Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Scott Kalitta & Fast, Loud Cars

For most race fans, the root of their interest in the sport is fast, loud cars. I’m one of them, having grown up in the heyday of the muscle car era. The streets near my home rumbled with the throaty sounds of Shelby and Cobra Jet Mustangs, Hemi Plymouths, 442s, Ram Air Goats, and big block Chevys, some of them modified by Motion Performance just one county over. The first true love of my life was a neighbor’s silver ’70 Mach One Cobra Jet four-speed missile: I’d wash it for free just to be allowed to touch the car and for an occasional ride in that muscular Ford.

My love of fast, loud cars led to my interest in auto racing. Richard Petty’s Plymouths resembled some of the GTXs and Road Runners that cruised the beach roads near my home, and David Pearson’s red and white Mercurys looked like the Cyclone my buddy’s dad drove to work daily. It was the cars that hooked me. Learning about the drivers and the strategies of stock car racing was just the icing on the cake.

But growing up on Long Island, stock car racing mainly took place in the far distant South in those days. So, back when my primary means of transportation were a pair of black Converse high tops, a Schwinn with apehangers and a banana seat, and, eventually, a Yamaha Mini-Enduro that I cut grass all summer to afford, I was, at heart, a drag racing fan.

There were several dragstrips on Long Island in that era and during the summer months, our dads frequently loaded my friends and me into a car and took us to see the drags. For a kid addicted to fast, loud cars, it was Nirvana cubed. Most of the cars that raced weekly looked just like the muscle cars that cruised the streets of my hometown; and not only that, but an added attraction were all the old-time hot rods running in the gasser classes.

If I recall, in that era there was a lot of enmity between the hot rod types and the late model racers. The hot rodders felt anyone could buy a fast car off the showroom floor, while the late modelers felt it took a real man to build one up from scratch, assembling a variety of parts not meant to fit together easily.

Hey, I was a kid back then; I didn’t take sides. I just liked cars, and the faster and louder the better. It didn’t matter to me if it was a ’30 Ford Coupe, a ’41 Willys, a ’57 Chevy or a ’70 Road Runner. If it was fast and loud (and especially if it could lift the front wheels during the launch), I loved it. Afternoons and evenings spent at the drag strip were the highlights of my youth.

The class cars were cool, but when the big-name drivers in the fuel classes came to run grudge matches, that was the best. I remember watching guys like Wild Willy Borsch in his Winged Expressed altered, Jungle Jim Lieberman in a series of blue Chevy funnies and, of course, the heroes to my generation Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen running their Hot Wheel-sponsored Plymouth floppers.

The funny cars in the day were nowhere near as fast as they are today, but they were plenty fast. Watching a pair of the FC cars run side by side down the strip so fast that it seemed impossible restored my youthful belief in magic way back when. The noise, the fire, the smoke – it was all pretty heady stuff.

And yes, I still remember seeing my first bad wreck at the strip. It was a red, white and blue shoebox Nova that got crossed up in the traps and hit the guardrail hard. That little Chevy began rolling time after time, shedding parts in every direction before grinding to a stop upside down. The rowdy crowd instantly became dead quiet as the ambulance and rescue team rushed towards what was left of that Chevy.

After an eternity, the normally hysterical announcer, all at once sedate, announced the driver was live and conscious, able to speak to the medics. He’d suffered some bad injuries, but he was being taken to the hospital and was expected to survive.

A deafening cheer went up through the crowd and along the staging lanes. I still remember what was left of that Chevy being dragged back down the return lane to the pits and wondering how on earth anyone had survived such a violent wreck. That sight led me to investigate the interiors of the cars in the pits a bit more closely. (Yes, back in that that era an 11-year-old could walk right up to a racecar and eyeball it that way.)

The rollcage, the driver’s restraints, the fuel cells… all that stuff began to fascinate me in the same way the stuff that made the cars fast did. After all, I went to those meets to see the daredevils walk out on the tightrope. I didn’t want to see them fall.

Make no mistake about it, the NHRA has always been a safety-conscious organization. Wally Park originally formed the sanctioning body to get drag racing off the streets – where it put both racers and innocent lives in danger – and onto the strips. Right from the get go, the NHRA developed their traveling safety team, the Safety Safari, which might be the premier such organization in racing today. These guys are flat on it.

