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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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Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.