All photos: Mark Rebilas Photography

NHRA: Is this Doug Kalitta’s year to finally win 1st Top Fuel title?

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Doug Kalitta is a most persistent man, for sure.

The 55-year-old resident of Mount Clemens, Michigan has been chasing a NHRA Top Fuel championship for more than 20 years.

And even though he has finished runner-up in four different seasons – 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2016 – one glaring fact remains in the forefront of the mind of the nephew of legendary drag racer and team owner Connie Kalitta:

He still has yet to capture his first Top Fuel crown.

But the more than two decades worth of frustration at not having won a championship may be coming to an end. Kalitta comes into this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway just a mere 33 points behind standings leader and defending Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence.

Two races remain in the 2019 season: Las Vegas and the season-ending race at Pomona, California on Sunday, Nov. 10.

Whereas Torrence dominated last year’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs, becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races, Torrence has not been as dominant in this year’s playoffs. That’s opened the door for Kalitta to not only close in on Torrence, but also to be primed to possibly and finally earn that elusive first championship.

I am ready to get to Las Vegas,” Kalitta said. “I am glad these Mac Tools guys are in the fight. We are up to the task for sure.

Doug Kalitta began this season with a win in the same location as the season concludes in 3 weeks: Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

(Winning the championship is) something I’ve worked at for 21 years now. It would be a huge deal for me. Just all the support we’ve received over the years from so many people. It would be a great way to repay them.”

Last season, Kalitta’s teammate, J.R. Todd, won the NHRA Funny Crown championship. Todd’s title has given Kalitta added inspiration to get his own crown.

I’d say so,” Kalitta acknowledged. “We’re real proud of the efforts of (Todd and) the DHL Toyota Funny Car in winning the title last year, but we really want to bring it home in the dragster.”

Kalitta is well aware that this year’s championship could come down to the final run of the final race of the season – and it potentially could be him vs. Torrence, or Torrence’s father Billy, Britney Force, Leah Pritchett or Mike Salinas.

While Kalitta doesn’t like to look back in the past, he still recalls the most disappointing finish of his four runner-ups, coming in 2006. Kalitta led the Top Fuel points (by 45 points) heading into the season finale at Pomona – only to run into a buzzsaw with a military-style buzzcut (emblematic of being sponsored by the U.S. Army): Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher.

Schumacher had enjoyed a great season but Kalitta had a seemingly insurmountable edge heading to the Pomona conclusion.

Still, Schumacher still had a chance – but there was quite a laundry list to get through first:

He had to win the race. He also had to earn enough bonus points by setting a national record either by speed or elapsed time and then had to “back up” that mark (either a previous or subsequent run in the same event within one percent of the top run), a rule that is no longer in effect.

Schumacher went out and did all that he had to do, winning the race – in what has become known in NHRA lore as “The Run” – edging Kalitta for the championship by a mere 14 points. Kalitta, meanwhile, fell short, losing in the semifinal round to Schumacher’s teammate, Melanie Troxel. Had he won that particular run, Kalitta would have clinched the championship.

Check out the following video to not only watch Schumacher’s heroics, but also the frustration Kalitta experienced for coming up short.

Kalitta, who ranks No. 5 on the NHRA’s all-time Top Fuel wins list (46 victories), could make a big move on Steve Torrence if he’s able to win this Sunday in Las Vegas, which would put him in an excellent position to finish this season the way he began it at Pomona in the season-opening Winternationals: with another win. One other key thing to keep in mind: driver points in the final race are worth 50 percent more than normal – a maximum of 150 points for the win, not including bonus points.

“We have come close to the championship a number of times,” Kalitta said. “This year has been great, getting the win at the U.S. Nationals (the final race before the Countdown began). That was a big win for this Mac Tools Toyota team and for Kalitta Motorsports. We have two races to go and we are going to put all our energy into getting that championship.”

Ironically, while Kalitta may still be seeking his first NHRA championship, that doesn’t mean he’s never tasted the celebration of being a racing champion. In 1994, at the age of 30, Kalitta won the USAC National Sprint Car championship and previously was the USAC Midget Rookie of the Year. He switched full-time to drag racing in 1998.

Doug Kalitta, left, and uncle Connie Kalitta.

So could a second championship be in the offing 25 years after his first title? He sure hopes so.

We have everything we need to win this championship and that is because of Connie Kalitta,” Doug Kalitta said. “I started working on his Top Fuel dragster over 30 years ago. To win the Top Fuel championship would be really special to everyone on this team and at Kalitta Motorsports.

I think we have a really good chance and it will be a battle with Steve (Torrence) and Brittany (Force) and Billy (Torrence). With points and a half in Pomona you never know what could happen. We’ve had some pretty good success there.

“I have been close to the championship before and I would love to win the championship this season. I have the race car that can do it and I feel as confident behind the wheel as I ever have. There are two races left in the season and I want to win them both.”

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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500