Tony Schumacher

All photos: Mark Rebilas Photography

NHRA: Is this Doug Kalitta’s year to finally win 1st Top Fuel title?

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Doug Kalitta is a most persistent man, for sure.

The 55-year-old resident of Mount Clemens, Michigan has been chasing a NHRA Top Fuel championship for more than 20 years.

And even though he has finished runner-up in four different seasons – 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2016 – one glaring fact remains in the forefront of the mind of the nephew of legendary drag racer and team owner Connie Kalitta:

He still has yet to capture his first Top Fuel crown.

But the more than two decades worth of frustration at not having won a championship may be coming to an end. Kalitta comes into this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway just a mere 33 points behind standings leader and defending Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence.

Two races remain in the 2019 season: Las Vegas and the season-ending race at Pomona, California on Sunday, Nov. 10.

Whereas Torrence dominated last year’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs, becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races, Torrence has not been as dominant in this year’s playoffs. That’s opened the door for Kalitta to not only close in on Torrence, but also to be primed to possibly and finally earn that elusive first championship.

I am ready to get to Las Vegas,” Kalitta said. “I am glad these Mac Tools guys are in the fight. We are up to the task for sure.

Doug Kalitta began this season with a win in the same location as the season concludes in 3 weeks: Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

(Winning the championship is) something I’ve worked at for 21 years now. It would be a huge deal for me. Just all the support we’ve received over the years from so many people. It would be a great way to repay them.”

Last season, Kalitta’s teammate, J.R. Todd, won the NHRA Funny Crown championship. Todd’s title has given Kalitta added inspiration to get his own crown.

I’d say so,” Kalitta acknowledged. “We’re real proud of the efforts of (Todd and) the DHL Toyota Funny Car in winning the title last year, but we really want to bring it home in the dragster.”

Kalitta is well aware that this year’s championship could come down to the final run of the final race of the season – and it potentially could be him vs. Torrence, or Torrence’s father Billy, Britney Force, Leah Pritchett or Mike Salinas.

While Kalitta doesn’t like to look back in the past, he still recalls the most disappointing finish of his four runner-ups, coming in 2006. Kalitta led the Top Fuel points (by 45 points) heading into the season finale at Pomona – only to run into a buzzsaw with a military-style buzzcut (emblematic of being sponsored by the U.S. Army): Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher.

Schumacher had enjoyed a great season but Kalitta had a seemingly insurmountable edge heading to the Pomona conclusion.

Still, Schumacher still had a chance – but there was quite a laundry list to get through first:

He had to win the race. He also had to earn enough bonus points by setting a national record either by speed or elapsed time and then had to “back up” that mark (either a previous or subsequent run in the same event within one percent of the top run), a rule that is no longer in effect.

Schumacher went out and did all that he had to do, winning the race – in what has become known in NHRA lore as “The Run” – edging Kalitta for the championship by a mere 14 points. Kalitta, meanwhile, fell short, losing in the semifinal round to Schumacher’s teammate, Melanie Troxel. Had he won that particular run, Kalitta would have clinched the championship.

Check out the following video to not only watch Schumacher’s heroics, but also the frustration Kalitta experienced for coming up short.

Kalitta, who ranks No. 5 on the NHRA’s all-time Top Fuel wins list (46 victories), could make a big move on Steve Torrence if he’s able to win this Sunday in Las Vegas, which would put him in an excellent position to finish this season the way he began it at Pomona in the season-opening Winternationals: with another win. One other key thing to keep in mind: driver points in the final race are worth 50 percent more than normal – a maximum of 150 points for the win, not including bonus points.

“We have come close to the championship a number of times,” Kalitta said. “This year has been great, getting the win at the U.S. Nationals (the final race before the Countdown began). That was a big win for this Mac Tools Toyota team and for Kalitta Motorsports. We have two races to go and we are going to put all our energy into getting that championship.”

Ironically, while Kalitta may still be seeking his first NHRA championship, that doesn’t mean he’s never tasted the celebration of being a racing champion. In 1994, at the age of 30, Kalitta won the USAC National Sprint Car championship and previously was the USAC Midget Rookie of the Year. He switched full-time to drag racing in 1998.

Doug Kalitta, left, and uncle Connie Kalitta.

So could a second championship be in the offing 25 years after his first title? He sure hopes so.

We have everything we need to win this championship and that is because of Connie Kalitta,” Doug Kalitta said. “I started working on his Top Fuel dragster over 30 years ago. To win the Top Fuel championship would be really special to everyone on this team and at Kalitta Motorsports.

I think we have a really good chance and it will be a battle with Steve (Torrence) and Brittany (Force) and Billy (Torrence). With points and a half in Pomona you never know what could happen. We’ve had some pretty good success there.

“I have been close to the championship before and I would love to win the championship this season. I have the race car that can do it and I feel as confident behind the wheel as I ever have. There are two races left in the season and I want to win them both.”

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