Doug Kalitta’s championship-winning final round at the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals elicited a roar of cheers from longtime NHRA fans who have seen him compete for 26 seasons and nearly 590 events without a championship.
Kalitta, a six-time championship runner-up (2003, ’04, ’06, ’16, ’19, and ’20), joined his late cousin, Scott, son of team owner Connie Kalitta, and J.R. Todd as world champions underneath the Kalitta Motorsports banner whose history in the sport dates back to the early 1960s.
And while all of Kalitta’s second-place finishes in the standings have been cruel, perhaps none was tougher to swallow than in 2006 when he led the points coming into the final round with Tony Schumacher needing a miracle final-round victory to get around him. Ironically. It was his current crew chief, Alan Johnson, calling the shots for Schumacher, and the pass that he dialed up, which has become known simply as “The Run,” was a shocker, a performance that was quick enough to win and reset the national-record –- which at the time carried bonus points -– but not too fast to be backed up by his previous runs. Seventeen years later at the same track, it all came full circle in the same lane from which Schumacher and Johnson beat him.
Kalitta had a slow start to the season and didn’t reach a final round until midseason, then put together runner-ups in Denver and Seattle, to boost his hopes, but still entered the Countdown to the Championship in sixth place.
Kalitta’s fates took a wild turn at the playoff opener at Maple Grove Raceway where his dragster blew a rear tire, damaging the chassis. The team had to revert to their backup car, which did not have the same wind-cheating canopy as the primary car, but the change oddly worked out as he defeated Steve Torrence in the final round.
"Obviously throughout the year we've kind of struggled with changing a lot of stuff with our car and I think after we blew that tire for some reason our luck kind of changed,": he said. "After that, we had a car that was responding good and everything seemed to be a lot happier with our tune-up. To have Alan, one of the guys that has won a championship, with meas a crew chief, is what I've you know dreamed of and obviously winning it with Connie here is extra special.
"Throughout the year I'm thinking, 'Man, I just gotta get when I get a win,' to take a lot of the pressure off; obviously it would definitely not look good on your resume having Alan for two years and not winning a race so, but we were definitely picking up some momentum."
The team opted to stick with the secondary car and then won the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals in Charlotte, N.C., to take over the points lead.
The team struggled through a trio of second-round losses and entered the season finale in second place behind Torrence and just ahead of Leah Pruett. The trio raced into the day before Pruett defeated five-time world champ Steve Torrence and Kalitta beat Justin Ashley to set up the titanic final-round battle for the crown and Kalitta’s ultimate and overdue coronation.
"At the end of that run. I was just so relieved," he said. "It was just a big relief, really, because I've definitely been trying to win this thing for years and it's definitely been on my Things To Do List. My cousin Scott's won this thing [Top Fuel championship] a couple of times so I was always growing up in his shadows and trying to accomplish what he's accomplished. And so that was definitely on my bucket list."