KALITTA'S DELIVERY EQUALING EXPECTATIONS HEAPED UPON HIM IN '22
The day Kalitta Motorsports revealed it had brought in iconic nitro tuner Alan Johnson to take over Doug Kalitta's Mac Tools-sponsored dragster, the unspoken expectations might as well have been to win 15 races in the first season and the series championship every year after that.
Kalitta, the soft-spoken fan and racer favorite, wasn't given an adjustment period to gel with the new combination. He was expected to win and win often. After all, Kalitta remains one of the greatest drivers to have never won a title, and Johnson, well, he's won so many titles there's not enough fingers for all the rings.
Kalitta often had a front-row seat for those championship runs in the opposite lane. He watched as one-by-one, starting with Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, and Brittany Force clinched titles. He also took notice of winning efforts by Steve Torrence and Mike Salinas as well.
Kalitta often said to himself, "If I can just get my chance..."
"I thought about it a lot," Kalitta admitted.
Those thoughts became a reality following the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals when Kalitta drove to a semi-final finish and a sixth-place finish in the regular season. It was four slots higher than the forgettable 2022 season, where he ended up tenth in the final standings.
The previous season had painted a grim picture with 11 first-round losses and no final-round appearances. The number was reduced to six this season, and following a first-round exit to Clay Millican in Brainerd, Kalitta has won ten out of 12 possible rounds in competition.
When Kalitta won the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove, it marked nearly three years between win No. 49 and No. 50. Then No. 51 came along six days later.
"My biggest relief was getting a win with Alan as a crew chief," Kalitta said. "I couldn't imagine having him tuning my car and not getting a win. So that was probably the biggest thing that I was hoping to accomplish as soon as we could. So it took us a little longer, and he's a hell of a tuner and obviously, he's sneaking up on a combination here that he's comfortable with, and it's working."
Kalitta admits patience was a virtue when trying to live up to the hype that accompanied the expectations heaped on him after Johnson joined the team.
"We were trying to build a team," Kalitta explained. "He was trying to build a team, and obviously, sometimes it just takes a little longer. But these guys are definitely starting to gel, and we're happy that it's happening now and as the Countdown is here. We are going to try and take advantage of every bit of momentum we have."
Kalitta understood when others didn't; patience would be a virtue when it came to getting where they wanted to be.
"We were all hoping that success would come [early and often]," Kalitta said. "We understood, "It is what it is."
"We had a lot of different things that Alan wanted to change, and it took a little while and just obviously just getting all the guys doing what they need to do to give them a consistent car each time we drag it up there because that's a big part of what we're doing is the guys putting the thing together the same every time. So, just super proud of these guys."
And who would have thought it would have taken a calamity to kickstart success? When Kalitta inexplicably blew the slick on his Mac Tools canopy dragster during qualifying in Reading, it could have been construed as just another bump in the road filled with potholes over the last two seasons.
The backup car Kalitta brought out, based on the 2022 campaign, didn't provide much more enthusiasm. But then he beat Josh Hart in the first round, and then teammate Shawn Langdon, whom he'd only beaten in one of their last four outings, and then Leah Pruett, a driver he hadn't beaten this season. Then Kalitta beat the newly christened points leader, Steve Torrence, in the final round.
If he had known all it took to achieve this success was a broken car, maybe Kalitta would have blown a tire earlier in the season. He chuckled at the suggestion.
"I guess we are going to swing by the shop and pick it up on the way to St. Louis, but I doubt we're going to run it," Kalitta said. "Whatever those guys decide, it has definitely brought some life to our program here since we started running that thing."
And that life includes a championship points lead, something Kalitta hasn't held since September 2020, long before high expectations were heaped on him.
"I'm a pretty humble guy, so I just want to stay ahead; however, we got to do that.," Kalitta said. "The drivers in this class, everybody's driving the wheels off these things, and everybody's got a bunch of good running cars, as you can tell from the qualifying ladders, so it's tough. You've got to take advantage of the opportunities when you get them, and that's where we're going to continue to try to do so, but I'm happy to be here, and it's a good spot to be for sure."
It's an even better spot, as Kalitta will agree when the results equal the expectations.