Kalitta finds winning is the best therapy - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Kalitta finds winning is the best therapy

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Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2009 3:27 pm | Updated: 1:44 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Bloodlines and passions run deep in the Kalitta family tree, whether it's NHRA racing, aviation or being a spiritual presence from above.

It took two extra days, a soggy track and a 0.025-second difference for Doug Kalitta to win last week's season-opening event in Southern California, his first NHRA Top Fuel victory since the fall of 2007. It completed the trilogy. His uncle, Connie Kalitta, and Connie's son (Doug's cousin), Scott, also won races at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

It was the best therapy.

Forgive the year-and-a-half drought between wins for the Kalittas. Sunday's final eliminations of the Lucas Oil Slick Mist NHRA Nationals at Firebird International Raceway near Chandler marks eight months since Scott Kalitta was killed after a fiery racing accident last June in New Jersey. He left behind a wife and children and his racing family to continue building off his 18 career victories.

"I'm sure Scott was looking out for us," Doug Kalitta said of his 31st career Top Fuel win.

The Kalitta family is in the East Valley this weekend for the 25th running of NHRA event at Firebird, a track Doug won on in 2001, but this season is uncharted water for the Michigan-based Kalitta Motorsports.

It started with Connie 50 years ago and has trickled down the family tree. The Kalittas own five world championships and 50 national event victories. They operate their own aviation company, where they lend out charter planes, military aircraft, single-engine, 747s and everything in between.

Each Kalitta flies themselves to races each weekend.

They are competitive, but not indestructible, and though tragedy is an inherent risk when it comes to racing, few ever imagine it would happen to their own family, racing or biological.

"If you played Tiddlywinks with Scott he was going to draw blood on you," crew chief Jim Oberhofer said. "He was that competitive.

"It's tough without Scott. I always considered him indestructible like Superman. In my opinion if you got into a situation like that, he was the best guy to be driving. He could get it stopped and do whatever he needed to walk away."

But on June 22, 2008, Scott Kalitta's car became a ball of flame and burning parachutes unable to fully deploy. Scott's car hit sand at 300 mph and vaulted over the protective fence. Scott passed away at a hospital near the Old Bridge Township Raceway, the same track where he began his career in 1982.

In the horror and painful aftermath of losing his cousin and longtime racing partner, Doug never considered leaving the sport - "Obviously there's a risk factor, even if it's getting up and getting the newspaper" - but Doug is soft-spoken who friends and family say rarely shows negative emotions.

That doesn't mean it hasn't hurt.

"We struggled with it afterwards for a while," said Oberhofer, who's been part of the Kalitta racing family for 22 years. "We still struggle with it. The aftermath always lingers of seeing Connie everyday and how much he missed his son and talking with Doug and missing his cousin."

The racing team went to Australia last winter, a place Scott had raced several times before, and the Scott Kalitta Top Fuel Memorial Trophy was created.

Still, winning cures (almost) all, and for a team which - like nearly every other group - is struggling with financial commitments from sponsors and has crew members willing to take pay cuts to keep racing in this economy, this year is already better than the last.

"Being able to win in a place Scott had some success was gratifying as well," Doug said. "We're racers. That's what we do. We know the risk factors involved. All I know is do what you love and try to make him proud."

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