INSIGHT: The house that Connie Kalitta built

Image by Toyota Racing

INSIGHT: The house that Connie Kalitta built

NHRA

INSIGHT: The house that Connie Kalitta built

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Connie Kalitta throws his employees two Christmas parties.

The founder of one of the most successful organizations in the NHRA hosts the first in recognition of Kalitta Motorsports. His cargo airline company, Kalitta Air, is the reason for a second gathering. Another year coming and going with a holiday to celebrate provide reasons to let loose, while the pioneer behind it all uses the time to take care of those closest to him.

“Connie has TVs, $500 gift cards, $200 gift cards, just all this stuff which he doesn’t have to do,” Ryan Jenks, car chief for Top Fuel driver Richie Crampton, tells RACER, “But he wants to keep us happy. He knows if he keeps his employees happy, (there will be) happier employees that want to work for him, that want to succeed, and want to give everything they possibly can to win.”

In other words, whether it’s Christmas parties or navigating life, Jenks describes his boss as someone who, yes, wants to make money and win races, but looks out for and would bend backward for every single person who works for him. Such a sentiment is shared by many who do exactly that.

Take Chrissy Stone, who has been a part of the Kalitta establishment for 32 years and has worked with both the airline and the motorsports team. Stone is currently a controller at the motorsports division and has seen both the stern business owner who has come into her office screaming, and the soft-hearted man who gave her dog accessories after his beloved pet Mischief passed away. The man who made sure Stone’s family had flowers from both his companies after the passing of her mother.

“He’s such a regular guy… you would never know this guy has built all he has,” says Stone. “He’s interested in what’s going on with people.”

‘Interested’ is one way to describe it, but a more accurate way might be dedicated and loyal. It’s the way Kalitta leads and treats those around him, and it’s why he gets the same in return. And those are the key pillars many in his organization agree are the strength of and what has made Kalitta Motorsports a 60-year success.

This year, the organization has been celebrating 60 years of competition. Kalitta got it started as a driver himself back in 1959, becoming a recognizable figure when picking up the “Bounty Hunter” nickname for the drivers he most wanted to beat – a list which was painted on his car. He made history with the first 200mph run at an NHRA-sanctioned event in 1964.

Accomplishments, accolades, and stories from Kalitta’s career are lengthy. Words like “legend,” “badass,” “blunt,” and “passionate” are some of the often-used descriptions for the man who once thwarted a hijacking attempt of one of his planes. Now 81, Kalitta still thinks about how to make cars go fast, and despite having lost the hearing in his left ear many years ago, can still be found next to the starting line when his cars run.

Todd repaid Kalitta’s support with the 2018 Funny Car title. Image by NHRA

“He’s an icon and legend of the sport, and I’m forever thankful for the opportunity to drive for him,” says Funny Car driver J.R. Todd. “I grew up watching guys like him when I was a kid, and to be driving for him, it’s a dream come true for sure.”

Kalitta has won four championships as an owner, split between his Top Fuel and Funny Car teams. His late son Scott won Top Fuel in titles 1994 and ’95. Del Worsham brought the first Funny Car title to the team in 2015, with Todd being crown the most recent champion of the division in ‘18.

“The environment at Kalitta Motorsports is pretty laid back compared to other teams out there where it’s strictly business,” says Todd. “But I think that starts with him – it’s more of a family environment, but at the same time, we’re totally serious about what we do and he expects a lot out of each team and gives us all the parts and pieces and go out there and perform at a high level. If we mess up or make a mistake, if we don’t own up to it, we’re going to hear about it from him. So he just expects the best out of you, and I feel like he saw something in me and that’s why he gave me the opportunity to drive for him, and the rest is kind of history at this point.

“The only way I could ever pay him back for the opportunity that he gave me was to win a championship, and to be able to do that in his son Scott’s car that for me is the highest honor in drag racing.”

Todd has been with Kalitta for a few years now, but there are plenty of folks within the organization who have been there much longer. Not just years, but decades longer. Turnover at Kalitta Motorsports isn’t very high.

“It’s definitely contagious when you see the guy at the top being like that,” says Matt Bynum, car chief for Funny Car driver Shawn Langdon, of the mutual loyalty and dedication Kalitta and his employees have to each other and racing.

“There’s some employees there in the front office and crew chiefs that have been there 20, 30 plus years,” Todd says. “It just shows how great an environment it is. Connie is loyal to his employees and I feel like he expects that out of them as well, and majority of them are. I for one, I never want to leave that place. I want to race there as long as I can and hopefully finish my career there someday.

“It’s just a great place to work and I feel like Connie treats his people the way he expects to be treated, so that’s what makes it a great place to work.”

Even at 81, Kalitta maintains a hands-on approach within the team during race weekends. Image by Toyota Racing

Jon Oberhofer, Todd’s crew chief, has heard that he’s a Kalitta lifer. Oberhofer started with the company when he was 22 years old in 1991 and has been on every car that’s won a championship for the team. His boss has a hands-on type of approach and is always there to explain whatever question might need answering, or to offer advice when necessary. Oberhofer was not the only person to say that Kalitta tells his employees to get whatever they need to compete no matter the cost.

