Scott Kalitta just might be a chip off of the old block. The veteran drag racer and son of legendary figure Connie Kalitta returned to the sport after an absence of several years. Now driving the Mac Tools/West Coast Choppers entry, Kalitta professes that he's still just a competitive, but a lot mellower. The second-generation drag racer has admittedly seen a lot of drag racing and grew up surrounded by many of the legends that helped to build it.
In our latest installment of War Stories, Kalitta recants some of his most vivid memories and a few of those tales that have long been deemed drag racing folklore.
He crazy man, He crazy man…
Dad used to be a brawler, and believe it or not, he used to get into a fight or two. There was this time that we were in Dallas and had gotten to our hotel. Connie had gotten to his room and the phone wasn't turned on. He called down to the front desk and called the guy a few choice names. Sometimes it's just best to let him speak his peace, but the guy…who was of Asian descent…came down to the room and was going to throw him out. That didn't work out too well. Connie popped him pretty good and the teeth went all over the place. We heard about it and ran down there as quickly as we could.
The police were called and the Japanese guy showed the cop his teeth and the only words he would say was, “He crazy man, he crazy man.”
Somehow or another, he never got caught. He's a lot mellower than he used to be. I can't even remember the last time he even thought about getting in a fight.
The Cheapest of the cheap…
The earliest recollection I have of going to the races was in the late ‘sixties. We had one of the pull-along trailers that was long enough for the car to fit inside of it. We had a Ford truck with a camper and I used to watch the races from there. It was a lot of fun. Back in those days, some tracks used to turn the lights out at night and let the header flames show.
One of those times I remember well took place at Detroit Dragway when the real cheap promoter was running it. He was one of the cheapest individuals that walked the face of the earth. They didn't have very good lights at that track. My dad made a run and he caught on fire. The fire truck at the other end started running down the track to catch him. It was night time and you guessed it, the headlights were in his eyes. He hit the guardrail. At the end of the night, the promoter decided to cut dad's pay in order to fix his guardrail. I can't really remember what happened…but I don't think it was pretty.
My graduation tour…
I have to consider myself really lucky. My dad never graduated from high school and I was near graduating from school. He made the commitment that if I graduated from high school that he would build me a car. He remained true to his word and had me an A/Fuel car built. I took delivery of the car in 1981 and ran it for a little while before I jumped into Top Fuel. A couple of years prior to that I had made some runs in the Top Fuel car.
I was pretty nervous when running the car and knew what to expect. Every once in a while we'd have to push-start the car. I had an idea of what it would be like, but it was nothing like the first time I stepped on the gas. Being sixteen years old, it was indescribable.
The funny part about the first time I drove the car is that we had not changed any part of the car's cockpit. The seatbelts didn't hold me in too good. The seatbelts were too high on my shoulders and when I hit the pedal, it threw me up in the seat and threw my foot off of the pedal. I'd get off of the pedal and it would throw me down in the seat and the car would slam down. Finally, I shut it off.
My first real mishap was in 1984 at Rockingham Dragway. We had titanium rear wheel studs on the Top Fuel car that I was driving. The car went out about 300 to 400 feet and the left rear wheel came off. It turned right and t-boned the guardrail pretty hard and came back and tumbled down the track. It wasn't pretty, but fortunately I didn't get hurt. I have been fortunate enough to never have gotten hurt.
We have pictures of the Rockingham crash and what I do remember is that during the crash I grabbed onto the rollbar to brace myself. I can remember Tommy Ivo once telling me that the first thing he did was tuck his arms under his armpits. This was in the days before arm restraints. I kept thinking to myself, is this ever going to be over with?
The Comeback Trail
I never really had any butterflies about coming back. I had kept in tune with the sport while I was retired and had driven the team's cars in testing. I made ten laps once when both my Dad and cousin Doug had to fly home for business. I had even driven once early last year in testing for them.
In a way, driving a Top Fuel is like riding a bike – you don't forget. It did take me some time to get on my game. I had only run 320 once by the time I came back. It took a few races to get my rhythm down.
Top Fuel cars haven't changed a lot between the time I left and decided to come back.
A motley crew, working with Shirley and the effects of Crazy Glue…
We were racing in Cayuga once with Shirley and we went to dinner that night after the race. Shirley happened to have some crazy glue in her purse. We didn't exactly know what was happening, but we found out real quick when she started gluing all the dishes to the table. We walked outside the window and it was quite a treat to watch the busboy trying to clear the table. To this day, I still wonder if they were ever able to get those dishes up.
It was really fun back in those days and you really didn't have all the same kinds of pressures that you do today. I spent many summers as a kid on the road traveling to the races. I got to see a lot of neat things as a kid.
Was it a 10 or a 7?
I had been around so many racers that I never really considered many of the drag racers as role models or heroes. I knew them all. When I got my A/Fuel Dragster license, I can remember Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen telling me that they had gone to the Bondurant school when it was at Sears Point . They had nothing but good things to say about it and they suggested to my dad that I should go to it. So, I did. It was funny because he comes in there and adresses the students and then the teachers teach the course. It was funny because the school grades you on a 1 through 10 basis and no one has ever gotten a 10 according to Bondurant. After I went through the school, I was shooting the breeze with Prudhomme and I asked him what he got. I had gotten a 7, but Prudhomme went on to inform me that he had gotten a 10. When I let Prudhomme know that Bondurant had told me personally that no one had gotten a 10, Prudhomme swore up and down that he had. I just smiled and took his word for it.
Word got around…
I think our reputation for not being afraid of anyone prevented a lot of people from wanting to get in our faces. I used to be scrappy, but I've mellowed out a lot, too. I never got into it at the races - I never needed to. There was only maybe a few times we've ever had to deal with an unruly spectator. As much as we hated to be politically correct, we had to because of all the sponsor and political ramifications. No one wants to get suspended. My dad got suspended once for punching a cop in Indy and that has always stood out in my mind. It served as a deterrent.
Outside of the track, it was fair game. Once we were building onto our shop and we had some non-union people building it. We had some union protesters come over and start trouble with us and our guys. My dad and I ended up beating on those guys pretty good. They were some big boys. One guy didn't even get out of the car, but I took care of him right there. The other guy actually wore my dad out and he must have been worn out too, so I worked on him for a while and I beat on him until I couldn't hold my arms up and we were almost like a tag team. I let dad get on him for a while and I rested. That boy was taking it pretty good. I had slammed him between the door and the car once early in the fight. My dad had pulled in front of them initially and left his door open. When they were bloodied up and had enough, they decided to leave. You guessed it…they took the door with them.
The other side of the crazed hijacker incident
I got over there a little after the incident had finished. That was my wife that the guy had taken hostage at knifepoint. People hear the comedy side of things of how dad beat on this guy, but they seem to forget that was someone's loved one that had been taken at knifepoint. In a way the guy didn't realize the mistake he'd made in walking into our shop to start trouble. Once my dad got him in the airplane, it was a bad day for him.