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

All photos: Mark Rebilas Photography

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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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”