The NHRA Top Fuel championship came down to a winner-take-all final round at the In-N-Out Burger Finals between Doug Kalitta and Leah Pruett, each feverishly seeking a first series title in the class.
For Kalitta, it was one more chance to shake the stigma of six runner-up finishes in his 26-year career. For Pruett, it would be an official validation of her relentless pursuit of excellence at the sport’s elite level—and at her hometown racetrack that has produced a hauler-full of memories.
In the end, the day belonged to Kalitta, who teamed with tuner extraordinaire Alan Johnson at the beginning of 2022. They endured a winless first season together. But this year, Kalitta came alive at the outset of the Countdown—as the No. 6 seed—with a pair of victories at Reading and Charlotte. That vaulted him into the championship conversation.
And Kalitta delivered in his 587th start, registering his first title and Johnson’s 13th. Johnson also has won three times with Gary Scelzi, five times with Tony Schumacher, and once each with Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, Shawn Langdon, and Brittany Force.
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“It was such a big relief after that run [against Pruett]. It's hard to believe,” Kalitta said. “I dream about this opportunity when we're here. It was definitely on my bucket list. So, just really, hats off to Alan, and Brian [crew chief Husen], and everybody on my team, and obviously, all the fans and support that I've gotten.”
He said because his visor was taped to block the sun, didn’t even get to see the win light come on in his lane. But he knew the victory was his when he pulled off the track and saw the Safety Safari and others rooting him on.
“It’s going to take awhile for this to settle in,” Kalitta said.
Clutching the trophy and hearing the rousing cheers of the crowd that gathered around the post-race podium, the mild-mannered Kalitta cut loose a little bit and aid, “So, yeah, we're taking this baby back to Ypsilanti!” The team’s shop is at Ypsilanti, Mich., where he also operates Kalitta Charters.
The trophy, he said, will shine between the two his late cousin Scott Kalitta earned in Top Fuel in 1994-95 and the honors that have gone to his uncle and team owner Connie Kalitta.
“Scott's won this thing a couple of times,” Doug Kalitta said, “so I'll be wearing it proud.” He said he grew up in Scott Kalitta’s shadow and always wanted to copy what his cousin had done. Furthermore, the 52-time winner said he wanted to make sure he at least won a race with Alan Johnson, if for not other reason to preserve his reputation: “It’d be bad to be with Alan Johnson for two years and not win a race.”
He has three this season in five final-round appearances.
Six-time Pro Stock titlist Erica Enders said Sunday evening, “He’s been the people’s champion for years, and today he’s the world champion.”
When Kalitta first competed in 1998, he envisioned NHRA President Dallas Gardner handing him that championship trophy. Then Tom Compton had the chance, then Peter Clifford. But others kept shutting out Kalitta, some with seemingly impossible last-minute heroics. And finally, NHRA boss Glen Cromwell got the honors of making the popular presentation Sunday.
Doug Kalitta has won a championship before. He was the 1994 USAC Sprint Car champion. But this triumph over four-timer Steve Torrence and Pruett, who has hoping to piggyback Matt Hagan’s Funny Car feat for a Tony Stewart Racing double championship, was something extra-special, he said.
Connie Kalitta called the moment “awesome” and said, “I’m so happy for him and his wife [Josie]. I’m so happy for the crew.”
Doug Kalitta said his 80-something uncle “didn’t get in the mosh pit [a signature Kalitta Motorsports celebration], but the video will be priceless.”
And so will this memory, which he has 116 days to savor until the 2024 freshly branded Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season starts.