was hired,” he said.