They are rolling before the wreck even finishes, beating back flames and making every possible effort to extract the driver from his car as quickly as possible. At this point, it’s rare to meet a Top Fuel driver who hasn’t been rescued by the Safari at least once. Considering the rescue crew’s response times at Pocono, those guys would be advised to watch a few NHRA events to see how it’s done.

But it doesn’t stop there. Even as far back as the fourth grade, I attended lectures conducted by state troopers in full uniform telling us kids who were into cars to take our rods to the strip rather than race them on the street for safety’s sake. Those lectures had some effect: I did in fact race a series of class and bracket cars at Atco back in the day, though admittedly, we ran ’em in the street as well because it paid better.

While my affections eventually were swayed towards stock car racing, I’ve always been a drag racing fan as well. For me it’s a busman’s holiday, being able to watch the NHRA races without worrying about having to write about them afterwards. I watched drag racing and attended the occasional Nationals as a fan just because I still dig fast, loud cars. Over the years, I’ve watched the rails evolve from front engines to rear engines and the funny cars go from steel-bodied altered wheelbase, injected door slammers to the current generation of flip bodied tube-framed blown monsters.

I’ve always had a weak spot for the funnies because, like most casual drag racing fans, I’m a huge fan of John Force. Force is to drag racing what Petty and Dale Earnhardt combined are to stock car racing (though he’s won more titles than either of them). Drivers like Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch would do well to study tapes of Force’s post-race interviews. Win, lose, or draw, he’s always “on,” grinning ear-to-ear no matter what you ask. When you talk to Force, he shows other drivers how it’s possible to speak your mind and openly display your true personality without being a jerk.

My favorite pearl of wisdom from the inestimable Mr. Force is, “If you learn how to play pool drunk, you can never shoot worth a damn sober.” Force thanks his sponsors, apologizes for having done so, then launches into a series of stream of consciousness rants that bounce to and fro like a pinball.

To those of you aren’t fans of drag racing, it seems like it’s a terribly simple form of motorsports. In fact, an old saw postulates that the first drag race was staged the first time the owners of two of those new-fangled automobiles lined up beside each other at a stop sign. All drag racers do is hit the throttle when the light goes green and hold the steering wheel straight for a quarter of a mile, right?

Sure, and all stock car racers do is drive fast in circles. The head games during staging, the technique of the launch, trying to ride a 3,000-horsepower rodeo bull as it gets squirrelly at half track and starts shaking the tires, and pedaling furiously away is an art form all to itself. The reactions, courage and cunning of a championship level drag racer rival any other form of motorsports, even if each run lasts less than five seconds when it all goes right.

But despite the emphasis the NHRA has always placed on safety, right now the sport of drag racing is in the same sort of grim period that stock car fans endured back in 2000 and 2001 when we lost Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Earnhardt. Last year Eric Medlen, Force’s son-in-law and teammate, was killed in a testing wreck in Florida. Last fall, drag racing fans watched in horror as two of the sport’s biggest names – Force and Kenny Bernstein – were involved in a top-end wreck at Dallas that left Force badly injured.

Last Sunday, Scott Kalitta’s funny exploded in flames at the top of the track, sailed through the sand trap and erupted in a ball of flames. Kalitta died as a result of his injuries. He leaves behind a wife, two young sons, a legion of fans and his dad and cousin, both of who are stars of drag racing as well.

Being from the Northeast myself, I have heard from several friends who were at Englishtown on Saturday, and their accounts of the scene and mood at the track are all similar to my recollections of seeing my first bad wreck. First, a gasp goes up through the crowd. Then, there’s stunned and reverent silence as fans wait anxiously for word on the driver’s condition. (Though in this era of cell phones, I don’t doubt countless people were frantically calling friends to tell them, “You won’t believe what just happened….”)

There was a palpable anxiety in the stands at Englishtown as the wreck, particularly that fireball in the aftermath of it, was as bad as it gets. But over the years, drag racing fans have seen countless cars explode into flames, break in half or roll over violently at speed, only to see the driver emerge from the wreckage and wave to the crowd moments later. As time passed with no definitive word on Kalitta’s condition, people began fearing the worst while still desperately hoping for the best. Sadly, fear overcame hope as news spread Kalitta died during that fiery crash.

