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Wins and losses

06 Oct 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

For as long as I can remember, "Low e.t. can cure cancer" has been a popular saying in the pits, but after yesterday's Miracle Monday in Memphis, I wonder if a win can cure a broken heart.

Jeff Arend's Funny Car win was truly inspiring stuff even if you don't know the guys behind the story like we do. Sixteen months after we lost our great champion Scott Kalitta, the guy who was tapped to follow him into the cockpit of his car – and let there be no mistake that it still is Scott's car, and notice that I did not use the world "replace" because Scott is irreplaceable – overcame a season and a half of heartache and bad luck to score an emotional victory that not only warmed the heart on a chilly day at Memphis Motorsports Park, but also went a long way toward healing all of those broken on that sad June day last year.

Although the DHL Toyota had turned the performance corner a few races ago, no one really expected the team to win a race this year; heck, while the other teams are embroiled in the Countdown to 1, they've been joking with Jerry Toliver about their "battle for 13th place."

From left, crew chief Nicky Boninfante, Arend, Connie Kalitta, team manager Rachel Brunner, and crew chief Jon Oberhofer celebrate in the winner's circle. (Dani Cox photo)

The Kalitta team has won championships and the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil, so when crew chief Jon Oberhofer proclaimed this victory "the biggest race in the history of this team," that's really saying something. But, you know, I don't think he's wrong.

In Englishtown this season, the one-year anniversary of Scott's passing, the team held a private party in its pit area to remember their fallen brother. They hoped it would offer some closure and that they could at last put aside their grieving and get back to winning. It probably helped a lot for them to focus on the future, but I'd wager a fair sum that they didn't have full closure until Arend tripped the final-round win light in Memphis and the Kalitta name was back in the Funny Car winner's circle.

Todd Myers does the PR for Kalitta Motorsports, and he's a close and dear friend. We've collaborated on a lot of work throughout the years, including the design of the old NHRA,com and many specialty NHRA Web sites – he's also designing the upcoming 50th Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals Web site for us – and he's a great guy with a heart of gold. That's his photo at the top of this blog. Although he's not in there with wrenches flying, he's still a huge part of the team, and, by that, also one of those whose heart was broken. Among his contributions to aid our grieving was designing the memorial decal after the loss of Scott, allowing us to wear the T-shirts and display the decals proclaiming our love for Scott, and helping deal with the crush of people wanting to talk to Connie and the team.

(Dani Cox photo)

We talked at length last night – me in California and Todd in the Kalitta pit area, where, in Scott's honor, everyone was smoking Swisher Sweets and drinking Coors Light – about what this win meant to the team.

"In all my years in drag racing, I've never seen a team this excited about a win," he said. "After Scotty died, we didn’t know if it was a good idea to bring that car out, but that's what Conrad wanted, so that's what we did. I think we all had our hesitations, and this team has struggled so hard the last year. Most of the crew guys were there when Scott was killed, and just to see them happy again is amazing. Everyone is just so ecstatic that we won, and it was all for Scott."

The team won the race in style. Arend did his job behind the wheel, outpedaling Jack Beckman in round one, then Jon O and Nicky Boninfante tuned the car to two 4.10s and a 4.09 and, in the final, the fourth-fastest speed in the 1,000-foot era.

"Scott's biggest complaint was that the driver couldn't control the car with the way it was set up," said Jon O. "We worked on a lot of things from front to back and reached out to a lot of people in the class. Now, Jeff says the car is much easier to drive than when he got here. You know that Scott is looking down from heaven, telling Eric, Blaine, and Darrell, 'See? Those [expletives] finally listened to me!' Scott and Connie always wanted a competitive Funny Car more than anything. Winning is great, but it means so much more to do it the way we did it."

It was a day that Myers won't soon forget.

"Mondays are always surreal anyway because the pits are half empty," he said. "Then we had to sit through that mess this morning [the rain delay and the cleanup after Daniel Wilkerson's crash], and it's like, 'Are we ever gonna get through this? Come on!' When we finally get to racing, Jeff blows the tires off first round, and I'm like, 'Oh, crap.' He pedals, Beckman pedals, and we finally got some luck. Since Scott died, there's been this aura around the team that we had no luck. I asked Jon O and Nicky what they were going to do for second round, and they told me, 'We're fine; we feel really good about the car because it made some great early numbers, and we know what to do to back it down and make it not only go down the track, but down the track really, really quick.'

