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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Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”

Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”

Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).