Drag racing fans were hit by this news the way a lot of us faced the death of Earnhardt back on that dark day in Feb. 2001. Even today, drag racing remains a lot like stock car racing used to be in the good old days. For the price of a ticket, fans can go stroll the pits and stand behind the taped lines to look at the racecars up close and personal as they are rebuilt between rounds. For anyone who’s ever rebuilt an engine over a long weekend, watching those mechanics tear down and reassemble a blown decedent of a 426 Chrysler Hemi in a half hour is nothing less than awe-inspiring.

What’s more, NHRA drivers don’t hide in their motor coaches. They’re right there in the pits, working the tape lines, signing autographs, posing for pictures, pressing the flesh and exchanging a few pleasantries with their fans. I’m told by some of Kalitta’s fans that he was a master of the tape line.

If you waited your turn, you could have your autograph, your picture or your brief conversation and, for those few brief seconds that the two of you talked, Kalitta made you feel like a new friend and the most important person to him in the universe right then and there. Kalitta was a no-nonsense sort of guy who faced life wide open, but made time for his fans and appreciated their support.

Kalitta was an interesting sort of guy. He grew up around racing at the heels of his father Connie “The Bounty Hunter” Kalitta, one of the sport’s most colorful personalities. The younger Kalitta didn’t have to race to put food on the table; in fact, he’d amassed a fortune comfortable enough to retire on at a young age from business interests outside the sport. He didn’t have to race to prove anything to anyone, either; Kalitta won NHRA Top Fuel championships in 1994 and 1995.

Kalitta did retire from drag racing twice after that, once for nearly two years and the next time for almost three. And when he did come back, he didn’t return to the sport for the glory or a paycheck. Kalitta returned to drag racing because it was an all-consuming passion for him. Recently at Joliet, Kalitta made his first final round appearance since 2004. Even though he lost to Tony Pedregon in that race, the joy and enthusiasm Kalitta displayed in his post-race interviews made it sound like he had never been to the big dance before rather than that of a driver on the tail end of his career who’d scored major championships.

Most of us can understand the pursuit of things we feel passionate about. All of us accept different levels of risk to do the things that thrill us, whether it’s strapping into a 3,000-horsepower missile for a four-second ride down the quarter-mile, cruising the back roads on a Harley or technical rock climbing. On the more sedate end of the scale, others will risk a potentially life-threatening case of Lyme disease to hike through a meadow in pursuit of sighting a bird we’ve never seen before.

(I’ll stick to the Harley. That Lyme disease is nasty stuff.) Others seem determined to live without risk, hoping to die safely in bed at a ripe old age. I don’t get that mindset, personally… I cannot see myself dying at the age of 100 in my own bed lying there considering the chances I never took, the dreams I never chased and the roads I feared to travel. All of us set up our own standards of potential reward versus risk we are willing to accept to live a joyful life.

Kalitta accepted the risk involved in doing what he loved; and after spending time with him, it’s clear he drove cars faster and louder than even the most devoted car guys will ever get their hands on.

It’s sadly ironic that Kalitta’s birthday was February 18th, the same date on which NASCAR’s legend Earnhardt passed away. Dale was 49 when he died in a wreck; Scott was 46 when he died Saturday. According to actuarial tables, most of you reading this will live to be older than either. But most of you will never live a life as full, textured, and rewarding as Earnhardt or Kalitta.

When the funny cars run at night, flames come out the tips of all eight header pipes. In drag-racing parlance, that’s “all candles fully lit.” A driver on a successful run will have all eight candles lit from starting line to finish line despite the mechanical mayhem that is fuel racing today, basically a pair of scud missiles launched down the strip to see if either makes it before they explode. And that brings to mind the famous poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!

So to Scott Kalitta’s family, friends and fans, from stock car racing fans everywhere, we know your pain and you are in our prayers just as we were in yours seven years ago. And to Scott Kalitta, from a casual drag racing fan and a big fan of fast, loud cars, thanks for all the thrills you provided. It lasted all too briefly, but oh, what a lovely light. Godspeed.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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