Celebration time. You think Todd Myers, far left, is happy? Recalls Jim Oberhofer, "Everyone on the starting line was emotional. I went up to Connie, who was looking at the scoreboard. In typical Connie fashion, he said, 'How the hell did that thing run so fast? Did it fall out of a tree?' " (Auto Imagery photo)

"Second round, it runs a 4.10, the quickest e.t. of the round, and does it again the next round, and suddenly, it's like, 'Hey, we have a shot at winning this thing.' Normally I'll stay in the pressroom, but I had to be down on the line for this one. As we're getting ready to run, I turned around, and I don’t think I've ever seen that many different representatives of teams standing behind us watching. Not really close, but they were all up there, and they were standing behind our car because they wanted us to win.

"When I saw Tony [Pedregon] shut off in the final, I was just praying, 'Please go down the track. Stay in your lane. Stay in your lane. Stay in your lane.' Even knowing that Tony was dead in the water, it's all building, and it was amazing."

If you've ever seen Kalitta starting-line celebrations, you know they can be a bit rowdy, and this one certainly was, but that's more because it was a huge release of emotion and energy and heartache and hope and hurt and tears pent up in the last year and a half. What followed was just as magical.

"You have to tow through the pits to get back to the winner's circle," said Myers, "and as we passed all the pit areas, the teams were clapping and cheering and yelling; they were all so happy we won the race. Jeff handed the trophy to Connie and said, 'This is for Scott.' Connie took it smiled and said, 'Yeah, this is for Scott,' and then he handed it right back to Jeff and said, 'But you deserve this too.'

(Dani Cox photo)

"Conrad had told us before the final, 'Win or lose, I'm going home; I'm not gonna stick around for all this crap,' because that's just the way he is. Getting that e.t. slip that says 'I won' means the most to Conrad. Getting the trophy and getting his picture taken means nothing to him. But Doug [Kalitta] talked him into staying, and he did winner's circle and all the hat pictures, and you could tell he was happy, and I'm glad Doug talked him into staying. It was a great moment."

It had to be a special moment for Arend, too, who was honored to get the unenviable task of trying to keep the Kalitta legacy alive in Funny Car -- I mean, hey, no pressure, right? -- only to have the team struggle for the last year and a half. It's been a long time between wins for Arend – I was there in Reading in 1996 when he scored his only other win, ironically, in the same chassis with which Scott had won in Houston in 1989 -- and a lot of water has passed under his bridge since.

"Everyone is talking about how we did this as a team. Jeff stepped up, all the crew guys did their part, the crew chiefs did their job, and it was just awesome," said Myers. "Scotty would have loved it."

(Dani Cox photo)

“This is one of the best days of my life,” said Arend. “To get this win for Scott and Connie and everyone at Kalitta Motorsports is amazing. It’s surreal, and it definitely hasn’t all soaked in yet. I can’t explain what this win means to me and everyone on our team who has struggled so hard to get this Wally for Connie and for Scott. We turned a big corner today, and we're going to bring that trophy to Scott, that's for sure."

And Scott will get a chance to enjoy it, too. The team plans to take the Wally trophy – the actual trophy, not a duplicate – and epoxy it to Scott's grave in Florida.

Our own Brad Littlefield, who was closer to Scott than anyone on the staff, and who was there that fateful day in Englishtown, was there last night, hugging and crying with the team. He told me that Jon O called Scott's sons, Corey and Colin, right after the win and how Scott's widow called Jeff to tell him what a good job he did driving, which got him choked up. Like all of us.

A Kalitta Funny Car is back in the winner's circle, and so it seems like it's all come full circle. The world isn’t any more whole for the Kalitta team than it was before the win, but it's a little happier place for them, and for all of us.

Yesterday sure turned out better than it started, which was with the unconfirmed news that Shaun Carlson had died. Even though most people didn't know him but from his brief season a few years ago on the NHRA Pro tour, I'd known Shaun well before that from the five years that I covered NHRA's Sport Compact series for National DRAGSTER and the NHRAsportcompact.com Web site that I ran.

We all knew that Shaun had been sick the last couple of years. He'd been diagnosed with Brugada syndrome, which causes abnormal heartbeats and can lead to sudden cardiac death, which is why it's also known as Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome (SUDS). He took a turn for the worse in February when he had a trio of heart episodes, but he remained firmly involved with professional drifting, in which he was the car owner for former champ Sam "the Crazy Swede" Hübinette and their bad-ass Dodge Viper. Darren Jacobs, my pal at Mopar, had gotten my son and I tickets for the Formula Drift opener in Long Beach, Calif., in April, and I went hoping to see Shaun, but he was back in the hospital again the first day and not that well when he came out for the final day, when Hübinette finished second. I never got a chance to see him and missed him when we also attended the drift event in Sonoma two months ago. I wish I had tried harder.

When I got the news yesterday, I guess I wasn't totally surprised. It took a while for me to confirm his passing – still hoping it wasn't true, I called his fabrication business, NuFormz, and my call went to voice mail, which was full, which did not fill me with hope – but Darren finally got me in touch with his right-hand man, Brad Manka, who gave me the sad confirmation that we'd lost him at the too-early age of 35. I won’t share the details of his passing, but it does sound as if he was stricken suddenly in the night, which points a finger at SUDS.

