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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NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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