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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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F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.