NHRA: Doug Kalitta ready to tee up history at Gatornationals this week

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When the 51st annual NHRA Gatornationals begin this Friday for the pro ranks, Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta will be ready to go golfing.

Sort of.

The driver of the Kalitta Motorsports Mac Tools Toyota Top Fuel dragster will attempt to win his fourth consecutive NHRA “major” race this weekend at “The Gators.” If he does, Kalitta will become only the second driver in NHRA history to win four or more of the sport’s “majors” in a row.

“It definitely would be cool,” Kalitta told NBCSports.com. “It’s a little more incentive to win the Gators and go from there.”

The “majors” in NHRA parlance are similar to those on the PGA Tour – the four biggest events of the year. On the 24-race NHRA circuit, they are the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, California; this weekend’s Gatornationals; the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend and the season-ending NHRA Finals (again at Pomona).

Kalitta comes into this weekend having won last year’s U.S. Nationals and NHRA Finals and began the 2020 campaign with a win in the season-opening Winternationals (he also reached the final round in the most recent race at Phoenix three weeks ago). He goes for a four-majors sweep at Gainesville.

Doug Kalitta hopes to earn his fourth consecutive NHRA “major” in this weekend’s Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

But there’s more: if Kalitta leaves Gainesville Sunday night with the winner’s trophy, it would mark the fifth NHRA “major” he’s won in the last six, having also won last year’s season-opening Winternationals.

Since the start of the 2019 season, the only major Kalitta has fallen short of winning was last year’s Gatornationals, losing in the semifinals. But as a consolation of sorts, his then-Kalitta Motorsports teammate, Richie Crampton, won last year’s Gators.

Winning all four majors consecutively is arguably one of the most difficult records to achieve in NHRA competition. The only driver to have done so is eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, who won all four in 2004 and again in 2007-2008, when he won six majors in a row.

The latter streak started with Schumacher winning the 2007 Gatornationals, followed by the U.S. Nationals and NHRA Finals. He then picked the streak back up in 2008 with wins in the Winternationals, Gatornationals and U.S. Nationals.

Kalitta has already set one record this season: He became the first driver in Top Fuel history to win the Winternationals three years in a row. He also is closing in on some additional milestones:

  • He ranks fifth on the NHRA Top Fuel all-time wins list with 48, just two victories behind Antron Brown for fourth and four wins behind Joe Amato for third on the list.
  • If he reaches the final round Sunday, Kalitta could become just the second driver in Top Fuel history to earn 700 career round wins this weekend. He comes into Gainesville with 697 round victories. Only Schumacher has more round wins (842). He’s also seeking his fourth Gatornationals title (won in 2000, 2005 and 2014).

Doug’s uncle, the legendary Connie Kalitta, won the Gatornationals himself in 1994. Connie Kalitta is celebrating his 61st season in NHRA drag racing, first as a driver and then team owner and tuner.

“I’m super excited to go to the Gators because it’s a great event, and that track is incredible, just how many people that go to the Gatornationals,” Doug Kalitta told NBCSports.com. “It’s like all the people that’s been in the cold winters, wherever they live, go to that race just to get someplace warm. And then there’s Don Garlits’ museum (Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida) not far away.

“Plus, there’s just a cool history down there. And this is Connie’s 61st year in the NHRA. He’s tuned the last two Gators winners, so obviously it’s been a good track for Kalitta Motorsports, and Connie is hoping that with Shawn Langdon driving the (team’s other Top Fuel dragster) as well, that they can pull it off. So it’ll be exciting for sure.”

Doug Kalitta is now in his 22nd season of racing Top Fuel dragsters – the fastest and quickest breed on four wheels — in NHRA competition. Before he strapped himself into a dragster, he was a national sprint car champion, earning the 1994 USAC title, defeating NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart among others for the crown He also made several ARCA stock car starts earlier in his career.

But since moving to the drag racing world in 1998, Kalitta has become NHRA’s equivalent of NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin, who finished runner-up five times but never won a Cup championship.

Kalitta has also finished runner-up five times in the NHRA ranks but believes 2020 could be the year he finally breaks through and wins that elusive Top Fuel crown.

“I have to admit, like anything, it’s about the teammates you have behind you,” Kalitta said. “Do I feel more confident this year with the two crew chiefs, Rob (Flynn) and Troy (Fasching)?

“Yes, they’re doing just a great job. We worked all year together (in 2019) and this year, they’re working real well together. And we had nobody leave the team after last year and nobody was switched out.

