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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