After leaving drag racing, Carlson was the owner of this Dodge Viper drift machine, driven by Sam Hubinette.

Even though Mopar dropped its support of drifting a few months ago, Darren sent me a great bio on Shaun so that I could write his obituary. Those of you who know me or have followed this column know that I pour a lot of heart into any final farewell story; it's my final tribute to people who have made my life better and more interesting, and even though Shaun wasn't as well-known to many of you, I felt a home-page tribute was definitely in order. It was the right move and meant a lot to a lot of people.

Shaun's brother, Trevor, whom I have never met, dropped me a nice note to thank me for the story, and Rachel Kaizoji, who used to work here at NHRA, passed along this great message, which she said I could share. Before she worked at NHRA, she worked with Toyo on its sport compact program and met and got to know Carlson, who shared garage space with Toyo-backed racer Stephan Papadakis. She couldn't have been happier when he came to our biggest stage.

"I met him at the SEMA Show I think in 2000, but I already knew who he was since he was such a huge star in the sport compact world," she wrote. "I was there to congratulate him and line him up the first time he qualified with the Pros and walked through the POWERade doors [during pre-race introductions]. I was really proud of him. What a loss, but he sure accomplished a lot. He was a pioneer in drag racing even though he was such a young guy, and I know he was really important to so many, especially all those sport compact racers and followers who were happy to see one of their own make it to the Pros."

Shaun first hit my radar screen with a wild winged Ford Focus that he was campaigning before that, a tube-framed wonder that he built as a follow-up to his groundbreaking work of Papadakis' all-conquering Honda Civic. What makes these cars so amazing is that they were front-wheel-drive machines that ran, at the time, in the eight-second zone but later reached deep into the sevens and beyond. If you've ever nailed the gas on a front-wheel-drive of any kind – be it even a rental car – you know that they accelerate very differently than a rear driver, and you're fighting torque steer every inch of the way. Take that and multiply it by 10, and you might get an idea of the kind of skills that drivers like Carlson, Papadakis, Lisa Kubo, Ed Bergenholtz, Gary Gardella, Marty Ladwig, Nelson Hoyos, and other front-wheel-drive stars of the series had under their right feet.

Carlson's Mopar-backed SRT4 Pro FWD car was a winner in NHRA Sport Compact competitiion and set the national record.
Carlson qualified just once in the 2006 Pro Stock season and later took on an engineering role with the Don Schumacher Racing team.

He later built a screaming Dodge SRT4 that set the national record in NHRA's Pro FWD class and carried him to a few wins and some top-five finishes. His partnership with Mopar is what ultimately led him to subbing for Mopar ace Darrell Alderman at the 2004 Winternationals, and he showed his natural skill by winning a round, and two years later, he was a full-time driver for Don Schumacher Racing when "the Don" incorporated Pro Stock into his burgeoning program. He won the job over more than 20 others who applied, sealing the deal with a one-on-one audition in Las Vegas against Mike Corvo during the preseason.

I remember it being an interesting combination, with mohawked and earring-wearing Carlson going to work with then crew chief Bob Glidden, who's about as old school as they get. There were definitely growing pains between the two, and the car never ran as it should have – not sure if it was the driver or the car or both – and Shaun was later given a role in engineering with the team instead.

The message boards lit up with comments and wonder and diatribes about why and how he had gotten the job, but Shaun took it all in stride.

“Yeah, I read a lot of that stuff, and I’m not afraid to admit that some of it hurt,” he told ND Senior Editor Kevin McKenna then. “The fact is that there are a lot of people out there who don’t have respect for sport compact racers. Maybe they don’t like the way we look or the music we listen to or they don’t appreciate the technology that goes into our cars. I’m not really sure where it comes from, but it’s out there. There is a flip side, though. There are also a lot of sport compact racers who have a very negative view of the [NHRA POWERade] series. It swings both ways.

“[I hope] I can help alleviate some of that narrow-minded thinking. I want to be successful because of the faith that Don and Bob have shown in me, but I also want to win over here so people will realize that [sport compact and POWERade Series racers] aren’t that different. We all have a passion for the same thing; we just work in different venues.

“Don has never said anything about my piercings or my hair, and the only thing Bob has said was, ‘As long as you can drive that race car, I don’t care how many holes you’ve got in your head.’ I’m sure Bob’s first impression of me probably wasn’t too favorable, but now that he’s gotten to know me a little, he told me, ‘You seem like a really good kid.’ That’s good because I don’t plan on changing.”

Shaun was an original, and he'll be missed.