Because he provides the resources, Kalitta expects 100 percent. Teamwork is not encouraged or expected, it’s a way of life: the over-arching concept is one big team with four cars.

Based in Michigan, Kalitta Motorsports is away from the hub of the NHRA community. Some see being away from the daily drama as an advantage, especially since Connie Kalitta believes in self-sufficiency and more and more is being done in-house. The ability to develop parts and pieces, plus quality control is important to him. As the operation has expanded, he’s sprung for CNC machines and needed other equipment.

“He’s not a guy that hears ‘no’ very often,” says Oberhofer, “he doesn’t like to hear ‘no.’”

Kalitta Motorsports has over 100 wins and nearly just as many times had a driver be the No. 1 qualifier. Drivers who have won for the organization include all four from its current lineup (Todd, Langdon, Crampton, and Doug Kalitta), Connie, Scott, and Alexis DeJoria to name a few.

“The interesting thing (60 years in) he is still actively involved with the day to day and everything that’s going on and building the thing,” says nephew Doug Kalitta. “He’s 81 and he’s out there tuning the Top Fuel car that Richie drives. It’s inspiring for sure, with his passion and the fact that he’s still out there doing it after all these years.”

Doug was a crew member on his uncle’s team in the ‘80s and now drives one of his Top Fuel dragsters. In fact, Doug in position this year to potentially win his first title after decades of trying.

He chuckles that at one time Connie would tune everyone’s car in the pit area if given the chance. Now he sees that his uncle takes pride in letting his people do the job they for which they were hired. Although, if Connie has a problem with someone, it will be gotten to the bottom of: he will say how he feels and after both sides have gotten it off their chest it’s done and over with, not to be rehashed in the future.

Impressive health care benefits, insurance, and a 401k are another area Kalitta members point to as proof of how well Connie treats them. Or take this: Kalitta has two crew houses in which he helps pay the rent on when folks relocate to work for him. Once part of the organization – or family, as it comes to feel like – every individual can learn and advance their position.

Doug Kalitta keeps up the family tradition from inside the cockpit. Image by Toyota Racing

“We wouldn’t work so hard for him if it was just, say, Ford Motor company [because] you’d just be an employee, no one is going to know you,” says Stone. “And this isn’t a place where you get a pat on the back every day for doing a good job, but you know he appreciates you because he takes care of us. We are so lucky with what we have and the benefits we have, and he’s always been so adamant about say our health insurance benefits being affordable; he’s amazing when it comes to that. Nobody has the benefits that we do.”

According to Oberhofer there is a lot of behind the scenes things people don’t know Kalitta does.

“He has such a passion for the sport that he’ll do whatever it takes,” he says. “He wants to leave the sport better than he came on it, and he came on in the very early years of it, and he wants to make it better. When Blaine Johnson crashed (and lost his life in ’96), Connie flew his wife out to Indy on his jet. And there’s times where he’s helped other racers with tune-ups. There was one year in Indy where we had a line of people at our trailer and we’re trying to run the car and he’s got a line of people wanting his help.

“So he’s always willing to lend a hand with anybody or anything, and a lot of people don’t understand that or don’t get that. They don’t see that side of him. The only part they see is the rough and gruff side, which that’s not really the Connie I know.”

Adds Todd, “I feel like the average person that doesn’t know Connie. You hear the horror stories and see him on TV and he comes off as a grumpy old man, but once you’re here and around him he’s easy going, he’s passionate about drag racing. He’s a lighthearted guy and he gives his heart and soul to drag racing.”

All four teams have won this year with Langdon, Crampton, and Kalitta taking home multiple victories. Such results extend the streak Kalitta Motorsports has going, which is that the team has won at least four races in each of the last six seasons.

Not surprising. It is clear through many conversations that no one wants to let their legendary owner down.

“He does so much for us,” says Jenks. “I used to watch him when I was six years old and growing up, you know Connie Kalitta, and then when you get to work for him, it’s like, you just don’t want to let this guy down. He’s given you everything – he’s given you every tool to be successful and the last thing I know I want to do is let him down because he’s given us all the resources.”

Only Pomona remains on the 2019 schedule and will close out this 60th anniversary for Kalitta and company. Each team wants to win at all costs, Todd admits, and they set a high standard for themselves. At the starting line, Todd wants to “rip the other person’s head off” and believes that the mentality for everyone at Kalitta Motorsports.

“I don’t want [the competition] to take us lightly,” says Jenks. “They know damn well that we’re there to win and we’re there to outrun them. Connie will tell you that. Connie will be the first to tell you there’s no way I’m going to get outrun, so he’s going to go out there and try to set the pace or he’s going to blow the tires off. Unfortunately, a lot of times he blows the tires off, but he goes up there with the mindset we are not getting outran.”

For this group and its one-of-a-kind leader, it’s always going to be about what their passion, dedication, and loyalty will lead to next.

“Well,” says Connie Kalitta, “I’m going to buy some more airplanes, the team is going to win some more races, and maybe a championship or two.”

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