“Obviously, the effort Connie has put together with Kalitta Motorsports, having the two (dragsters) and just everybody that works at our shop building these things and maintaining, and Chad Head, our general manager, this is probably the best effort I’ve had really in all the years – or at least one of the better ones – to make (winning the championship) happen. That’s the goal this year, to win as many races as we can and just see what happens.”

Like fine wine and many other drag racers who seem to get better with age, particularly when they hit 40 years old, the 55-year-old Kalitta just keeps winning and is one of the most consistent and feared drivers by his opponents in Top Fuel.

“Obviously, what we do is it’s a business and also something we do as a family,” he said. “More than anything, aside from those two things, having a car that can win these events is really what drives me to keep doing what we’re doing.

“And obviously chasing this championship thing I’ve been chasing forever. So we just have to lock in and stay focused to accomplish that goal.”

So if Kalitta wins that elusive Top Fuel championship in November, would he walk away at the top of his game?

No chance. He loves the thrill of the chase far too much.

“How long will I continue to do this? If I wasn’t driving, I’d still want to see the Kalitta effort continue and support it,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ve got a couple more years left in me that we can run and keep doing what we’re doing. I still enjoy drag racing.

“But if I do win the championship, I’d probably come back a few more years, yeah.”

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Tony Kanaan at peace with IndyCar career end: ‘I’ll always be an Indianapolis 500 winner’


INDIANAPOLIS – Few drivers in Indy 500 history have been as popular as Tony Kanaan.

Throughout his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with his first Indy 500 in 2002, the fans loved his aggressiveness on the track and his engaging personality with the fans.

The Brazilian always got the loudest cheers from the fans during driver introductions before the Indy 500.

Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 would be his last time to walk up the steps for driver introductions. Kanaan announced earlier this year that it would be his final race of his IndyCar career, but not the final race as a race driver.

He will continue to compete in stock cars in Brazil and in Tony Stewart’s summer series known as the “Superstar Racing Experience” – an IROC-type series that competes at legendary short tracks around the country beginning in June.

Kanaan was the extra driver at Arrow McLaren for this year’s Indy 500 joining NTT IndyCar Series regulars Pato O’Ward of Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of northern California.

He had a sporty ride, the No. 66 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet that paid homage to McLaren’s first Indianapolis 500 victory by the late Mark Donohue for Team Penske in 1972.

Because Kanaan has meant so much to the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series, the 2013 Indy 500 winner was honored before the start of the race with a special video.

It featured Kanaan sitting in the Grandstand A seats writing a love letter to the fans of this great event. Kanaan narrated the video, reciting the words in the letter and it finished with the driver putting it in an envelope and leaving it at the Yard of Bricks.

Lauren Kanaan with daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Bruce Martin Photo).

Many in the huge crowd of 330,000 fans watched the video on the large screens around the speedway. On the starting grid, Kanaan’s wife, Lauren, who bears a striking resemblance to actress Kate Beckinsale, watched with their four children.

Kanaan’s wife is an Indiana girl who was a high school basketball star in Cambridge City, Indiana.

Kanaan proposed to Lauren in 2010, and after a three-year engagement, they were married in 2013 – the year he won his only Indianapolis 500.

She has been Kanaan’s rock, and this was a moment for the family to share.

After receiving an ovation and the accolades from the crowd, Kanaan walked to his car on the starting grid and exchanged hugs with people who were important in his career.

One of those was Takuma Sato’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, Eric Cowdin.

Tony Kanaan shares a moment with former engineer Eric Cowdin (Bruce Martin Photo).

Kanaan and Cowdin shared a longtime relationship dating all the way back to the Andretti Green Racing days when Kanaan was a series champion in 2004. This combination stayed together when Kanaan moved to KV Racing in 2011, then Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2018 followed by two years at AJ Foyt Racing.

Kanaan returned to run the four oval races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 in the No. 48 Honda that was shared with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2022, Johnson ran the full IndyCar Series schedule, and Kanaan drove the No. 1 American Legion entry to a third-place finish in his only IndyCar race of the season.

Kanaan knew that 2023 would be his last Indy 500 and properly prepared himself mentally and emotionally for his long goodbye.

But one could sense the heartfelt love, gratitude, and most of all respect for this tenacious driver in the moments leading up to the start of the race.

Tony Kanaan gets emotional during an interview after the Indy 500 (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“The emotions are just there,” Kanaan said. “I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made Rocket (IndyCar Technical Director Kevin Blanch) cry. I mean, that is something.

