Another harrowing escape

Scott Kalitta shakes off an airplane incident much like his Top Fuel crashes on the drag strip.

Published March 20, 2005

GAINESVILLE - Scott Kalitta wagged his head slightly and spoke nonchalantly.

"Aw, you know, things happen," he said casually.

That was his explanation of why an engine tore from one of his dad Connie's Kalitta Air B-747 cargo jets in midflight last year and plummeted into Lake Michigan.

Scott Kalitta, who lives on Snead Island and owns Great American Marine marina in St. Petersburg, thinks nothing of reaching nearly 335 mph in less than five seconds in his Top Fuel dragster. His is one of three Connie fields in National Hot Rod Association competition.

He won the season-opening Winternationals last month at Pomona, Calif., giving himself a 43rd birthday gift a week early. He'll try to add the Mac Tools Gatornationals title in today's final eliminations at Gainesville Raceway.

He'll have to battle, among others, teammates Doug Kalitta, his younger cousin who owns the quickest elapsed time and fastest speeds in NHRA history (4.420 seconds, 335.57 mph), and David Grubnic, the top qualifier here for the second straight year. Scott Kalitta is five points behind reigning Gatornationals and series champion Tony Schumacher for the season lead.

Scott Kalitta has won back-to-back titles (1994-95). He has returned from a three-year absence. He has associated with legends, including NHRA pioneer Connie and longtime family friend Shirley Muldowney. (Muldowney's husband, Rahn, tunes Doug Kalitta's car; she is spokeswoman for Grubnic's sponsor.)

And he knows the mayhem these machines can cause. He was in the opposite lane in June in St. Louis when Darrell Russell, the 2004 Gatornationals runner-up, was killed in a violent crash.

Scott Kalitta has had his own scares. In the 1996 Gatornationals final, he rode out a blowover - the 300-inch-wheelbase, 8,000-horsepower machine flipped over backward at about 300 mph.

At about 100 feet downtrack, it flipped, hit the wall, spun into the center of the lane and skidded down the track backward against Blaine Johnson. "I thought, "I might just win this thing backwards,' " Kalitta said.

He didn't. And when his wife, Kathy, and TV cameramen rushed to him, he turned to her and said, "Oh, hi, honey. How's it goin'?"

The one occurrence that really bugged him, though, was the final round of the 1994 Gatornationals. He had a dominant dragster. He had set the national speed record in the semifinals and was expected to whip his final opponent - his father.

But Connie isn't called "The Bounty Hunter" for nothing. Dad had a better reaction time at the start and set low elapsed time of the event in thrashing Scott.

"I got accused of being a bad dad after that," Connie said. "I wanted to out-drive him and I did!"

Said Scott, "I wasn't mad because the old man won. I was mad because I lost the race."

Scott loves to tell of the time in the 1980s when they raced each other and Connie gave him team orders to jump the light for a disqualification.

"I didn't want to," Scott said. "Instead, I just took off in high gear, and I still left on him. I lost the race, of course, but I gave him grief for a long time about leaving on him in high gear. He doesn't let me forget about the Gainesville race."

Well, you know, things happen.