Heart like a (very big) wheel

When you think of drag racers, you usually don't think of them as being likely customers of Boeing. But professional drag racer Connie Kalitta, from Ypsilanti, Mich., is unique in that he not only owns and runs a team of three, 6,000-horsepower, nitromethane-burning fuel dragsters - he also commands an air fleet made up of more than 100 aircraft.

Kalitta was in town recently when he had his cars in competition at the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Pacific Raceways out in Kent. The races were round 14 of the 23 races in the 2004 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing series.

Connie's son, Scott Kalitta, drove the radically decorated Mac Tools/Jesse James Top Fuel dragster; his nephew Doug drove the bright-red Mac Tools flagship Top Fuel dragster and Team Kalitta's third Top Fuel rail, the Kalitta Air entry, was driven by "Aussie Dave" Grubnic.

The same force that drives Connie Kalitta to excel on the track also drives him to excel in the skies. It was in the early 1960s that Kalitta first got involved in flying. He had a one-plane flying service on which he served as booking agent, freight loader and pilot.

Although the pressures of running a global operation with a whole fleet of aircraft can be enormous, the rewards are gratifying.

Kalitta's dedication to his companies earned him the 1993 Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year award and 1994 Air Cargo Man of the Year honors. When he is not at the track, he keeps himself busy running Kalitta Leasing and Kalitta Air. Based at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Kalitta Air transports cargo worldwide utilizing Boeing B-747 airplanes, while Kalitta Leasing specializes in buying, selling and leasing aircraft and aircraft-related equipment.

During Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, the company flew more than 600 missions for the military, the second-largest number of cargo-only flights during the effort. Kalitta traveled to the White House on behalf of his employees to meet with President Bush No. 41 and receive accolades for their achievement.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when airports were closed and all flights were grounded, there was one plane in the sky that night that was not an F-16 fighter. It was a Kalitta Air 747 hauling relief supplies from the West Coast to disaster aid workers.

In the mid-1980s when arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi was forced to liquidate his assets, Donald Trump got the yacht and Connie Kalitta got the DC-8. After the plane landed at Willow Run Airport in Michigan, the forward and aft doors were opened and employees walked through the plush, gold-fixtured flying penthouse. The plane was then stripped of its lavishness and converted for hauling cargo.

When there is a break in flying, members of the Kalitta Air fleet from time to time go to the movies. Kalitta aircraft have been made into movie stars via such motion pictures as "Liar Liar," "Air Force One," "Drop Zone," "Executive Decision" and "The Sum of All Fears."

You can't see the familiar red and gold stripes when the "actors" are in makeup ... but if you can read the tail number and it ends in "CK," you're probably looking at one of Connie's planes.

In other phases of show business, Kalitta Air hauls numerous race horses from racetrack to racetrack and is one of the few charter companies used to move "The Phantom of the Opera" set from city to city.

A lot more than elapsed times and speed have changed since the days when Kalitta raced a 1951 Willys on an abandoned Michigan airstrip for pink slips. One of only a handful of racers from the early years still active in the sport, he has had a front seat for some of the most significant developments to have shaped the sport of drag racing.

Connie has had many great moments on the track during his career. He went to his first NHRA final at the 1963 Winternationals, where he was runner-up. He came back to win the event in 1967 and has been runner-up three times since. It was also at the Winternationals, in 1989, that he became the first person to break the 290 mph barrier.

It was at the 1964 U.S. Nationals that Connie recorded the first 200 mph run at Indianapolis Raceway Park when he ran 200.00 mph in qualifying. He was the runner-up for the coveted U.S. Nationals title in 1982 and 1984 before finally winning the event in 1994. Also, in 1994 he won the Mac Tools Gatornationals by defeating son Scott in the first-ever father-and-son Top Fuel final in NHRA history.

Besides 22 NHRA National event final rounds with 10 wins as a driver, Connie has five Winston championships to his credit. The first came in 1977 when he served as crew chief for Shirley Muldowney the year she became the first, and as yet only, female Top Fuel champion in NHRA history. (An Academy Award-nominated movie "Heart Like a Wheel" was made of the Shirley Muldowney story, with Beau Bridges playing Kalitta.) His next two championships were earned in 1979 and 1982; the last two came when Scott drove to the NHRA titles in '94 and '95.

Nephew Doug, now the driver of the Mac Tools Top Fuel dragster, earned Connie a team-owner championship when he drove his Kalitta Flying Service entry to the 1994 USAC National Sprint Car Championship.

Talk about flying high.

Gary McDaniel lives in Magnolia.[[In-content Ad]]