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A FAMILY AFFAIR DRAG-RACING LEGEND CONNIE KALITTA AND HIS SON, SCOTT, ARE IN TOP FUEL'S TOP 10

June 26, 1995
June 26, 1995

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June 26, 1995

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A FAMILY AFFAIR DRAG-RACING LEGEND CONNIE KALITTA AND HIS SON, SCOTT, ARE IN TOP FUEL'S TOP 10

"Read the book," Connie Kalitta had always said. "It will tell
you what to do." But now the pages were turning too fast, and
the Top Fuel dragster was jerking to the right, heading into the
concrete wall, driven by explosive nitromethane and physics gone
amok. Kalitta stared at the wall right up to impact. No sense in
turning away.

This is an article from the June 26, 1995 issue

Scott Kalitta was back at the trailer when someone ran up to
tell him what had happened to his father. By the time Scott got
to the track, paramedics were trying to pull Connie from the
cramped cockpit of his crumpled dragster, which was upside down
on the guardrail at Houston's Raceway Park. In the stands 25,000
people were on their feet, lead in their stomachs.

Amid the frantic choreography of the paramedics, Scott saw his
father upside down. The bluster, bark and fiery independence of
a man once described as the last American cowboy were reduced to
a whimper. Get-me-out-get-me-out-get-me-out. It's not often that
a son sees into a father's heart, and Scott Kalitta gets fewer
glimpses than most. "He was almost crying," Scott says of that
moment five years ago. "It wasn't him in there."

An ambulance sped Connie to the hospital. His injuries were
minor (a broken leg, four broken ribs, a punctured lung and a
few dislodged teeth), but Scott, sitting beside him in the
ambulance, didn't know that then. "The fact that he is so ornery
and could move everything should have told me he was going to
pull through," says Scott. "But you don't think rationally when
everything's happening. I was scared."

Connie's recollections are succinct. "I went into that wall
thinking, '----, this is going to hurt,'" he says with a laugh.
"Which it did."

These are happy days in the house of Kalitta. Last year, between
father and son, team Kalitta reached the final round in 13 of
the 18 National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel events. Scott, now
33, won five of those finals, including a record four straight,
and earned Top Fuel's overall title. Connie, now 57, had his
best year ever. He beat his son in the final at the
Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.; won again at the Fram
Nationals in Atlanta; and then notched the biggest victory of
his 38-year career, roaring away from Eddie Hill in the U.S.
Nationals final in Indianapolis for his first win in that event.
In the semifinals of the Slick 50 Nationals, at the same track
where Connie had slammed into the wall, father and son recorded
the quickest side-by-side run in NHRA history, Scott nipping
Connie at the finish.

Riding back to the pits after that race, Connie jumped up and
down inside the van, pumping a fist and waving to the crowd. The
father is the son's biggest fan, but the father will never own
up to it. Easier to face an onrushing slab of concrete.

Everyone in drag racing knows Connie Kalitta. That is partly a
matter of time: Connie has been in the sport since 1957, and as
a former competitor says, "I raced Connie in 1968, and he was
old then." But it is mostly a matter of charisma. Raconteur,
fighter, charmer, self-made man, Connie Kalitta is legend come
to life.

The owner of the global-transport company American International
Airways, Connie foiled a hijacking attempt by an impeccably
dressed knife-wielding nut who demanded a plane at AIA's
Ypsilanti, Mich., airstrip in 1989. Connie led him to the craft,
and in the cockpit the hijacker grabbed for the throttle. Connie
went berserk. His hands were slashed in the ensuing scuffle, but
he quickly delivered his bruised assailant to police on the
tarmac below.

Connie Kalitta is stubborn and blunt. He is deaf in his left ear
after spending so many years around cars and airplanes, and he
has been blind in his right eye since it was struck by a piece
of metal that had chipped off a chisel he was using when he was
18. With his good eye he assesses his colleagues. The few who
measure up to his high standards gain his friendship and
respect. The rest are kept at a distance.

This is a hard man to have as a father. At the moment, though,
Scott Kalitta has other concerns. It's a sunny Sunday in
February at the Pomona (Calif.) Raceway, and he is competing in
the opening event of the 1995 NHRA Top Fuel drag-racing season.
Sixteen cars have qualified for the final rounds, a series of
head-to-head single-elimination races. Scott is wedged into the
driver's compartment of his 25-foot-long burgundy dragster, most
of its body made of paper-thin magnesium. In minutes he will
stomp on the accelerator, uncork more than 5,000 horsepower and
be slammed back into his seat, going from zero to 100 mph in
less than a second.

Inside the AIA hospitality suite the tension is palpable. Top
Fuel drag racing is not a sport for dabblers. The Kalittas'
spare-no-expense effort this season will cost about $2.4
million. Through the suite's glass front one can see straight
down the gray quarter-mile track. Connie pays it no mind.
Another generation is sizing him up.