“Yeah, it was emotional.”

Kanaan started ninth and finished 18th in a race that was very clean for the first two thirds of the race before ending in disjointed fashion with three red flags to stop the race over the final 15 laps.

“Yellows breed yellows and when you are talking about the Indianapolis 500 and a field that is so tough to pass, that happens,” Kanaan said. “It’s the Indy 500. Come on. We’ve got to leave it out there.

“Every red flag, everybody goes, I’m going to pass everybody. It’s tough to pass. It’s the toughest field, the tightest field we ever had here. It was going to happen. We knew it was going to happen.

“I wouldn’t want it any different. We left it all out there. Everybody that was out left it out.”

At one point in the second half of the race, Kanaan passed Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin by driving through the grass on the backstretch.

“That was OK, right?” Kanaan said. “That is one thing I have not done in 22 years here. Even (team owner) Sam Schmidt came to me and said, ‘That was a good one.’

“That was a farewell move.”

On the final lap, it was Kanaan battling his boyhood friend from Brazil, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, for a mid-pack finish.

“Helio and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead,” Kanaan said. “It was like, who’s playing pranks with us.

“We both went side by side on the backstretch after the checker and we saluted with each other, and I just told him actually I dropped a tear because of that, and he said, ‘I did, too.’

“We went side by side like twice. A lot of memories came to my mind, and I even said how ironic it is that we started it together and I get to battle him on the last lap of my last race.

Tony Kanaan is embraced by his wife, Lauren, after finishing 16th in the 107th Indianapolis 500 ((Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“It’s pretty neat. It’s a pretty cool story. He’s a great friend. My reference, a guy that I love and hate a lot throughout my career, and like he just told me — I was coming up here and he just said, who am I going to look on the time sheet when I come into the pits now, because we always said that it didn’t matter if I was — if I was 22nd and he was 23rd, my day was okay. And vice versa.

“It was a good day for me, man. What can I say? We cried on the grid.

“Not the result that we wanted. I went really aggressive on the downforce to start the race. It was wrong. Then I added downforce towards the end of the race, and it was wrong. It was just one of those days.”

After the race was over, Kanaan drove his No. 66 Honda back to the Arrow McLaren pit area and climbed out of the car to cheers of the fans that could see him. Others were focused on Josef Newgarden’s wild celebration after the Team Penske driver had won his first Indianapolis 500.

There were no tears, though, only smiles from Kanaan who closes an IndyCar career with 389 starts, 17 wins including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, 79 podiums, 13 poles, and 4,077 laps led in a 26-year career.

Kanaan came, he raced, and he raced hard.

“That’s what we did, we raced as hard as we could,” Kanaan told NBC Sports.com. “It wasn’t enough.

“The win was the only thing that mattered. If we were second or 16th, we were going to celebrate regardless.

“In a way, being 16th will stop people wondering if I’m going to come back.

“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to enjoy the time with my family, with my team and doing other things as well.”

Kanaan’s face will forever be part of the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

“I won one and that is there, and it will always be there,” Kanaan said. “It was an awesome day.

“The way this crowd made me feel was unbelievable. I don’t regret a bit.”

Tony Kanaan hugs his son Max before the Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

Kanaan actually announced the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would be TK’s last ride because he wanted to say goodbye to the fans.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, the Indianapolis 500 was moved from Memorial Day Weekend to August 23 and because of COVID restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend the Indianapolis 500.

Three years later, Kanaan was finally able to say goodbye to this fans that were part of the largest crowd to see the Indianapolis 500 since the sold-out gathering for 350,000 that attended the 100th running in 2016.

“That’s it, that’s what I wanted, and I got what I wanted,” Kanaan said. “This moment was so special; I don’t want to ever spoil it again.

Tony Kanaan kisses his daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“We’ve been building and growing this series as much as we can. I’m really glad and proud that I was able to be part of building something big and this year’s race was one of the biggest ones.”

Kanaan walked off pit lane and rejoined his family. He will always be part of the glorious history of the Indianapolis 500 and fans will be talking about Tony Kanaan years from now, not by what he did, but the way he did it.

“This is what it is all about,” Kanaan said on pit lane. “Having kids, be a good person. Even if you don’t win, it’s fine if you don’t, as long as you make a difference.

“Hopefully, I made a difference in this sport.

“I will always be an IndyCar driver. I will always be an Indy 500 winner and I will always make people aware of IndyCar in the way it deserves.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network)