NHRA: Kalitta Motorsports keeps things flying during pandemic

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The two dozen crew members of Kalitta Motorsports are used to preparing their 11,000 horsepower Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to fly down drag strips at 330 mph.

But with all sports sidelined due to the coronavirus, those same crew members are now literally helping keep other parts of the Kalitta empire flying.

Kalitta Motorsports is only one part of the vast business built by team patriarch Connie Kalitta and nephew – and Top Fuel driver – Doug Kalitta, otherwise known as Kalitta Air and Kalitta Charters, two of the largest private business air flight and air freight lines in the world.

Because Connie and Doug Kalitta didn’t want to lay off or furlough any race team employees in their Ypsilanti, Michigan headquarters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, team general manager Chad Head suggested loaning all of the crew members to the air flight side to help in operations – and equally as important, to keep everyone employed at full salary.

“Since I’ve worked here, I’ve always told Doug or Connie – even in the good times – if there’s anything we can do, you’ve got to let us know,” Head told NBC Sports. “So when this thing went down, it was ‘What can we do, how can we get involved, how can we not lay people off, how can we not reduce salaries? Is it realistic?’ There’s a lot of work to be done there, which we’re very, very fortunate. I can’t stress that enough.

“We’ve got really good people that work for us. They’re mechanics. Obviously, they’re not going to be working on planes that fly, but rather they’re working on planes that are purchased for parts. So these planes are dismantled and then the parts are inventoried and then Kalitta Air and Kalitta Charters do what they do with the parts.

“Some of these projects would normally be subbed out (to third-party companies), but rather than subbing projects out, we said ‘Let’s do this in-house and get more diverse,’ and so far it’s working out great.”

Ironically, while many other businesses globally are closed or dramatically down because of the pandemic, business is actually up at Kalitta’s airline firms.

And because many of the skills necessary to work on race cars are similar to those needed to work on airplanes, a natural interchangeable synergy emerged.

The racing team’s machine shop has been producing airplane components for the company’s fleet of 747, 767 and 777 planes. In addition, employees are refurbishing, repurposing and cataloging those old plane parts to be put back into use, as well as fixing tow motors, repairing forklifts, working on fiberglass and CNC projects and other mechanical maintenance duties.

Kalitta Motorsports also has 37 other employees who split time with other divisions of the overall company, thus keeping everyone working and on full salary as air operations are considered an essential business in the Wolverine state.

“Connie and Doug are doing everything they can to keep us moving forward,” said Head, a former drag racer himself. “We are fortunate to have the option to send our guys to the aviation side.”

Employees throughout the company are grateful that they are able to keep working.

“Every single one of them has thanked us,” Head said. “We all want to be racing, but without Connie and Doug being great leaders as they are, we’d be in trouble, we really would be.

“Everybody is smart enough to know we’re very fortunate. I tell them, ‘Don’t thank me, I’m just trying to put all the pieces together.’”

The NHRA hopes to return to racing with an abbreviated 19-race schedule that is tentatively slated to begin on June 5-7, with the first race planned at the same track where the season was interrupted last month by the virus: Florida’s Gainesville Raceway and the annual Gatornationals.

“We are chomping at the bit to get back to racing,” Head said.

When asked how quickly it would take to get team operations back together, Head didn’t hesitate with his reply: “Today.”

“We’re preparing every cylinder head, every engine block, every rod, every piston, every part we can,” he added. “We are definitely preparing to run as many races as we can in a row.

“You’d better come to Gainesville to win the first race and never look back there’ll be no resetting (of points because the annual six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs have been eliminated this year as the original 24-race schedule has been cut to only 19 events due to the pandemic).

“So we’re ready to race. We’ve been able to do some maintenance things that we would have done in the middle of the summer, but we’re not going to have time to do that now so we’re just basically forecasting as many races as we can between now and the first weekend of November.

“If NHRA told us to be back in Gainesville by this Thursday, we would be there.”

Once the season gets back underway, “It’s going to be non-stop,” Head said. “You’re going to have to go for the throat. You’re going to have to be more aggressive.

“These guys will have more pressure on them than ever to perform and to perform sooner because you don’t have the reset button (where point standings are reset prior to the usual start of the playoffs).”

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Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

Petit Le Mans championship

Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”