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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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

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Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.