"Mornin', Corey," Connie says to the raffish fellow at his knee.

Corey Kalitta, age 20 months, extrudes a bread bolus, slowly
dribbling it from his mouth. Connie pops Corey's pacifier into
his mouth and makes a face like a fish. He swings Corey up into
his arms.

"Who's that?" Connie asks Corey when Scott appears on a TV
screen. "Dada pretty soon, huh?"

Several minutes later Scott hits the gas. His engine roars like
an angry dinosaur, and in 4.86 seconds he wins the round. Which
is how his father always hoped it would be.

Because his dad was so busy racing, as a young boy Scott didn't
see much of Connie. When Scott was 10, Connie moved out of the
family home northeast of Detroit to live near Willow Run Airport
in Ypsilanti. There he built his air-freight business from a
single plane hauling auto parts into a 100-plane service that
flies everything from mail to NASA satellites and whales. In
1975 Connie and his wife, Maryann, divorced.

Neither man seems to regret those early years. Both have
developed ways to cope with the lost time. "It was really hard
to miss something that wasn't there that much anyway," says
Scott. "Business is business," says Connie. "You've got to do
what you've got to do."

Scott moved in with Connie when he was 16 because his mother was
no longer able to control him. Sensing that Scott was developing
a taste for hanging out, Connie made him a deal: Graduate from
high school, and I'll build you a race car. Later Connie set
Scott up with his own air-freight business. Today Scott heads
Trans Continental Airlines out of the same airfield as his dad,
their offices separated by a runway.

"I look at every situation as being a book," says Connie, who
never attended college. "Read the book, and it will tell you
what to do." Of his son's success Connie says only, "Scott reads
the book well."

Drivers downplay it, but drag racing is dangerous business. Top
Fuel cars can reach speeds of 320 mph. A good run lasts less
than five seconds. A lot of things happen very fast, and when
they go bad, they go bad big and quick. Top Fuel racer Jimmy Nix
was killed last year when his car smashed into a guardrail at
260 mph, and in 1990 Darrell Gwynn was paralyzed. At last year's
Springnationals, in Kirkersville, Ohio, Scott's engine exploded
in a ball of flame, sending parts everywhere. Somehow he kept
the car on the track and upright.

When asked if he worries about his son, Connie says, "I know how
I'd feel if something bad happened to Scott. But" -- he stops
the sentence and pushes a long cord of hair back over his
balding pate -- "we're big boys. We can die. Something happens,
it happens. It's all part of what we do."

Connie never drops the armor, even for his own son. Scott calls
Corey four times a day to tell him he loves him. "He's never
told me that," Scott says of Connie. "That's the difference
between us, and I accept it."

"It's hard for Connie to show affection," says Scott's crew
chief, Dick LaHaie, who has known Connie for 30 years. "He's
very proud of his son. He just can't tell him."

The Kalittas differ in many respects other than their approach
to fatherhood. Scott is more reserved than his father, and he is
more likely to think before he acts. Connie can't be still for a
moment. Even while sitting down he runs his hands through his
hair, strokes his belly and swats at the seat of his pants. But
both men are fiercely competitive, and each relishes the
opportunity to stomp the other. "It's a pretty neat deal to go
one-on-one with your son in front of 35,000 people," says
Connie. "The adrenaline is awesome."

Scott says he blanks opponents out of his mind, but it's no
accident that he can tell exactly how many times he has smoked
Pop. "Let's just say he's not one of the other drivers," says
Scott. "I have a little more motivation to beat him."

For the record, the Kalittas have met head-to-head five times,
and Scott has won three of those races. Last year Scott beat
Connie two of three times, but Connie whupped him good in the
final at the Gatornationals, a loss that stung Scott badly. At
the time, Scott was leading the Top Fuel points race, with
Connie in second. As of June 15, Scott was ranked third and his
father was ninth.

"He's old, and he's my dad, and he may not be doing this very
much longer, but I'm not cutting him any slack," says Scott.
Connie's good eye is getting worse, and many people suspect that
his good ear is deafer than he cares to let on. "When he's
gone," says the son, "it's really going to present a big hole."

The father shrugs. He says of his son, "He'll be fine."

Ken McAlpine, who lives in Ventura, Calif., is a frequent
contributor to Sports Illustrated.

COLOR PHOTO:BILL ADAMS SR. Connie, who survived this grim crash in 1990, is all smiles with Scott (center) and grandson Corey. [Connie Kalitta's drag-racing car crashing into guardrail]COLOR PHOTO:DAVID LIAM KYLE [see caption above--Connie; Scott; and Corey Kalitta]COLOR PHOTO: LESLIE LOVETT The Kalittas get a rush from competing head-to-head.[Connie Kalitta racing against Scott Kalitta]